The World Cup can make us hug complete strangers, jump for joy and cry. We look at the science of being a soccer fan, with insights from Dr Susan K. Whitbourne to boot.
You might have heard: there’s a soccer World Cup happening. Yes, it’s the same tournament the US national team didn’t qualify for (though we’ve got the 2026 showpiece to look forward to) and yet, despite this, it has made for fantastic television so far.
There’s something about the World Cup. Whenever it rolls into town people fall into step. Suddenly the ardent anti-soccer supporter is talking tactics around the watercooler; mom is asking about Cristiano Ronaldo; bars are abuzz with people all celebrating the Beautiful Game.
More than that, there’s something to be said about a game that can cause fans to set off earthquake sensors from celebrating so hard.
The question is: why? Why does it matter so much? Surely it’s just a sport, just a game, just a fun distraction from everyday life?
“Although sports are often trivialized as entertainment, on a deeper level, your team has a meaning that extends far beyond the stadium,” says Dr Susan K. Whitbourne, Ph.D., ABPP, an expert in sports fandom. The upshot? Take the Beautiful Game, pin national flags to the mast, beam it to the homes of billions around the world and you’ve got a recipe for a month of jubilation or sadness.
Here’s a dose of science to explain some of those highs and lows.
Soccer matters because we’re a social species
“We crave being with a group and having mutual experiences with like-minded individuals,” says Dr Whitbourne. And when that experience is being shared with millions of countrymates, even casual fans want to keep up with what’s happening.
Soccer on TV is more intense than in the stands
Feet up on the couch, 4K TV on-the-go, you’re slap bang in the center of the action. “As a result, it can be hard to shift your focus,” Dr Whitbourne says. “So, the intensity of the experience increases, heightening your emotional responses – both positive and negative. There’s also the stress of feeling that you wish you could have an impact on the action when it’s not going your way. The more absorbed you become, the greater that frustration of seeing things up close as if you were a player but without the ability to influence the score.”
Soccer can be wonderfully disinhibiting
Irrespective of whether you’re at home or at the ground, soccer exerts a powerful and disinhibiting influence on us, Dr Whitbourne says. The social shackles we carry are shrugged off, and we’re suddenly capable of hugging complete strangers and dancing like Jagger.
A word of warning though: with lower inhibitions, bad behavior can more easily occur.
Soccer makes us empathise
Scientists have speculated that humans have “mirror neurons”, signals that fire in our brains that make us feel the emotions being experienced by others.
Seeing our favourite player belting out the national anthem can fill us with pride. Similarly, seeing a player in tears can tug on our heart strings as well. The mirror neuron is a phenomenon that explains why it’s possible to cry during a sad scene in a movie; it doesn’t matter that actors are “faking” the emotion – we feel it just as strongly.
Soccer can be stressful
The Munich University Clinic discovered that during the 2006 World Cup in Germany, Bavarian men were 3.26 times more likely to be admitted to the hospital for heart problems after watching their home side play.
Does that mean we should stop caring? No, but enjoying the rollercoaster ride, rather than fretting over it, would help.
Plus, true fans don’t let their team’s losses erode their sense of pride. “For some fans, there may even be a certain pleasure in rooting for the underdog, showing that they are truly loyal and sincere people in general,” Dr Whitbourne asserts.
Soccer can also bring us together
Played in the right spirit, and enjoyed by fans in the right way, a tournament like the World Cup does a great deal of good. Ultimately it unites us more than it divides. It makes us curious about countries we’ve never visited. It allows us to revel in the purity of competition. Amazing to think that a ball being kicked around a field can be the cause of such highs and lows. But then we’ve always been fascinated by people competing at an elite level; we’re oglers of exceptionalism, and as one team lifts the 18-carat gold trophy come July 14, they’ll well and truly have earned it.
To find out more about the science of football fandom, head over to this infographic, which features more insights from Dr Whitbourne.