Is Soccer a Matter of Life and Death? – Psychology Today

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Posted November 14, 2022 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
A legendary coach of Liverpool, Bill Shankly, once said that football (soccer) is not about life and death. It is much beyond it. I am not sure whether he really understood how close he was to the truth. In this column, I provide several examples that illustrate that soccer in general, and FIFA World Cups in particular, are indeed matters of life and death.
The economic, cultural, and political significance of the FIFA World Cups is enormous. For example, 3.6 billion viewers around the globe watched the 2018 FIFA World Cup and the 1970 FIFA World Cup qualification game between El Salvador and Honduras was a build-up for a so-called “football war” between the countries in 1969, which took the lives of close to 3,000 people.
It is well-established that emotions play an important role in decision-making. Thus, we should not be surprised that emotions driven by the results of a big event such as the FIFA World Cup may have a large effect on various important aspects of life.
For example, a recent study investigated country-level monthly birth rates for 50 European countries over 56 years, as well as measures of national teams’ performance in 27 international soccer events (FIFA World Cups and UEFA European Championships). The study showed that an increase in national teams’ performance is associated with a reduction in birth rates nine months after the event.
The possible driver of this phenomenon is that individuals change their time allocation preferences during sports mega-events, especially when their favourite team is doing well in the tournament. This finding suggests that bad performance of the national teams does not affect intimacy time. However, good national teams’ performances are likely followed by celebrations with friends and fellow countrymen, which reduces the physical intimacy time and fertility rates.
Financial markets can also be affected by the emotions produced during the FIFA World Cups. As evidence, one study investigated the effect of investor sentiment on asset prices. More specifically, the authors used data on financial markets in 39 countries and found that losses in the FIFA World Cup games had an economically and statistically significant negative effect on the losing country’s stock market. For example, elimination from the FIFA World Cup was associated with a next-day return on the national stock market index that is 38 basis points lower than average. (By the way, do not try to make money with this information now. It is already old news in financial markets.)
Finally, the results of soccer games may also have a direct effect on people’s health. For example, one study reported significantly higher mortality from heart attacks following Holland’s elimination from the 1996 UEFA European Championship. Another study reported a higher number of heart attacks after a loss by England in the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
So it may be wise to take a deep breath when your team is losing—but enjoy when your team is winning. This is because wins may save lives. As evidence, one study found a significantly lower number of heart attacks among French men on the day the French national team won the 1998 FIFA World Cup.
Berthier, F. and Boulay, F., 2003. Lower myocardial infarction mortality in French men the day France won the 1998 World Cup of football. Heart, 89(5), pp.555-556.
Carroll, D., Ebrahim, S., Tilling, K., Macleod, J. and Smith, G.D., 2002. Admissions for myocardial infarction and World Cup football: database survey. BMJ, 325(7378), pp.1439-1442.
Edmans, A., Garcia, D. and Norli, Ø., 2007. Sports sentiment and stock returns. The Journal of Finance, 62(4), pp.1967-1998.
Fumarco, L., & Principe, F. (2021). More goals, fewer babies? On national team performance and birth rates. Economics Letters, 208, 110086.
Witte, D.R., Bots, M.L., Hoes, A.W. and Grobbee, D.E., 2000. Cardiovascular mortality in Dutch men during 1996 European football championship: longitudinal population study. BMJ: British Medical Journal, 321(7276), pp.1552-1554.
Alex Krumer, Ph.D., is a professor of sports economics at Molde University College in Norway, who uses sports as a laboratory to study human behavior.
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Our conversations are sprinkled with slips, pauses, lies, and clues to our inner world. Here’s what we reveal when we speak, whether we mean to or not.


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