Nick Butler

Peru became the last team to secure a spot at next year’s FIFA World Cup in Russia last week. They qualified for their first Finals since 1982 despite suffering the ignominy of their captain and leading scorer Paolo Guerrero failing a drugs test shortly beforehand.

International coverage of their playoff victory over New Zealand has been dominated, however, by reports of skulduggery designed to upset the visiting team shortly before the 2-0 home win at Lima’s Estadio Nacional.

The team’s charter flight from Buenos Aires first suffered an unscheduled three-hour hold-up in Chile due to new “landing restrictions” imposed by Peruvian authorities at the airport. They were then hassled by delirious home fans when trying to travel anywhere across the city as reports surfaced of “curses” being placed on the team. A 3am firework display outside their hotel ensured a sleepless night before the piece de resistance of a loud early morning flight-pass by two military jets emblazoned with the message “Vamos Peru”.

“We expected some disruptions and hassles here - that's how it is - but when the military get involved that is another level,” a furious New Zealand Football chief executive Andy Martin told NZME. It was also reported that New Zealand’s ambassador to Peru had complained to the Government while the beaten team’s coach, Anthony Hudson, bemoaned afterwards how they had not had the foresight to book a hotel close to the one where Peru were staying.

Was this a classic example of home skulduggery in sport? Or more a case of sour grapes by a home team desperate for an excuse to mask a disappointing defeat?

“I was in Wellington for the [first leg, playoff] game,” said commenter “Rob Berman” on the Stuff NZ boards. “Peru were treated with respect. That's what makes us Kiwis. If Peru visited again tomorrow we'd do that again. Glad I'm not bringing up my kids with the sort of values they showed to their guests.”

Others disagreed. “I was going to write about the All Whites, and the antics of the Peruvians in upsetting them and coach Anthony Hudson so much they were unable to play their best in Lima, and so crashed out of the World Cup,” began Kevin Norquay in a Stuff NZ opinion piece. “I wanted to award a red card against Hudson for psychologically diving every time a Peruvian air force jet roared overhead, or a fireworks display, traffic jam or flight delay poked a foot in his general direction. But it was noisy in Karori last night. Cars, a random chicken in the distance, a tui fluttering, and someone letting off crackers down on the park.”

New Zealand were, arguably, the victims of the most famous case of a visiting team being sabotaged when “two-thirds” of their team developed food poisoning before their 1995 Rugby World Cup final defeat to hosts South Africa. A former bodyguard of the then South African President, the late Nelson Mandela, revived these rumours in 2016 but suggested that “betting syndicates” were to blame rather than home supporters.

New Zealand were not accused of anything like this during the drawn British and Irish Lions rugby tour earlier this year. But the New Zealand Herald was perfectly comfortably with caricaturing the opposing - Kiwi - coach Warren Gatland as a clown as part of deliberate smear campaign during a hysterical build-up.

English football is rife with stories of sabotage in away team dressing rooms. This can range from fiddling with the heating, lighting or plumbing to more subtle mind games. At Chelsea’s home of Stamford Bridge, for example, it has been reported that coat-hangers are fitted high-up to force players to strain muscles reaching for them while a tactics board is kept on the back of the dressing room door, which must be kept open as a fire-exit.

Warren Gatland was mocked as a clown by the New Zealand Herald during the Lions tour this year ©New Zealand Herald
Warren Gatland was mocked as a clown by the New Zealand Herald during the Lions tour this year ©New Zealand Herald

Home crowd advantage has long been a fascinating subplot to sporting fixtures.

It is often psychological but sometimes can make an actual difference. In American football, for instance, a raucous home crowd can make it impossible for an away team to hear the tactical calls of their quarterback. In Davis Cup tennis, the home team has the choice of the court surface so can choose the one that best suits their players. A host nation is often particularly devious at limiting access to a bobsleigh track to suit their sliders while the Bolivian national football team are notorious for playing home games 11,932 feet above sea level in the vomit-inducing altitude of La Paz. England also managed to play every match en route to winning the 1966 World Cup in the home comforts of London’s Wembley Stadium.

At last year’s Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, French world record holder Renaud Lavillenie compared the atmosphere with the Nazis’ treatment of Jesse Owens at Berlin 1936 after being beaten by home favourite Thiago da Silva in the men’s pole vault final. Their response was to reduce him to tears by booing him once again in the medals ceremony.

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach adopted a tone seldom seen when responding to doping or corruption scandals when condemning “shocking behaviour” which was “unacceptable at the Olympics”. Personally, I found the booing to be one of the most entertaining aspects of Rio 2016 and, of course, the Olympics can stop being so sanctimonious because it has a dodgy home town judging record dating back years.

Renaud Lavillenie, left, was repeatedly booed by Brazilian spectators during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Renaud Lavillenie, left, was repeatedly booed by Brazilian spectators during the Rio 2016 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

The most infamous case perhaps came at Seoul 1988 when Park Si-hun won a home light-middleweight gold against American opponent Roy Jones Jr. despite landing 32 punches in comparison with his opponent's 86. Two of the three judges were eventually banned from the sport for life while others claimed the outcome was revenge for some similarly controversial decisions in favour of American fighters over South Korean opponents four years earlier at Los Angeles 1984.

The biennial Ashes Test Series in cricket between England and Australia - which is resuming in Brisbane on Thursday (November 23) - has long been a platform for some of the best instances of sporting skulduggery. England fast bowler John Snow so incensed the Australian fans after hitting a home batsman on the head in Sydney in 1971 that he was attacked with bottles and cans to the extent that play was suspended. A tougher reception than anything a White Walker can produce. 

Cricket once-upon-a-time was renowned for dodgy decisions by home umpires and - while this no longer happens because all officials must be from a neutral country - there are still other ways to get home advantage.

England’s warm-up matches this time around have all taken place on benign pitches against modest opposition which will have little or no resemblance to the boiling hot and lightning fast conditions of Brisbane’s “The Gabba”. Australia have gone 28 matches undefeated at the “Gabbatoir” since losing to a great West Indies team in 1988. Groundsmen in cricket are invariably ordered to ensure a pitch which suits the tactics of the home team.

England's John Snow is grabbed by a spectator during the 1970/71 Ashes series in Sydney ©Getty Images
England's John Snow is grabbed by a spectator during the 1970/71 Ashes series in Sydney ©Getty Images

Some of these examples, such as the Olympic boxing judging, are undoubtedly wrong. Others sit in more of a grey area.

It takes two to tango, of course, and it is often easy for an away team to find excuses for a defeat rather than admit they were second best. Anything the Australians do to England’s tourists during The Ashes over the next few months can be replicated when they make the return journey in two years’ time. There have also been instances of an intimidating reception serving to unite a touring team and make them play better than before.

The equivalent situation in sports administration comes when incumbent candidates use “home advantage” to make things more difficult for a challenger in Presidential elections. A classic example here comes when they ban speeches by candidates before using their Presidential address to deliver what is, in effect, a re-election speech. I have attended several elections this year when administrative staff have unofficially run the campaign of an incumbent President.

Beaten challenger Isabelle Lamour is currently citing these two issues when challenging the legitimacy of Denis Masseglia’s re-election as French National Olympic and Sports Committee President in May. Almost everybody I have spoken to about it so far from the French sports community has dismissed this as an excuse and an attempt to "keep her name in the headlines”.

As with sport itself, though, the line between foul play and sour grapes often depends on who you support.