The World Cup is something that feels like it takes over England every four years in a way that no other event does. (I’m sat in my living room with it on now, though only due to a democratic family vote to have it on – me and the cat aren’t bothered) Even people who normally could not care less about football or sport in general suddenly not only want to watch it, but start having Opinions on how their team is playing. It’s a bit like the Olympics in that regard – few of us routinely watch competitive gymnastics but when the most elite athletes in the world are doing it it’s usually worth a look. But the World Cup is on an entirely different level. It is everywhere. You can’t get away from it if you try (I have) and that includes both private and public spaces. If there is an England match on, you could probably go hiking in the middle of the Peak District and still walk pass someone updating you on the score.
When it comes to mental health, there is a distinctly gendered difference in how it effects people in general, either positively or negatively. Let’s talk about the positives to start. In particular when England are doing well, it can foster a sense of community and closeness between people whether it’s a family or complete strangers in a pub. There is something heartwarming about a group of relative strangers all cheering and literally jumping with joy and the goodwill that creates, even if it’s just for a few moments. It can also be one of the few spaces in which straight men can show each other affection and their emotions are, for the most part, accepted. A bloke crying over England either winning or losing a match is seen as a show of dedication and subject to significantly less shame than it would be in other situations. The sight of a man giving his tearful son a cuddle in the stands is pretty adorable all round. Rio Ferdinand did an amazing documentary about dealing with grief as a single father, and lots of individual footballers and clubs do some legitimately brilliant charity work, including Clarke Carlisle who is an ambassador for Mind. All of this can help people improve their mental health by being part of a community and being encouraged to access mental health support.
Unfortunately however, these positives are vastly outweighed by the general culture of football absolutely upholding toxic masculinity. Toxic masculinity is the form of masculinity where men are told their worth is based around how aggressive and dominant they are, particularly over women but also over other men, and any indication of softness or femininity is despised and seen as weak. It is violent and damaging to everyone, including the man performing those behaviours, but mostly to more feminine men, boys and especially women and girls. It is displayed in the behaviour of what most football fans and the FA try to claim is a minority of people, in the actions of ‘football hooligans’ who are scapegoated. Any professional who is accused of unacceptable behaviour is fiercely defended by fans as innocent, and their behaviour downplayed. The reaction from the FA to public misbehaviour is the exact opposite of the day to day reality reported by people who work there. Obviously, it’s way disproportionately male at all levels of the tournament and at the periphery, from the players to management, support staff, commentators and fans. In terms of representation when you’re actually watching the game, the camera will focus on a few young, attractive female fans in the crowd, but pan out and they are surrounded by men. It was only this year that there was a female commentator for the very first time.
An example of the exclusive nature of the ‘community spirit’ of football comes in the form of the various chants the fans in the crowd shout together, which are often horrendously sexist, and usually homophobic, racist and able-ist. Despite the FA Respect campaign, football is still seen as being ‘for men’ in the most regressive definition of the male gender. The ‘community spirit’ has a distinct hierarchy whereby straight white cis males are at the top, the game and all associated spaces belong to them, and they decide who is one of ‘us’ and who is one of ‘them’. If you join in then you are ‘not a real fan’ and expected to be quiet and ideally, be female and look pretty while the real men talk about the match. If you don’t join in, then there must be something wrong with you. This is extended into public spaces during the World Cup – it seems that town and city centres, pubs in particular, are inundated with groups of blokes in a variety of England paraphernalia, who are very loud and usually, very, very drunk.
Drinking culture in England is problematic in sooooo many ways it needs it’s own article, but this is no more clear than during the World Cup. It is normal to see people so completely wasted that you wander if they even remember watching the game. A significant number of people are drunk before 12pm. On a match day, it seems impossible to move through public spaces without encountering harmful chants and catcalling which to them is ‘just a laugh’ but to many people is intimidating harassment. So just avoid the pubs, right? Well, you need to avoid the pubs, the pavement outside the pub, the train station, the bus station and all public transport leading up to and after a match, as well as some parks or grassy areas showing it on a big outdoor screen. And then in the evening, especially if it’s a weekend, you probably want to avoid any bars or restaurants too. And cash machines. And take aways and corner-shop-mini-supermarket-places. Basically just stay at home. (Which I did during the last England match, and could hear at least five different neighbours yelling at their T.V’s from my bedroom.)
So, if you’re an anxious introvert who doesn’t really like sport and isn’t nationalist, you’re most likely in for a month of severe grumpyness to say the least. (Literally just had a quote from the commentator ‘if there’s someone at home reading a book, they need to get a life’.) If you are a young female then it’s likely to be trial by sexual harassment. The harrowing police campaign to highlight domestic abuse states that violence towards women increase by 68% when England lose a match. Let that sink in for a minute. If you are LGBTQ+ it’s the anxiety of having groups of drunk people who are the most likely to be hostile to you roaming around in packs even more often than usual. And if you are a person of colour, or an immigrant, or both I can only imagine how intimidating it might feel to be faced with so much public nationalism in this political climate.
Purely as a sport, I have no issue with football, but as an institution, business and embedded part of English culture I have a lot of problems with it. Sexism, sexual harassment and sexual assault are completely normalised throughout football (see Dr Eva Carneiro, the horrific Ched Evans case and Andy Gray) and homophobic and racial slurs are just as rife. To me, football culture is a hotbed of toxic masculinity and displays some of the most damaging aspects of our society as completely acceptable. The World Cup then completely takes over our private and public spaces, and brings all of this with it, highlighting how far we really need to go for true respect and equality. And in terms of the way in which it does take over everything, there is no ‘female’ cultural equivalent – it’s not like there are outdoor screens for mass viewings of London Fashion Week. The closest marginalised groups get to this are protests – the Women’s March, LGBTQ+ Pride, Black Lives Matter… in an attempt to take up some space for ourselves and highlight the inequality we still face.
So, fellow introvert bookish femme type human people, how the heck do we cope with this onslaught? The absolute best thing to do is to find your own clan of fellow human/fur baby friends to not give a fuck about the football together. Spaces which tend to be much safer and screen free are probably your usual haunts; coffee shops, book shops, libraries, museums… If you can plan ahead to avoid travelling on match days then it is so worth it. There may even be more space for you at the cinema or theatre if you can afford to go there are enjoy a bit of peace too. Most importantly, do a lot of self-care so if you do run into an icky situation, you have as much energy as possible to deal with it.
As always, look after yourselves.