The soccer World Cup is an event like no other. The levels of emotional attachment, dedication and tribalism eclipse even that of the Olympic Games — and that’s just amongst the fans.
Already at this 2018 World Cup in Russia, television cameras have shown nails being bitten, tears of despair, mirrored by those of celebration and countless screams of encouragement as fans will their teams to victory.
The players who take to the the field have long since called upon supporters in stadiums to be “the 12th man,” to inspire them toward higher levels of performance when it’s really needed. However, that doesn’t stop millions all around the world that are not so fortunate to be in the stands, from yelling at TV screens wherever they may be.
According to research by psychologist Susan Whitbourne, the more passionate a supporter you are, the more stress you’ll take on during a match, no matter where a person watches it. However, that passion means that if your team wins, you get the bigger testosterone boost with the result.
Watching games on television can be even more difficult for fans hoping it’s their side that wins.
“The larger image and sound heightens the reality for the viewer which puts you more in the center of the action. As a result, you feel as though you’re on the field. However, as a fan in the stadium, you would not have such a close-up view,” she told CNBC via email.
Whitbourne goes on to add: “As a result, the intensity of the experience increases, heightening your emotional responses — both positive and negative. There will also be the stress of feeling that you wish you could have an impact on the action when it’s not going your way.”
Some might ask why do supporters of national teams put themselves through it all. Is it even worth caring so much?
Studies suggest that even singing the national anthem prior to kick-off can fire “mirror neurons” in a spectator’s brain. This chemical reaction enables that person to gather the same sorts of instinctive emotions as the players on the pitch, despite not actually playing in the game.
“The neurotransmitters responsible for excitement and elation flood the brain and lead to waves of pleasure during those moments of glory.” said Whitbourne. “The feeling of bonding with your fellow sports fans occurs when neurotransmitters responsible for empathy and social connection are released. As these neurotransmitters are triggered, they initiate a cascade of changes throughout the body involving hormones that create pleasurable sensations.”
Fans do need to be careful though. During the 2006 World Cup in Germany, when the national team was playing, it’s been recorded that Bavarian men were 3.26 times more likely to encounter heart problems due to the extra chemicals released. Soccer matches, particularly at the World Cup which only comes around every four years, have a tendency to make a person’s body produce higher levels of adrenaline and cortisol. This results in blood pumping faster, muscles tightening and blood pressure rising. This is proven for even the more apathetic soccer fan.
“The social events that surround a major sporting event are what draw people who don’t care about the sport, or even sports at all, to join in with the group. There’s also a certain bonding that comes from being with others. From another perspective, people who like sports but know nothing about soccer may enjoy learning about the game. Even those who don’t like sports and know nothing about the game may find it interesting to gain insight into the rules, the players, and the teams they represent.” according to Whitbourne.
As the World Cup reaches its final stages the desire of fans to feel part of the action and make a connection to what their watching is likely to only increase, as pressure mounts and the stakes get higher.