The power of the crowd

April 3, 2022

Where spectators urge the players on with their cheers, the players pay them back with their performance. Miandad's iconic six off the last ball in 1986 Austral-Asia Cup in Sharjah and Maradona's 'hand of god' incident followed by his goal of the century in 1986 World Cup, have been commendable paybacks for cheering crowds

The power of the crowd

The importance of crowds at sports events is second only to that of the players and their athletic skills. The setting that a stadium offers to players and spectators is also gaining importance. Enabling an exciting viewing experience is the prime feature of modern-day sports complexes. To lure audiences, stadiums adopt appealing themes and shapes, like the Beijing National Stadium, built like a bird's nest or the sacral architecture of Pancho Arena in Hungary or the boat-shaped, colour-changing Allianz Arena in Germany.

The upcoming FIFA World Cup in Qatar will be played in eight stadiums boasting distinct themes and a combined capacity of nearly half a million spectators.

A good crowd will have its favourite team to cheer for, but at the same time, it will applaud the opposite side for a good performance. Crowd psychology and the nature of applause differ from sport to sport, and a good crowd knows these subtleties. The snooker or chess audience knows that their cheers can work to the player's disadvantage, whereas the football, cricket or boxing crowd would do all in their power to shout and get adrenaline pumping through players' blood streams. As the cheers transform into growls and roars, player performance surges exponentially. The loudest crowd chants can be louder than the noise produced by firing an artillery weapon at close range. This boisterous applause is fodder for the players.

Then there is a hooligan crowd, one that has come to support their team and to see the result of their choosing. If the outcome is against its expectations, mayhem follows.

This devotion is at its extreme in football and is prevalent throughout the world. Year after year, unfortunate events continue to unfold across Europe, South America and Africa as a result of unruly crowds. This has taken hundreds of lives, including a Colombian defender, Andres Escobar, who was killed by fans for scoring an inadvertent own goal in FIFA World Cup 1994. Despite there being riot police to counter mishaps, hooligans prove almost impossible to handle.

In World Cup 2019, scuffles erupted between Pakistani and Afghani fans after Pakistan narrowly beat Afghanistan. It started from the Headingley stadium and culminated in the streets of Leeds leaving several injured.

Racket sports such as tennis and squash are mostly free of violent fans. In the open era, top contestants usually do not hail from the host countries. In the last fifty years, only one Briton, Andy Murray, has been crowned Wimbledon champion. The US Open has not seen an American champion since Andy Roddick in 2003.

The power of the crowd

Squash, with the exception of Egypt, rarely sees top national players featuring beyond the quarter-final stage. With no home player to cheer in major matches, a crowd behavioral pattern has emerged featuring a disciplined, repetitive mannerism - passive between rallies, applauding after a point is won. This cheering norm continues throughout the contest.

Crowds have a say in deciding the swing of a game. Spectators and players are so psychologically intertwined. One cannot live without the other. When Covid restrictions were at their peak, crowds were not allowed to witness matches. This was so distressing for the players that organisers had to substitute spectators with posters and add artificial applause so that the arena reverberated to a familiar cacophony to give the players the impetus they needed to perform.

The Covid era forced players to live in a "bubble" with no direct contact to the outside world. The isolation saved them from the disease, but intensified the pressures on them as they had no one to talk to for comfort.

Crowd expectation can also put players under tremendous pressure, and they often capitulate to the stress. Ash Barty, the world's top women's tennis player, has announced retirement from tennis at 25 years of age. She thinks she will be better off spending time with her family rather than dealing with the relentless anxieties of tennis. Before her, Naomi Osaka went through a stressful period in 2021. She had to pull out of the French Open in round 2 and skip Wimbledon. A dismal performance in the Tokyo Olympics followed.

Paul Pogba, the French and Manchester United football star, recently admitted to having bouts of depression due to a stressful football routine, whereby a player is judged in every game and if found wanting, faces the prospect of substitution or, in extreme cases, axing from the team.

Television audience has brought much glamour and revenue to the games. With billions watching the action on television, screen viewership is factored into designing of venues and hiring of commentators who can hold the audience's attention with their knowledge and wit.

Where spectators urge the players on with their cheers, the players pay them back with their performance. Miandad's iconic six off the last ball in 1986 Austral-Asia Cup in Sharjah and Maradona's 'hand of god' incident followed by his goal of the century in 1986 FIFA World Cup, have been commendable paybacks for cheering crowds. Such brilliant showpieces by inspirational sportsmen will continue to emerge as long as the crowd is able to cheer and provide players with the impetus and fuel required for sterling performances.

The power of the crowd