How much is playing at home worth?
It is one of the mysteries of football. Pitches are more or less the same size, the ball is the same shape and the goals are in the same place. Yet the home side is usually thought of as having an advantage. There are some concrete reasons for this -- a certain familiarity with the surroundings, while the away side may have had a long journey. And there is the aspect of the supporters and the atmosphere they create -- emphasising the impression that home advantage has a great deal to do with psychological factors.
Brazilian football is currently offering plenty of evidence for the importance of such things. Teams are moving out and into new stadiums as they close for work or become ready as the country prepares to stage the 2014 World Cup.
The case of Nautico throws up an interesting question: What if home does not really feel like home?
From Recife in the northeast of the country, Nautico are not one of the giants of the Brazilian game. At the moment their ambitions are restricted to staying in the first division -- an aim they achieved in style last year as a consequence of fine form in front of their own fans. Their home record reads like one of champions: 13 wins, three draws, three defeats.
This year, though, they seemed doomed to relegation. Nautico are rooted to the bottom of the table. With 12 rounds to go they are six points behind the next team, and 13 points short of safety. It is an almost impossible distance to make up, and the club appear to have resigned themselves to second division football in 2014.
This time, home performances have not been enough to keep them up. Their fans have seen them win two games, draw three and lose eight.
What has changed? For a start, the coach. The highly rated Alexandre Gallo, so impressive last year, has been snapped up by the Brazilian FA to take charge of the country's youth teams. Marcelo Martelotte, recently appointed, is the seventh coach to take charge of the club this year.
But perhaps more fundamentally, home itself has also changed. Last year's fine record was achieved in the club's somewhat ramshackle old Aflitos stadium, right in the heart of old Recife. They have since moved to the spankingly brand new Arena de Pernambuco, a 2014 World Cup venue that was rush-built to be ready for the Confederations Cup.
It is quite a move. The new ground is out of town. I was there during the Confederations Cup, when I turned up on the morning of the Spain versus Uruguay game. The idea is that the stadium will initiate the development of a new part of the city, that a university will also come in, followed by shops and venues and housing. At the moment, though, there is nothing there.
I walked to the ground from the nearest subway station -- an eerie 45-minute hike through the middle of nowhere. Close to kickoff time a fleet of buses carried fans to the ground. But for fans used to the city-centre venue it must seem a long way there, and an even longer way back after their team has lost yet another game.
In the long term the club should benefit from the move, at least in financial terms. They are apparently guaranteed to receive more for playing in the new arena than they did when the old Aflitos was full. They should be able to make a tidy sum from the sale of their previous home, and they are investing in training facilities. But one of the hardest things about the administration of football is the need to conciliate the priorities of the long term with the short. So much depends on the immediacy of results, and in the case of Nautico, they are very bad indeed.
Nautico are one of three teams in Recife. Sport, relegated last year, are well in contention to return to the first division. And Santa Cruz are languishing in the third -- but wherever they play they can count on a terrifically loyal fan base. The consortium that built the new arena would love to be able to entice the other two teams to play there too. However, the experience of Nautico is surely making that task more difficult.
Nautico's latest home game ended in heavy defeat to Cruzeiro of Belo Horizonte, whose experience shows the other side of the coin. Two years ago their city, one of the most traditional in Brazilian football, was astonishingly without a stadium. The giant Mineirao, a copy of Rio's Maracana, was closed for World Cup work. And also being renovated was the Independencia, built for the 1950 World Cup, where it was the scene of the famous victory of the USA against England.
As a result, the city's two giant teams, Cruzeiro and Atletico Mineiro, were forced to play all of their "home" games out of town. Both came very close to being relegated. But it is a different story now. Atletico have taken possession of the new Independencia, and a magnificent home record helped them finish second in last year's Brazilian championship. They qualified for the Copa Libertadores, South America's equivalent of the Champions League, which back in July they won for the first time in their history.
Cruzeiro, meanwhile, play in the newly re-inaugurated Mineirao. They are the only side in the Brazilian first division who have not lost at home (Atletico have only lost once). Cruzeiro's home record is 11 wins and two draws. It is the form of champions, and, 11 points ahead of the pack with 12 rounds to go, it is very hard to imagine the title eluding them. The city of Belo Horizonte, then, can confirm that the most beautiful horizon is the one you gaze on from home.
How much is playing at home worth?