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A lot has been made of the fact that this year's World Cup is the first to be played in Africa. It's about time that that happens, just like it's about time that the tournament returns to South America in 2014 for the first time since 1978.
As people have talked about the prospect of playing in Africa for the first time, they have talked about what impact that could have on the 'home teams'. That doesn't just mean South Africa, but also Algeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Ivory Coast, and Nigeria. The South African fans are likely to be supportive of all of the African teams - especially once their local squad inevitably gets bounced after the preliminary round. That inevitably has led people to think about the home continent advantage, and what impact it will have on these six teams. Will the extra fan attention give one or more of these teams the boost needed to climb further than they typically would?
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Before we look at how the home continent advantage has helped teams in recent tournaments there is one thing that needs to be considered about Africa - something that will temper the expectations of any possible boost at this tournament. There have been a lot of issues with tickets for this tournament. First, there are still as many as 250,000 tickets that aren't sold. That means that there will likely be some games that aren't completely full. There are also real questions about how many African fans will be in the stands. The tickets are very expensive, and a credit card was needed to order the tickets online, so a large portion of the continent's population hasn't had access to tickets. That makes it quite likely that we won't see the support for the local teams at this tournament that we have seen in recent years.
Germany narrowly beat out South Africa to host the 2006 event. The European teams did very well in the event - six of the eight quarter-finalists, and all four semifinalists, were within an easy train ride of Germany.
Of those, France's upset of Brazil and Portugal's upset of the Netherlands had strong partisan crowds as at least a factor in the win. The hosts ended up finishing third in the tournament - a result that was definitely on the high end of expectations. Italy had increasingly massive crowds following them as they went all the way. There's little doubt that the location was a big factor in this tournament. European teams would still have been strong regardless of where it was played because they always are, but this was well beyond expectations.
Korea and Japan co-hosted this event. This is a much better comparison to this year's tournament than 2006 was because the hosts and the teams nearby aren't nearly as strong as the teams close to Germany are.
There's absolutely no doubt that the location of this tournament had a huge impact on the outcome. Japan upset the Russians in the preliminary round to become the surprise winners of their group and move on to the elimination round. They lost their first playoff game to Turkey.
The real surprise of the tournament, though, was the Koreans. South Korea had played in five World Cup tournaments before they played host, but they had never won a single game. They broke that streak in their first game when they beat Poland. They next earned a draw against the U.S., and then stunned Portugal. Making the second round was a massive success for the team, but they were far from done. They beat the Italians with a goal in extra time, shocked the Spanish with a win by penalty kicks, and then narrowly lost to Germany in the semifinals. They wound up fourth in the tournament - about 20 places higher than they were reasonably expected to finish.
France hosted the tournament and they won it, so the home field advantage isn't hard to establish here. As in 2006 there were six teams in the quarterfinals within an easy train ride of France - compared to just three in 2002 - so the location had to be a factor.
The only flaw in the argument that this tournament provides is that Spain, France's neighbors, was knocked out in the first round though they were playing in a group that shouldn't have been a particular challenge for them.
The American version of the World Cup was by far the least compelling in terms of this argument. The two most popular teams on the continent - the Americans and Mexico - both made it into the elimination rounds, but neither put up much of a fight once they got there. The comparison here isn't as strong as in other tournaments, though - there aren't nearly as many teams close by, and soccer just isn't as important to Americans as it is to the other hosts.