The relationship between players and supporters during matches depends on the occasion, conditions, and style of football. But how much of an effect can supporters have on players? In the first part of this two-part series we discuss the relationship between footballers and supporters and the influence the latter has over the former.
“He always puts on his best performance when under pressure.”
Pele was always at his best when playing under pressure, while Maradona grew into a big game player. The 1982 World Cup in Spain ended for Maradona when he was sent off. But the 1986 World Cup was Maradona’s show, in both a good and in a bad way.
Who could ever forget the ‘Hand of God’ or the incredible solo goal in the semi-final against England?
Maradona found his supporters and the supporters found him. He had his opponents crippling and an empowering relationship with the crowd. People like stories and heroes.
Rarely do viewers love systems and strategies. The relationship between supporters and players is difficult to measure because styles of football differ so often.
How many decibels are needed to get a win or how many supporters are needed to get the players fired up? Of course, the stronger the support is for the team, the better the performances usually are.
Former Finnish international Mika Aaltonen experienced this in Naples in the 1988-1989 season. I heard the story ten years later when we were together, waiting for a match to start.
“I came onto the pitch and my glance shifted up from the grass to the stands," said Mika.
“I looked up at the crowd who were sitting peacefully, as if waiting for something to happen. Napoli were the favourites to win the Serie A title.
"We were the underdogs, but we knew that we could win if we seized the opportunity at the right moment.”
The home team came out onto the field and part of the crowd stood up. But, it was not until Maradona stepped out onto the pitch that the stadium erupted. Everyone was up on their feet at this point.
Maradona greeted the crowd by lifting both of his arms up high, looking more like a Matador than a footballer. The stadium was now filled with noise and excitement, which Mika had never experienced before. “We had lost the match before it even started,” he admitted.
A Paralysing Relationship
If a player is asked after an away match: "Did the noise from the home supporters affect the way you played?", their answer would probably be an understatement. "I didn’t notice the crowd. I was so focused on the match."
That answer is defensive, of course, as who would want to admit to being vulnerable to outside influences? Footballers refuse to display their weaknesses.
Of course, the crowd can have different impacts on each player. The relationship between the players and supporters can be paralysing or empowering, but hardly ever neutral.
One good example of a crowd’s paralysing effect on an individual player was the home supporters at the Vodafone Park when Beşiktaş hosted RB Leipzig in the UEFA Champions League group stage this season.
The young German international, Timo Werner, 21, was clearly disturbed by the home supporters inside the stadium and attempted to block the crowd out by using ear plugs.
However, despite his efforts to concentrate on the match, Werner requested to be substituted after just 32 minutes of play.
The tremendous level of noise from the home supporters was too much for the young German, who covered his ears when he left the field. This certainly surprised many viewers.
‘What’s wrong with the boy? Can't he handle the pressure?’
However, we are talking about a big issue that it is difficult to explain in simple terms. A psychologist could say that Werner is a ‘hypersensitive’ type of person. Players might just say that he is just too young and inexperienced. And in the eyes of the manager the ‘boy’ may be too volatile.
In the simplest of terms, we are talking about an individual’s relationship with the crowd. And in this case, the crowd was paralysing him.