June 20, 2014, by Mike Munro

I must be mad to watch this lot!

As England’s chances of advancing beyond the World Cup group stages hang by an ever diminishing thread, Alan Pringle discusses just why we put ourselves through the pain of supporting our national teams. In recent years, Alan’s research has focused on how football can be used as a vehicle for mental health promotion and interventions.

I have just been looking at TV pictures of football fans watching their teams in the World Cup.  Some of my research with football fans has identified how anxiety, fear, loss of hope, lack of confidence and a pessimistic view of the future combined with a paranoid belief that the referee is secretly working for the other side can all combine to make watching a match a pretty miserable experience. Combine this with the deflation of defeat and the extinguishing of hope and you have the experience of many fans watching the World Cup. Yet we still watch and come back for more! Why on earth would anybody deliberately put themselves through this?

English football fans are scratching their heads saying “why did I believe, secretly, that it could happen when clearly it couldn’t?” Yet for ten minutes or so the dream was clearly and fully alive. Before…

“If only Rooney had put away that second chance, if only Stevie was an inch taller!” And it is this ten minutes that is, of course, the essence of why, as football fans, we put ourselves through this torture every time our team play and every time we watch them live.

The sociologist Madrigal suggests that part of the appeal of supporting a team in a sporting contest as opposed to other leisure pursuits is that, unlike predictable forms of leisure behaviour, sporting events represent the ultimate experience in which the outcomes are unknown. In a football match, as was seen in recent days, small unfashionable teams can draw with or even beat much more fancied opposition. Unpredictable outcomes happen in the world of football unlike in the world of theatre where Romeo and Juliet always die in the final scenes or cinema where ET always goes home.

The rollercoaster of emotions experienced by fans watching matches allows them to enter into what the Russian sociologist Bakhtin describes as a carnivalesque experience, which is not a spectacle observed and consumed by a passive audience but instead an experience that people actually live in. The connection with other people at home, in the pub or wherever a match is being watched offers a shared experience within which emotion can be displayed openly and this creates a sense, even temporarily, of unity, shared experience and of hope, elation or despair that links people together.

Netherlands and Uruguay fans had a shared experience of delight and Spain and England fans a sense of extreme disappointment, with many fans sharing this experience with others, creating a bond that for those moments was real and strong. In some ways it is this bond that is the essence of the experience rather than the result.

Whether it’s Dutch fans talking about how good they are or Spanish fans talking about how bad they are, they are still talking to each other and engaging in a dialogue that allows them to feel part of a community. In a small way this sense of belonging, sense of shared experience and opportunity to start a conversation can be a small component of being socially included and maintaining good mental health.

Of the 32 teams at the world cup, 31 will not win. But the fans of each of these losing teams will have had moments of hope, moments of belief, and moments of shared delight before the inevitable taste of defeat and they will often have shared these feelings with other fans. In four years’ time they will remember where they were and who they were watching with when Rooney scored and for a short space of time they believed. And at the European Championships in France in two years’ time, who knows? Maybe….just maybe.

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