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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Life and Style
ebooksA superb mix of recipes serving up the freshest of local produce in a delicious range of styles
Life and Style
ebooksFrom the lifespan of a slug to the distance to the Sun: answers to 500 questions from readers
Arts and Entertainment
Robert De Niro, Martin Scorsese and DiCaprio, at an awards show in 2010
filmsDe Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
News
i100
News
In this photo illustration a school student eats a hamburger as part of his lunch which was brought from a fast food shop near his school, on October 5, 2005 in London, England. The British government has announced plans to remove junk food from school lunches. From September 2006, food that is high in fat, sugar or salt will be banned from meals and removed from vending machines in schools across England. The move comes in response to a campaign by celebrity TV chef Jamie Oliver to improve school meals.
science
Sport
England captain Wayne Rooney during training
FOOTBALLNew captain vows side will deliver against Norway for small crowd
Life and Style
Red or dead: An actor portrays Hungarian countess Elizabeth Báthory, rumoured to have bathed in blood to keep youthful
health
News
peopleJustin Bieber charged with assault and dangerous driving after crashing quad bike into a minivan
News
peopleHis band Survivor was due to resume touring this month
News
people'It can last and it's terrifying'
Life and Style
fashionModel of the moment shoots for first time with catwalk veteran
Sport
Radamel Falcao poses with his United shirt
FOOTBALLRadamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant in Colombia to Manchester United's star signing
Life and Style
fashionAngelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Front-Office Developer (C#, .NET, Java,Artificial Intelligence)

    £30000 - £45000 per annum + benefits+bonus+package: Harrington Starr: Front-Of...

    C++ Quant Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Quantitative Developer C++, Python, STL, R, PD...

    Java/Calypso Developer

    £700 per day: Harrington Starr: Java/Calypso Developer Java, Calypso, J2EE, J...

    SQL Developer

    £500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Developer SQL, C#, Stored Procedures, MDX...

    Day In a Page

    Chief inspector of GPs: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    Steve Field: ‘Most doctors don’t really know what bad practice can be like for patients’

    The man charged with inspecting doctors explains why he may not be welcome in every surgery
    Stolen youth: Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing

    Stolen youth

    Younger blood can reverse many of the effects of ageing
    Bob Willoughby: Hollywood's first behind the scenes photographer

    Bob Willoughby: The reel deal

    He was the photographer who brought documentary photojournalism to Hollywood, changing the way film stars would be portrayed for ever
    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Hollywood heavyweights produce world's most expensive corporate video - for Macau casino

    Scorsese in the director's chair with De Niro, DiCaprio and Pitt to star
    Angelina Jolie's wedding dress: made by Versace, designed by her children

    Made by Versace, designed by her children

    Angelina Jolie's wedding dressed revealed
    Anyone for pulled chicken?

    Pulling chicks

    Pulled pork has gone from being a US barbecue secret to a regular on supermarket shelves. Now KFC is trying to tempt us with a chicken version
    9 best steam generator irons

    9 best steam generator irons

    To get through your ironing as swiftly as possible, invest in one of these efficient gadgets
    England v Norway: Wayne Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    Rooney admits England must ‘put on a show’ to regain faith

    New captain vows side will deliver for small Wembley crowd
    ‘We knew he was something special:’ Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing

    ‘We knew he was something special’

    Radamel Falcao's journey from teenage debutant to Manchester United's star signing
    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York