Why bonding over the Euros appeared to increase Covid cases in men

By Philippa Roxby
Health reporter

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Fans celebrate as they watch a live broadcast of the semi-final match between England and Denmark at Hackney BridgeImage source, Getty Images
Image caption,
England fans celebrate victory against Denmark in the Euros

The Euros were good news for England fans (until the final) but not such good news for coronavirus infections (they went up).

In Scotland too, the rise and fall in Covid cases mirrored the country's footballing fortunes.

So what does this tell us about how football supporters behave, and why is it typically men who cleave to this kind of group conduct?

For a month, between mid-June and mid-July, fans congregated in huge numbers to watch the Euros - in pubs, bars, friends' houses, stadiums and fanzones.

Being part of a group raises self-esteem and confidence and allows people to share their emotions, says Dr Sandy Wolfson, a psychologist from Northumbria University.

'Survival mechanism'

"It also confirms the belief they are superior - not just on the pitch, but in life too.

"That they are more generous and honest, for example, and part of an exceptional group."

And when it all goes wrong, they can find comfort in fellow fans' disappointment too, knowing that they did their best as supporters - even if it wasn't reciprocated by their team.

There's something "evolutionary in nature" about bonding over football, Dr Wolfson says.

"It's a survival mechanism to be part of a group - because outside of it you are less likely to be protected and more likely to die out," she adds.

So is it mainly a male thing?

The tribal element to football is more extreme than in other sports - and that could be what attracts many men.

Men are much more likely than women to take part in team sports and gather in numbers to watch it - but that doesn't mean women don't do it as well.

However, the way men express themselves is very different to women, says Dr John Barry, chair of male psychology at the British Psychological Society.

'Get it off their chest'

Socialising with friends is all about banter for men, he says, which involves "verbal rough and tumble".

It's a bonding ritual; watching football together allows them to act out their emotions.

But more importantly, it's gives their mental health a huge boost, Dr Barry says.

"Men who can't talk about things get them off their chest by watching football.

"It's a great way of venting their feelings."

Talking to each other in the pub is easier after a couple of drinks too, he adds.

Women, in contrast, are more likely to open up to each other without inducement.

The Euros may well have come along at exactly the right time for men, whose interactions - in keeping with the rest of the population - have been severely restricted during the pandemic.

Although Wimbledon and a number of other high-profile sports events have also taken place in recent week - with the Olympics ongoing - they have not brought people out onto the streets the way the football tournament did.

And if boosting men's wellbeing came at the price of a spike in Covid infections then many psychologists believe it was worth it.

Although it's easy to see football matches as "frivolous", Dr Barry says they are "really important" - particularly when men aged 40-54 currently have the highest suicide rate in the UK since 2013 - notwithstanding the fact that there has been no reported rise in suicides during the pandemic.

Fortunately, when it comes to dealing with the failure of their team, it seems most fans are pretty adept at moving on.

"There is some residual pain - but they can't disengage from their club," Dr Wolfson says.

England, Scotland and Wales supporters can be reassured that there will always be another football match to experience - agony or ecstasy.