Paolo Falco, labor economist at the University of Copenhagen, was delighted, like many football fans around the world, about the outcome of the European Championship final last Sunday, in which Italy beat England on a blatant penalty shoot-out. And he was equally appalled by the consequences.
In the hours following the game, the three English players, all black, who missed their penalties were showered with racial abuse on social media. The abuse sparked outrage from Prince William and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and revived an all-too-familiar aphorism: “If you win, you are English; If you lose, you are black. “
In recent years, UEFA, the governing body of European football, has campaigned against racism against its players both online and in stadiums. But the behavior persists; in Italy and elsewhere, world-class colored players were exposed to racist chants and surnames and even bananas were thrown on the field. “I’ve seen firsthand all kinds of terrible things being said and verbally abused and yelled at,” said Dr. Falco, who is closely following Serie A, Italy’s top division.
In December, he and two colleagues – Mauro Caselli and Gianpiero Mattera, economists at the University of Trento in Italy and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris, respectively – published one of the first studies measuring the impact of in-stadium abuse on the game. Their working paper, due to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, compared the performances of around 500 Serie A players in the first half of the 2019-2020 season of the main Italian championship league – before the Covid-19 pandemic, when the stadiums were still turned out to be full and loud – until the second half, when “ghost games” were played in empty stadiums.
Their results were overwhelming: a subset of players, and only one, played noticeably better without an audience. “We find that players from Africa, who are most frequently affected by racial harassment, experience a significant increase in performance when the fans are no longer in the stadium,” the authors write.
Dr. Falco spoke by phone from Copenhagen on Thursday. The following conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
What inspired your studies?
I watched a soccer game after the lockdown began and was impressed by how different an experience I had myself on TV, simply not hearing all the noises and chants that normally go on in the background of a soccer game.
I’m from Naples and soccer fans in Naples are definitely very noisy. In this type of stadium you see emotions at their best and worst. And you can’t help but feel that this has an impact on what happens on the ground in the stadium.
I started to wonder: would it make a difference for all players alike? Who are the players who suffer more or less or who benefit more or less from having or not under pressure from fans?
What was your working hypothesis?
That players who are targeted for their color do better when the pressure is removed – regardless of the general playing pressure in a stadium, which is the same for all players.
This question is incredibly difficult to answer under normal circumstances because you don’t have the experiment you would like to have: seeing how these players fare in relation to themselves, before and after, with and without fans. Covid gave us exactly this natural experiment. From one day to the next, the players went from full stadiums to empty stadiums.
We got curious and started analyzing the data. And we’ve found that players are indeed affected differently, with those who are most abused seemingly seeing an improvement in their performance once they are no longer under that pressure. This effect persisted even after controlling a variety of potentially confusing factors – weather, time of day of the game, strength of the opposing team – so we firmly believe it is there.
What metric did you use as a measure of player performance?
There are very detailed statistics, compiled by a publicly available algorithm, about the performance of each player after each game. It’s much more than just goals scored and it’s very objective: how far did the player run during the game? How many rounds did you complete?
These are statistics from a database that is often used for fantasy team reviews and betting purposes, is that correct?
Yes that’s right.
There is an interesting and growing literature on the effect football fans have on teams as a whole. For example, it has been shown that referees in the absence of spectators are not as favorable to the home team and that the home advantage is not as pronounced as those who win. We wanted to look at each player to see differences in performance between those with a particular ethnic background.
I want to go back to the very end of this game between England and Italy. Imagine for a second what is going on in the minds of these players as they approach that penalty kick, knowing that not only are they facing the same pressure as any other soccer player on the field, but also that they are black that they are in a minority and they are very likely to be treated exactly as they were treated the moment they made a mistake.
Think of the incredible pressure that is put on these players. It almost makes you shiver. So I don’t think the idea that we could find something like that in the data was too much of a fantasy leap.
What did your results show?
We found that African players did 3 percent better in the second part of the season than they did in the first part. You may think OK, 3 percent isn’t that big of a deal. But if you were to talk about the productivity or the bottom line of a company and its employees, 3 percent would be huge. When you see soccer players as workers for what they ultimately are and they are 3 percent less productive, it affects the entire team.
These are economic costs, not just moral or ethical concerns. Players of African descent play worse in front of spectators, but no one else does better, so the overall quality of the game deteriorates. This should bother the club owners as they invest in players.
We also looked at players from teams that we know were particularly abused at the start of the season. The Italian authorities are actually recording episodes of abuse by fans in the stadium so we know which teams played in games where there was such racist behavior before the lockdown. And it was the players on those teams, including Napoli, who saw the greatest increase in performance – 10 percent better – in the absence of spectators.
We’re talking about the country’s elite top athletes. You are in the best position for social status and money making. The fact that these athletes are affected is therefore extremely worrying; if you look at the lower leagues, there’s a lot more to do.
Do you think your study group, with only 7 percent African players, was robust enough to produce meaningful results?
That’s a good question. But the number of players plays only a limited role, because these are players we observe several times a year – 38 observations for each player each week during the season, about half before the lockdown and half after. The statistical power of the analysis is very strong because we are comparing exactly the same people and not just two random samples before and after.
As fans in the stadium, we all like to think that we are more than just spectators – that our voices have a real impact on the game. Your research suggests that we are actually doing this, and it is uncomfortable.
Sometimes I worry a little about what we’ve been up to here as we may inadvertently reassure people that shouting racist things will help their team win. On the other hand, I firmly believe that research should aim to uncover facts and always make them transparent. In that case, I hope those responsible for the economics of this game understand that racism costs them money and harms their investments. If certain players fail to reach their full potential, the game just isn’t as beautiful and engaging as it could be.
What we’ve been metabolizing lately
Science in The Times, 67 years ago this week
The inquiries came because the recent shot put event would have set a British national record of 55 feet had it not been determined that the weight of 16 pounds was half an ounce too light.