“Football isn’t a matter of life or death, it’s much more important than that”. As romantic as it may sound, this famous quote by the great Bill Shankly is evidently exaggerated.
However, for football addicts, Shankly’s words are something so poetic and empowering that it makes even Homer and Socrates sound bland.
From any sane person’s perspective, professional football is merely a sport and it is difficult to argue with this fact even for the most overzealous lovers of ‘The Beautiful Game’.
Literally speaking, football is nothing more than 22 men running around a field for 90 minutes in pursuit of a small ball. Despite being hailed as magical by millions, Lionel Messi does not have the cure for Ebola and no, Glen Johnson’s calamitous defending has not killed anyone.
So strictly adhering to logic, football is only a game which is played by a bunch of overpaid players and watched by many around the world purely as a source of entertainment.
It is only a game?!?
But if everything were viewed with the pinch of salt that is rationality – then even love can be described as a mere chemical reaction which releases Dopamine into our brain, a film is just a group of people reciting lines from a script while music is simply a bunch of chords sequenced together to produce different sounds.
Therefore, only if logic is put to aside, one can begin to understand what gives birth to irrational fanatics of the game.
The Beautiful Game has the power to enthrall as well as enrage, give unbridled joy but make a grown man weep, forge friendships while create bloody rivalries. Yes, football is just a game but at the same time, it is exponentially much more than that.
Now, the question is what creates this illogical passion? What makes fans of the game so devoted to a team or a player that one is ready to put everything on hold to support sporting organizations and individuals whom they will probably never encounter in their entire lives? Well let’s delve into the psychology of football fans.
A sense of identity
Anyone who has spent time in the company of a football fan would most certainly have encountered the phrases, “We won!”, “We lost” and “We need to buy a new midfielder” among others.
Obviously, the usage of the word “we” by fans does not make sense, as the matches which are being played thousands of miles away can in no way be taken in a personal context.
However, try telling that to a diehard football fan! Fans usually rejoice in their beloved teams’ victory as their own, while tend to become inconsolable in the event of a defeat.
Such a range of emotions for something that is merely a game is a quite baffling phenomenon but there is a logical explanation to it.
Psychologists have explained that the reason behind this is, football fans tend to identify themselves with the side they are rooting for and also consider themselves a part of the journey of a player or a team – bringing about such strong emotions.
Scientifically, emotions of a football fan and sports fans in general, has been essentially classified into two categories – BIRGing (Basking in Reflected Glory) and CORFing (Cut Off Reflected Failure).
BIRGing is effectively considering a team’s victory as one’s own and enjoying the slice of glory that comes with it.
CORFing, on the other hand, is the feeling of shame at the loss of the team one roots for. Usually people want to steer clear of failure and it explains why fans of teams which are not doing well tend to have their loyalty tested.
Induction of raw emotions
Another reason why fans place such value on their respective teams is that it provides a wonderful escape from the mundane activities of their daily lives.
Everyday routine such as attending school and going to a job can get depressingly boring and people tend to search for a release every now and then.
So a weekend’s football match provides a glorious opportunity for one to get consumed by matters on the field and express their feelings of joy or pride but perhaps more importantly, vent bottled up frustrations at opposition teams without any care in the world.
Fans let go of the self-awareness or self-consciousness one has to usually adhere to in daily life and for the ninety minutes at least, get in touch with the raw emotions that comes naturally.
While nothing can match the euphoria that comes when celebrating the victory of one’s team, having your grandparents question your sanity because of an explicit rant at the television set is priceless as well.
Physiological changes leading to addiction
Researchers have deduced that fans go through major physiological changes while watching their respective teams perform.
Studies have shown that fans experience 20% increase in testosterone levels when their team is winning – leading to feelings of euphoria, while a 20% decrease in testosterone levels during a losing situation – which causes stress.
Such contrasting range of changes in the body during a short span of time has been described as “Eustress” and it is believed to be dangerously addictive.
As a result, once a true fan commits himself to a team – there is usually no going back. The roller coaster ride of supporting the highs and lows that a team goes through helps people connect with oneself at a personal level and leaves them craving for more.
This is perhaps how a fan remains loyal to their club and despite the joy and sorrow experienced in equal measure; the team one loves becomes the beautiful mistress whom they simply cannot leave.
Acceptance into a community
While hooliganism and violence has tainted football’s reputation as a medium which unites people, there is no denying that the Beautiful game still plays a huge part in building up a community.
Fans identify their fellow fans as one of their own and it only takes ninety minutes to forge a friendship which can last a lifetime. Sharing the same passion for a team means that the process of creating stronger bonds is much smoother.
Supporting a particular club is not a singular act; there are many others who resonate similar feelings and emotions. Therefore, it provides an opportunity for the fans to feel included in part of a larger group, have a sense of belonging and most important of all – create a social identity.
While the results certainly play a huge part in the emotions of the fans, studies have shown that there is greater psychological pleasure derived from the feeling of social identity when gathering in a group to watch a game – rather than the actual outcome itself.
It has been proven that fans’ self esteem can be altered by whether their team wins or loses. Research has shown that on the day that a team’s win, fans have a more optimistic outlook in life, opinion of oneself and are more positive heading into any mental or physical task they are about to perform. Conversely, a defeat leaves a fan deflated and the sense of optimism evaporates.
Such feelings may be momentary but it can have profound effects on one’s self-esteem in the long run. So, it would not be unusual to see a die-hard football fan extremely cheerful or annoyingly grumpy on the basis of the result of their team.
Overall though, supporting a team is proven to be beneficial for a fan’s self-worth as it gives them an opportunity to revel in the glory which would otherwise be missing in day to day life.
According to studies, it has also been claimed that fans of a particular club develop a sense of superiority over the fans of other clubs.
Everyone holds an arrogant belief that their group of fans are more committed, enthusiastic and analytical than their rivals and no matter how poorly their team might be doing on the pitch, these feelings rarely change.
While such mentality is bound to create conflicts, it has proven to be very beneficial in developing self worth for die-hard fans.
Football – More than just a game
Despite all the studies and research, it is still difficult to definitively gauge or explain what entices so much passion among football fanatics for a sport in which 22 grown men simply run around for the ball for two hours.
That said, perhaps out of all the unimportant things in life, football remains the most important and for football fanatics what the great Bill Shankly said could not be any truer.