I am not a football fan, and I have never been. But one of my clearest childhood memories is the World Cup half-final from 2014. Do you remember? The German National Team defeated Brazil in its very own country with 7:1 in front of the world’s eyes. The fact that the simple number “7:1” still raises emotions in people up to this day makes me wonder: What meaning does football have? And why do people get so incredibly excited about watching this game?
The first thing I realize in my conversation with football players, football fans, and football neutrals is that the game itself is not the main part. Quickly it comes out that the feeling of community drives people to the football field each week, month, or year. “I believe that football connects us so much because it provides a community. The fans and the club unite, and together they are happy about a victory and sad about a loss.”, says Antonia Barth, who recently started attending the football games of Vardar Skopje.
1. Belonging to a group
Dr. Sander van der Linden, a psychologist at Cambridge University, explains the need for belonging in an interview:” We sort ourselves into groups, we identify with those groups, and then we start comparing ourselves with other groups. It’s just that the structural conditions of football will enhance those characteristics. So they’re wearing different t-shirts, so it’s easy to spot the outgroup member versus the ingroup member.
Annik Fasold tells me her experience with football in Bremen, Germany. Although she doesn’t consider herself a fan of football itself, she feels very connected to her home club Werder Bremen. “When we watch a game from this club, all the people start singing in front of the stadium. They have familiar songs, and they wear the same scarf.” She takes a small break and later adds: “My father is an absolute Werder fan. So for me, it is also tied to my family.”
“One club is like one family. Being in the club makes you happy, and you can’t get enough of that. And it is essential to have a club. Without the fans, the games wouldn’t be the same,” explains Vildan Kerim. The professional football player from Macedonia’s leading club Vardar Skopje describes football as his dream job. “Having sports as your profession means you are always active and healthy. At every game, you feel the adrenaline, and you keep being excited to improve your skills.”
3. Unexpected results
What’s one thing we get excited about? Surprises and unexpected results. There is no tutorial on how to score a goal. There is no guideline on how the game will turn out. So no match is repeated the same and therefore unpredictable. Unexpected results boost our adrenaline, and they remain a myth. There is an entire book called “The game of the century” about the 7:1 earlier mentioned defeat between Germany and Brazil. Another example: When Macedonia won against Germany and was shocked with the victory of the underdog at the beginning of this year.
A Macedonian Ultra fan tells me that football is like an escape for him.
“My experience is that people who work from Monday to Friday take out all their negative energy from work or their private life when they watch football.”
Vildan Kerim also highlights the therapeutic nature: “When I play football, I forget about the outside world. I am both super focused and relaxed.” He believes that football can turn around your entire day. “Maybe you had a really bad day, but when you go to the match, your mood might lighten up. That’s the magic for me.”
5. Biological factors
Multiple studies show that sports affect the physical and mental state in a positive way. For example, when your team wins, your brain starts releasing the neurotransmitter dopamine. This one regulates the brain*s reward and pleasure centers. However, when your team performs poorly or loses, your brain produces cortisol when you’re under stress. So having an intense interest in a team can foster feelings of self-worth and belonging. Also, football makes it easier to express emotions. Mental Health Foundation chief executive Dr. Andrew McCulloch said: “It is encouraging that football makes it easier for men to talk about their feelings as, traditionally, men are far less likely than women to share their innermost thoughts.
6. Cultural identity
Representation matters! What comes with representation is the feeling of validation. Let’s use the World Cup as an example: It is a big deal if your country participates in the biggest sports event. We feel represented by our team, and it might strengthen our national identity when your team plays on the world stage.
In today’s media world, the World Cup remains one of the last massive events where you know entire nations are watching simultaneously: And it will be a huge topic the next day.