An entire nation at fever pitch

England is almost hysterical, the success of its footballers impacting on everything from the economy to marriages. Raj Persaud puts an over-excited country on the couch
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With some trepidation, I ventured into an English pub in the heart of Paris to watch the England game against Croatia, - I am attending a psychiatric congress here in France.

With some trepidation, I ventured into an English pub in the heart of Paris to watch the England game against Croatia, - I am attending a psychiatric congress here in France.

It was already evident from the surge of England paraphernalia around our country that there is something peculiar about the passion of our island nation for these contests, particularly given how disappointing they have proven in the past.

Psychologists refer to a theory called "learned helplessness" which refers to the state animals get in when they find that, no matter what they do, punishment still strikes. This state is supposed to reliably precede clinical depression - so how come the English nation doesn't suffer from this state permanently, given the prior performance of the team? How to explain the relentless optimism in the face of bitter experience?

Knowing this psychological theory I was particularly interested (professionally) in the intriguing psychological moment when the Croatians scored first - were all those in the English pub in Paris going to be embarrassed about being English? Were we going to slink away as disaster beckoned and hide the England memorabilia, hoping to melt into the crowd?

In fact, the beckoning disaster seemed to unite us even more - we expressed despair and loathing of the England team set-up - everyone was blamed from management to wives.

Then came the euphoria of our goals, and we were all back on the rollercoaster ride of emotion that is supporting the national team at the moment. Indeed, our deepening attachment is predicted by psychological theory derived from studying abuse within relationships.

If humiliated by your partner, you tend to become more fiercely dependent because the good times seem so much better following the dark periods. You also rationalise your continued support with the belief that the few good times mean your steadfastness, in standing by the abuser, must be having an effect.

Psychologists have found that fans do believe they can influence a team's performance by providing strong support and so bolstering the morale and motivation of the professionals. By this mechanism they come to share in the victories when the team does well, hence the country's current delight.

Experiments confirm that supporters watching their team win experience a dramatic rise in testosterone levels, the hormone associated with competitiveness, assertiveness, well-being and also optimism. It would seem that we are a country currently running on pure testosterone right now..

Before I left for Paris, England was a nation transformed, it was almost as if the country had had a personality transplant. Not only was the bunting and flag-waving a most unusual expression of national ardour, but strangers talked to each other and smiling on the streets seemed to be contagious. We seem to be socialising outside of our homes more and mingling with strangers in pubs and restaurants, as there seems a new sense of optimism about each other and ourselves.

But psychologists have dared to ask the question: just why do fans give such energy to something over which they actually have relatively little control? One theory is a team offers fans a sense of identification, and the fans feel, united as they are in their support, as if they belong to a social group.

If this sense of identification is strong enough, a team may come to represent an extension of the self and so fans' attitudes and feelings about themselves may be heavily influenced by how "their team" is doing.

Going along with this is the notion that when watching professional sport, fans are often reminded about their own trials and pressures hence, temporarily at least, the team and the fan become one.

Because the professional sporting arena crystallises the many values as well as fantasies we have, when our team wins, we win and our identity is assured. Psychological theory would predict this would be a particularly strong effect for England over other nations because the English see football as "their" game. It is no accident the England supporters' anthem is "Football is coming home".

As a nation, we score higher than most on competitiveness and individualism, and with the decline in empire building and military aggression as a method of expressing national ego it is to the sports arena we must turn to see a full expression of our national ambition.

But the state of the psyche of the nation tells us something much more profound than just a temporarily increased happiness contingent on a few wins.

In individualist cultures like ours we strive for the attainment of our own goals in only a loosely knit social framework. But even among individualists there is hunger for a sense of connection, for a reason to talk to and affiliate with a neighbour - to feel a sense of community.

So somehow, when Wayne Rooney puts the ball past an outstretched Johnny foreigner, something much more profound is happening, because we experience something highly unusual in our individualist culture - a sense he is doing it not just for him, but for all of us - and at that supreme moment we are all one.

Dr Raj Persaud is Gresham professor for public understanding of psychiatry and consultant psychiatrist at Maudsley Hospital, south London

More shopping, more drinking and a £400m economic boost

The English have responded to mounting hopes of their team's victory in the Euro 2004 football championships by embarking on a spending frenzy.

Victories on Portugal's green pitches are being echoed in supermarkets and on the tarmac of its shopping centre car parks.

"The equation for retailers is quite simple," Kate Ison, of the British Retail Consortium, said. "The longer England stay in the competition the longer that retailers will benefit. It's not just food and drink and memorabilia - it is pretty much everything ... Suddenly people have a positive attitude towards everything, including spending their money."

The BRC believes a sporting event such as Euro 2004 can add an extra £400m for the retail sector, and one match alone can generate up to £80m.

According to a survey by FootFall, which measures visitor numbers at UK shopping centres, shopper numbers on Saturday were 10 per cent up on the same day a year ago.

"Euro 2004 is continuing to have a big impact on people's shopping habits," said John Gallagher, managing director at Footfall. "That feelgood factor seems to be continuing."

The feelgood factor is not confined to the high street. "We also know that the general rise in optimism and well-being as a sports team progresses leads to widespread changes in behaviour," one expert said. "Charitable giving goes up, as well as stock markets."

The London stock market had risen about 2 per cent since the start of the championship, with sports clothing retailers and brewers among the star performers. Shares in the England kit-maker, Umbro, which listed last month, shot ahead more than 5 per cent following Monday night's victory against Croatia.

The Centre for Economics and Business Research (CEBR) said the spending boost outweighed any drop in productivity as households rushed home to watch the games. But every silver lining has a cloud and the CEBR said the spending surge could force the Bank of England to raise interest rates.

Philip Thornton

Football, families and feeling good

Family life and personal relationships often flourish when a national football team is on a winning streak, according to the Relate counsellor Paula Hall.

Watching a game together can unify a family and create a feel-good factor in a marriage or partnership as individuals feel emotionally connected to one another.

Ms Hall, a sexual and relationships psychotherapist, said: "If the whole family is sitting around cheering at a 4-2 victory, they feel like a unit, sharing the same feelings and creating a sense of emotional intimacy."

But football fever can be divisive if a partner is uninterested in the game, causing friction and arguments. "It can trigger all sorts of practical frustrations. Some women may think, 'He didn't manage to come home early for my birthday, but he has managed to do so to watch a game of football on TV,' " she said.

The feel-good factor does not lead to a surge in sexual activity, Ms Hall said. "People celebrate in groups and major tournaments are about the whole country, so people are more likely to bring their mates round than have an early night with a partner."

Although sporting defeat can sometimes serve to bring people together, psychologists have identified post-defeat depression brought on after a losing game, which can lead to interpersonal friction or violence.

Recent research shows that defeats can prompt relationship break-ups, domestic violence and loss of sex drive.

James Dabbs, a psychologist at Georgia State University, found men's testosterone levels dropped by nearly 30 per cent after their team lost during the 1994 World Cup.

Women's refuges have reported rises in cases of domestic violence when England lose a big game.

Val Lunn, helpline co-ordinator at the Women's Aid Advice Centre in Nottingham, said: "When the national team loses, no matter what the sport, calls to the centre increase. Our refuges have been full since Sunday. Men who abuse women will use lots of things as an excuse for domestic violence."

Arifa Akbar

Victory can raise crime levels

Levels of crime and disorder during football competitions can be higher in England than abroad, criminal experts said yesterday, and winning is often the trigger.

While violence can flare at the international venue where the tournament is held, Paul Mathias, a former Metropolitan chief superintendent, said that in some cases, the level of disorder could be equally as high, if not higher, in Britain during a competition.

"If you have a scenario like we have at the moment with a tournament in Portugal which has a lot of strong support in Britain, there is a risk of increased disorder," said Mr Mathias, who was in charge of crime prevention at Euro '96.

"There tends to be a diffusion of individual responsibility in large groups, who are meeting outdoors due to the good weather, consuming alcohol, and celebrating by expressing themselves very vocally. Given these ingredients, it might be argued we may have a bigger problem here than at the football venue," he said.

He added crime levels tended to be worse if a home team won rather than lost. "There is some indication it is worse if you win. If you lose something, you tend to be rather subdued and people often just slink away when they are unhappy. They cause more disorder when they win. There is a very strong adrenalin rush and people can become boisterous and be perceived as a threat," he said.

Research examining sport's effects has, however, revealed that, in countries with strong sporting interests, team performances have positive effects on the psyche of large populations; winning lowers the murder and suicide rates.

Arifa Akbar

Win Euro 2004, vote Labour?

Ever since Harold Wilson blamed his unexpected 1970 general election defeat on England's World Cup loss to West Germany four days earlier, politicians have believed their fortunes are inextricably linked to football.

The received wisdom is that when the national side is doing well, the voters are more likely to favour the governing party. On 6 June 2001, England defeated Greece 2-0, boosting their chances in the next World Cup; 24 hours later, Tony Blair secured a second landslide election victory.

Scots point out that the year after their nation's demoralising performance in the 1978 World Cup finals, they failed to back devolution in the referendum offered by the Labour Government.

It is no coincidence, therefore, that politicians fall over themselves to declare their love for the beautiful game. Mr Blair constantly stresses his support for Newcastle United and famously swapped headers with Kevin Keegan for the cameras, while Michael Howard follows three teams - Liverpool, Swansea and his constituency side, Folkestone Invicta.

John Major was suddenly a high-profile Chelsea fan and shortly after becoming Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith acquired a Tottenham Hotspur season ticket.

The reality, though, is that there is no clear link between sporting success and casting a vote. Harold Wilson liked to bask in the glory of England's 1966 triumph - "England only wins the World Cup under Labour" - but his election victory that year actually took place before the football tournament. And England's 2-0 defeat of Georgia on 30 April 1997 did not prevent a crushing election defeat for the Conservative Government the next day.

Nigel Morris

PS: But what if England lose?

"You English, you're culture is only football and lager". So how will we cope if 50 per cent of our cultural identity goes down the Portuguese drain tomorrow night? Especially since expectations are phenomenally high after our recovery against Croatia and in the light of Rooneymania? I fear a cruel and destructive despair.

Yes, I realise we are only talking about a game of football. For those who are immune to the bewildering charms of this tribal rite, and for cricket-lovers everywhere, I would still argue it matters. You, too, will be dealing at work and play with those who are suffering symptoms of the national clinical depression.

The mood in the country is febrile but brittle. The people are disenchanted over Iraq, the euro, not to mention the French-penned constitution. They remain in search of a rallying identity. Football is the most popular unifying language because it offers the possibility of a meaningful victory over Europe. All European nations "speak" football, unlike the Americans.

So if instead the Europeans beat us, and worst of all, if a small package holiday country that was a basket-case dictatorship until 1968 gives us a bloody nose, the message is horribly clear. Our country is not so special after all. Great England is Little England, and our history is ending.

Of course, this rests on the ludicrous premise that there are no other languages in which to describe our national ability. It equally overlooks the huge number of Nobel prizes we've won in science compared to France and the universal triumph of our actual language now that tout le monde parle anglais.

Phillip Hodson

Phillip Hodson is a fellow of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy