Why Do We Suddenly Get Into Football When The World Cup’s On?

There's a psychological reason you'll be getting out the bunting and beer this weekendIllustration by Alex Coll

World Cup

by Sophie Cullinane |
Published on

You know what it’s like. You’ve been merrily going about with, sure, a vague interest in football when it comes to the end of the season/an FA Cup Final, but not much more. And then The World Cup comes along and the country reaches fever pitch.

It’s two weeks before the first England game and suddenly Saint George’s flags are popping up in shop and taxi windows all over the place. There’s no longer any need for a television guide, because The Top 383,000 World Cup Goals is now on every single channel 24 hours a day. Paul from Accounts came to your latest budget meeting wearing an England shirt and compared your expense request to the 3-4-2-1 formation.

You don’t know what the 3-4-2-1 formation is, but you know that you’re beginning to find all of this World Cup posturing a bit tiresome, so you resolve not to get needlessly swept up in the whole thing.

But then, it’s two days before the game and you find yourself inviting a couple of mates down to the nearest pub with a big screen – everyone else will be watching it after all. The morning arrives and your housemates are all drinking tins of Stella even though it’s 10.30am. Union jack bunting appears to have materialised in your living room overnight. You think, sod it, if you can’t beat them, join them, and merrily tuck into a tin yourself, even though you’ve only just brushed your teeth.

By the time the game is on, you’ve already wobbled down the street to the pub in a football shirt – wherever it came from – shouting ‘Engerrrlaaaannndddd’ and discussing ‘our’ chances of reliving ‘’66’. Before you know it, England score and you’re suddenly sitting on some random bloke’s shoulders screaming in pure elation at a game which, two weeks previously, you’d had only a passing interest in. That’s it – you’re hooked.

Before you know it, England score and you’re suddenly sitting on some random bloke’s shoulders screaming in pure elation at a game which, two weeks previously, you’d had only a passing interest in

It feels almost inevitable, but why is it that we all suddenly get into the football when The World Cup is on? Is there something psychological that affects the country collectively that makes us all suddenly behave like football-crazed lunatics? Apparently so.

‘Our sense of patriotism and national identity is something that is often quite dormant, not affecting our day-to-day lives particularly. However, certain events can bring patriotism out in many of us – war, perceived threat from such things as the EU or immigration, and, of course, international sporting events,’ Dr Marco Cinnirella, a social psychologist at Royal Holloway, tells The Debrief.

‘While we might not in our everyday lives feel particularly patriotic, is it interesting how many of us switch to a more patriotic mode of thinking at times like The World Cup. Psychologists have argued for a long time that there is something special about the connection between a person and their nation – Freud talked about our feelings towards the nation being similar to our feelings about our family.

‘Over the years, social scientists have argued that a psychological connection with your nation brings with it benefits, such as a sense of connectedness with others, connection to history, security and meaning in life.’

Connectedness. Gotcha. But is that really what we’re doing when we find ourselves screaming, ‘The referee’s a wanker!’ while simultaneously downing shots of Jaeger with your new best mate Terry from East Ham? And if so – isn’t science a bit weird?

‘In evolutionary terms, having a sense of loyalty towards groups we are a part of was almost certainly beneficial and in some sense the readiness with which we “support the pack” during the World Cup is partly explained by this,’ explains Dr. Cinnirella.

‘However, there’s a downside to all of this – with adoration of our group can come a dislike of outsiders. This may also have some evolutionary basis, since in the early days of humanity it made sense to be cautious and fearful of outsiders, who posed an unknown and potentially deadly threat.

‘For those who become deeply embedded in supporting their team, it’s likely that this will be accompanied with at least some degree of dislike for opponents – it’s hard to forget the way the tabloid newspapers portrayed the Germans, for example, during a previous intentional soccer event, using Nazi imagery to stir-up memories of past conflicts.’

Well that will explain the whole ‘wanker’ thing then, won’t it?

Wearing team colours and proving football knowledge is seen as more imperative to women to be accepted as authentic football fans, whereas men don’t have the same need to prove themselves

The theory also goes that while there’s a certain element of our sporting fever being hard-wired psychologically, the impact of – you guessed it – social media is making it more tangible. ‘The media and sport have a symbiotic relationship, but agenda-setting theory suggests that owners and editors of national media outlets shape what we view and the kind of message that is transmitted to us,’ explains sociologist Dr Amy Godoy-Pressland of the University of East Anglia.

‘In other words, we are significantly influenced by the media images we consume, and in terms of football, media outlets promote the idea that the nation should all be fans and support the team, in line with their news agenda.

‘In the last two decades there has been a hyper-commodification of sport, and especially football. Nowadays the football industry is worth billions of pounds and that’s evidenced by the extensive national media coverage of all football-related news – it’s no wonder these huge productions have an affect on us.'

Interestingly, though, there is still a stigma that lots of female football fans – and sports fans in general – seem to face. When men get wrapped up in a bit of a football frenzy, it’s kind of suspected, but when women do, it’s seen as a bit odd and something we should unravel. Why?

‘There’s been a lot of research on the differences between men and women in sport as athletes, and as fans spectating sport,’ says Dr Godoy-Pressland. ‘When it comes to The World Cup and patriotism there are minimal gender differences in terms of the frenzy that occurs. However, being a football fan is still seen as a more “male” thing.

‘There is a growing body of research on women football fans by Carrie Dunn and Stacey Pope, which suggests that one of the issues women fans face is questions around their authenticity as ‘real fans’. For example, wearing team colours and proving football knowledge is seen as more imperative to women to be accepted as authentic football fans, whereas men don’t have the same need to prove themselves. The fact that we’re even asking this question is telling.’

So, when the football starts this weekend, it looks like the answer is to simply not worry too much and jump into the whole thing headfirst if you feel that way inclined. Who cares if some idiot asks you to reel off the offside rule in order to ‘prove’ yourself as a real fan?

It’s not exactly rocket science that a player is in an offside position if, when the ball is played by a team-mate, they are nearer to the opposition’s goal line than both the ball and the second last opponent.

And besides, something tells us England need all the support they can get.

Follow Sophie on Twitter @sophiecullinane

This article originally appeared on The Debrief.

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