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The Agony and the Ecstasy (and the Agony Again): Watching Football & Mental Health

I’ve cried on ashen floors of working men’s clubs.

96, 98, 2000, 2002, 2004.

Oh my god, will it end?

Oh my god! Oh my god!

I suffered my fair amount of childhood trauma; my parents' ultra-corrosive divorce, my alcoholic Dad going to prison for fraud at the age of seven while I was sharing a bedroom with my heroin-addicted brother. It wasn’t exactly let’s get the Panda Pops in down Sesame Street.

But it wasn’t until 29 June 2000 that I truly understood what despair was, the type of sadness that breaches your skin and rattles your soul.

The night in question was the semi-final of Euro 2000 between the Netherlands and Italy. This was my first international tournament, the first time I had felt the intense, permanent sugar-rush of non-stop football. The game, arguably the greatest 0–0 in the history of football, was mythic in its narrative; a cliched Shakespearean tragedy of emotional turmoil.

The Netherlands, playing at home, did everything but win the game the football gods had handed them on a cheese platter. Over the course of 120 minutes, Italy had two players sent off and gave away two penalties. The first was missed by captain Frank de Boer, a granite-like stoic of a man, seemingly created in a laboratory to look as Dutch as possible. The second by Patrick Kluivert, in one of the worst penalties you’ll ever see. It goes to a shoot-out and de Boer takes the Netherlands’ first penalty. You can see it coming, his redemption will be writ large in blazing orange across the sky.

He steps up. He misses.

I remember the look on his face as clear as anything else from my childhood; it was despair beyond the bounds of normal comprehension.

From Euphoria to Sorrow in 90 seconds

That was the time between the Pickford save and the Saka miss in the Euro 2020 final between Italy and England. As an England fan, this was one of the best to the worst moments of my life in less time than it takes to boil a kettle, for a plane to reach three thousand feet or listen to one of the greatest songs ever written: ‘Carnival’ by Bikini Kill.

As I sat on an eerily quiet bus on the way home after the match, the despair filling my chest was intolerable and a small trickle of tears gently ran down my cheek. I feel absolutely no shame in this level of emotional response, even if I recognize it is incredibly stupid.

Arrigo Sacchi, the great A.C. Milan manager of the late 80s, summed up football’s unique place in almost every country’s culture; football, he said, ‘is the most important of the unimportant things in life.’ He’s right, football exists in that liminal space between essential and trivial, something that can seemingly change your life in an instant but if you're being truly honest, has no real effect on it at all.

As I sat on the bus, quietly weeping over the failure of man to put a ball between two posts from 12 yards, I thought ‘is this good? Is voluntarily inflicting negative emotions onto yourself actually beneficial? Are there really any mental health benefits of watching football?’

An Emotional Workout

The evidence for the relationship between playing sport and increased mental wellbeing is myriad and well documented. While the research about whether watching sport can engender similar benefits is less extensive, the evidence shows that putting yourself through the endless despair and occasional joy of being a football fan has mixed benefits for your mental health.

Researchers from the University of Leeds teamed up with Bet Victor to study Leeds United fans across three key games during the 2018/19 season. During the games, the researchers monitored the participants’ heart rate, blood pressure and mood — using monitors, blood pressure checks and then surveys. Incredibly, heart rates increased in some participants to 130bpm, the equivalent of a 90-minute brisk walk. I’m going to take an educated guess these participants didn’t scoff two Pukka Pies at half-time.

Football is a highly competitive, narrative-driven, intensely tribalized pastime; so as expected, the psychological response of the fans correlated with Leeds’s result: excitement and happiness when winning, dejection and anger when losing.

This seems logical; if you have an emotional attachment to a football team and they win or lose (with the emotions derived from draws being contextual), then it follows that these outcomes will add a layer of intensity to the emotions. The feeling of winning an important match in the final seconds, as all hope seemed crushed to dust, cannot be replicated in anything else; like the luminous electricity that follows kissing someone special for the first time is unique to those seconds.

However, as the human tendency is to brush off the good and trap the bad, referred to as ‘negativity bias’, the negative emotions that followed losses echoed in the fans' minds long after the game, sometimes for days. This seems obvious in a way; if you are an England fan like me, I bet you can remember every punishing second of the shootout against Italy but none of the goals against Ukraine in the quarter-final. This tendency can result in symptoms of depression, and in the most extreme cases outbreaks of physical violence, often heartbreakingly within a domestic abuse context.

Photo by Laurence Griffiths on Getty Images

Is Football Good for You?

This suggests then perhaps football isn’t good for you; it seems to bring only a brief beam of joy but the days-long gloom of a black sky. But this is what football is because that’s what life is. Human beings seem designed to forever remember the pitfalls, even though the good things in their life outnumber them 100 to 1. Your friends can give you a thousand compliments in an evening but what you end up remembering is that bloke at the bar who is slightly rude to you.

We do care too much about football, I certainly do. I’m a 29-year-old who has lost nearly all his family to that eternal sleep, and I don’t remember crying at any of their funerals. Not because of indifference, or emotional detachment, it just isn’t how I process things. Yet, when Wes Morgan and Claudio Ranieri lifted the Premier League trophy for my beloved Leicester City in 2016, the tears came free and fast.

Whether football exacerbates pain or lifts spirits so that they are dancing among the clouds is irrelevant to whether watching football is good for you, it’s how you approach it that matters, just like mental health in fact, and football is that in microcosm.

So when your team wins and you feel the euphoria that could power the sun, remember it. So that when they lose and you feel the rain clouds speed up to catch you, you know that it won’t last forever, and that’s mental health in a nutshell really, isn’t it?


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