A Game of Two Halves: Football and Male Mental Health
Illustrations by Megan Le Brocq
Kenny Shiels, manager of Northern Ireland’s national women’s football team, recently drew controversy over his assertion that women concede more goals because they are ‘more emotional than men’. The sexism is so blatant that it does not beg explanation, but what does beg an examination is the complete oversight of the masculine emotional investment in football and the consequences this bears on men.
Nowhere is the age-old stereotype that women are ‘emotional’ so thoroughly inversed than at a football match. Men have been known to hope – pray – that their side beats the rival, wins the league, or obtains the cup. Plans revolve around the time of kick-off, the upcoming fixtures; moods can be absolutely dictated by the failure or triumph of a team, and in few other contexts is it acceptable for men to either sing or cry in public. One need only look at the slow-motion action shots to witness the highs and lows of the sheer emotion endemic amongst player and fan alike: a close shave causes both hands reflex to the top of the head, dragging down as they watch on in horror to see a momentous fall, suffering in unison with their heroes. Of course, some women also enjoy this degree of emotional engagement in football. However, the central issue posed by specifically male investment in the passions of football is that society offers them few alternative pathways through which to emote.
Jokes about this phenomenon abound on social media, generating quips such as ‘my boyfriend has encyclopaedic knowledge of every historical football transfer, but he can’t understand why I’m upset’. These reveal an unfortunate truth about what level of emotion men are willing or able to engage with and indeed, both men and women suffer from this narrow channel through which to express themselves. Senior therapist Sally Baker noted that ‘the more enmeshed a man’s identity and self-worth is with his team or his country, the more likely he is to feel a strong negative emotional response to them losing’.
The current state of men’s mental health is bleak when viewed on a national scale. Contrary to the frequent tears during football matches, in fact only 4% of men admit to crying once a week. They are far less likely to seek psychological therapy, making up only 36% of referrals. They are also more likely to become alcohol dependent and have measurably lower access to social support from friends, relatives, and communities. Of course, these statistics are not all directly linked to the ‘Beautiful Game’, but it is interesting to view the ways in which society prevents men from expressing their sincere emotional experiences.
Even more dubious, perhaps, is the industry that capitalises on this culture of what is essentially an offshoot of toxic masculinity— for example, during the airing of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the top advertisement categories were betting, motoring, and grooming. This informed a specifically male audience on how to be a better, stronger man on very traditional – if not outdated – terms. One need not exercise the imagination too far to determine how this pressure may exclude the importance of mental health and emotional investment in other, more personal aspects of one’s life. Gillette’s much praised shift from the tagline ‘the best a man can get’ to ‘the best a man can be’ attempted to tackle this trend, but also met the uproar of male activists who claimed that men, being the ‘wilder sex’, should not be penalised for their unbridled passions.
Nevertheless, it is undoubtable that football is becoming an industry with a willingness to demonstrate an acknowledgement of the scope of influence it bears, with various commendable campaigns now aimed at tackling racism, LGBTQ rights, and violence. But it is not football itself that can tackle the issue of male emotional output and investment, simply because this will always remain: football will always start conversations, form friendships and enable every man to express his expert opinion – in other words, football will always be a valid and much-praised source of entertainment in its own right. However, the role it could play for men in the future could be one outlet amongst several – even playing the game surely has far better effects upon male mental health than viewing it. It is indicative of the controversy of the situation that I am hesitant to suggest that men could socialise with one another by analysing their feelings as opposed to goals for fear of coming across as sensitive. But women are allowed to emote in this way, and we are allowed to express this in a variety of healthy contexts.
So, in the words of Kenny Shiels, women are, perhaps, ‘emotional’, but to perceive in this a weakness and vulnerability is, I think, quite ironic in the realm of sports. For the sake of both women and men, football should not be the only acceptable outlet that validates male emotion.