Football: Why does it affect men differently to women?

Why do sane, sensible men become tribal and boorish as soon as the World Cup kicks off? And why aren't women affected in the same way?

Our shop windows are full of tribal wares and fleets of English flags are up and fluttering. And, noticeably, it's not just the trade trucks and white vans that are brandishing this jingoism, but the middle classes' affluent Audis, BMWs and "Chelsea tractors". So what's going on? Why are so many men (and, particularly, middle-class men) hooked on football?

You'll be able to hear their synchronised cheering in a few weeks' time, in pubs or in the front rooms of elegant town houses. Rising and falling together as a pack as they watch their heroes win or lose, they'll obsessively follow every game "our boys" play with the competitive aggression and visceral release that is integral to being a football fan.

So what is it that this growing band of middle-class football fans get from such a ritualised fever pitch of madness? Looking around, it seems they get a lot that they don't get elsewhere.

For years now, a familiar type has been emerging. He can be spotted ferrying the kids around to swimming lessons. He probably does his share of cooking. He's been made to feel by his woman and the world at large that he needs to be empathic, receptive, understanding, democratic. Absorbed into the feminist backlash against unreconstructed misogynists, he's got in touch with his feminine side and, without really thinking about it, he's grown into the "new man" persona.

Masculine psychology has gone through many changes over the decades, but, for a while now, we've been stuck with what the bestselling US therapist Robert Bly has called the "soft man" problem. "They're lovely, valuable people," says Bly. "They're not interested in harming the planet or starting wars... But many of these men are not particularly happy. You quickly notice the lack of energy in them." Of course, there are huge pluses in the shift towards the "soft man" type. Who wants to return to the warmongering-chauvinist type of the Forties and Fifties? No wonder feminism demanded that men develop a different way of relating.

But when you listen to men today, this volte-face from bolshie aggression to submission seems to have come at quite a passive-aggressive cost. The baby has slipped out with the bathwater, and although today's man may play the sexual-equality game in the home, he often does so in a grudging, emotionally detached way. There is often a barely concealed resentment at being nagged endlessly to share and care. It makes him feel full of hen-pecked, impotent rage.

In the language of therapy, he's suffering from emotional castration. Feeling obliged to be continually receptive and understanding goes against the grain of what it means to be a man. Every now and again, he yells about it all. Or hides away at work, where it's easier to feel in charge of his own power. Or plays away from home and uses a love affair to reassure himself of his potency. Or screams at the TV as if he's the manager of his football team.

None of this is new, of course. The male journey away from the womb/woman has always been described in fraught terms. Freud showed how Oedipus had to commit patricide and incest and interpret the riddle of the Sphinx before he could feel separate from his mother. Jung used the image of a dragon-slaying hero to symbolise what was psychologically needed for masculinity to develop. Tribal screaming at men hitting goalposts must be a doddle by comparison.

Men have always faced a far harder task than women in developing their identity, because they are born from a body that is a different gender from their own. As the academic and feminist Camille Paglia once put it: "A woman simply is, but a man must become."

Ironically, this challenge affects women, too. The feminist movement has put men in touch with their "feminine" side and enabled them to feel more at home in the company of women. But the emotional castration that often ensues has done untold damage between the sheets. A common complaint often made by women is that their man isn't sexy enough in bed. And by this they mean he's too nice, too accommodating and too afraid of showing the fierceness of his masculine power. The huge number of men suffering from physical as well as emotional impotence is, I imagine, deeply bound up with just this.

So what of that journey towards masculinity today? How does modern man make himself feel potent and energised, without breaking every rule in the feminist book?

What of the football frenzy and all the tribal paraphernalia currently spilling on to the streets? "Unless he has an enemy," says Robert Bly about the modern male, "he isn't sure he's alive." Football is surely one of the few places where this generation of middle-class, passive-aggressive men can safely have an enemy to fight and a tribe to fight for. Men simply aren't afraid of letting rip and becoming fierce, aggressive and competitive when they're watching sport in the company of men. Banded together in front of their screens, the "soft man" stuff evaporates. It's little wonder that men talk about both sexual and sporting conquests in terms of "scoring".

This combined use of sport and the company of other men to generate a mood of power is nothing new. At the Olympic Games in ancient Greece, women were forbidden from attending the games, let alone taking part. I suspect that not a few men might feel a similar ambivalence about the rise in female football fans in recent years.

So as the latest wave of middle-class men jump on the fever-pitch bandwagon, maybe this tribal madness needs to be seen as an important way for men to feel emotionally alive. Listen to any "soft man" describing his team in a winning match, and you'll hear a different tune, a new mood of vitality. Something that was previously hidden suddenly surfaces, and it's as though he's alive now, really alive.

So if this football madness is a contained way of saying "bollocks to castration", then I'm all for that. Because I suspect we've got a long way to go before men find their way out of the "soft man" role into a way of relating that feels mutually empowering.

And I guess it's better, far better to let this fierceness out in football-watching company than to suffer the unacknowledged fury of the passive-aggressive. And it's better, far better to go to war with a football than with a gun.

Elizabeth.meakins@blueyonder.co.uk

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