The Ugly Side of Watching Football

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Football is incontrovertibly the number one sport with the highest number of fans globally. It is not only considered the most popular sport all over the world, but also one of the top three highest paying sports across the globe.

Additionally, studies have established that watching football has many health benefits. For instance, human biology and psychology researchers from the University of Leeds, in their 2019 study, found that watching football increases heart rate, otherwise known as “positive stress”. They described it as a cardiovascular workout akin to a 90-minute brisk walk.

Other studies, as well as many medical experts, have also said watching sports, especially football, gives viewers a significant mental workout, and helps to keep one’s brain healthy and sharp. Joseph Connolly, a popular American writer, added that watching football matches is one of the key things that can help viewer to build self-confidence, stressing that watching the round leather game will make the viewer get smarter. No wonder the Federation of International Football Association (FIFA) estimates that football has about 3.5 billion followers across the globe!

 

The flip side

While there are many health benefits derived from watching live football matches, doing so is not without its ugly side. Studies and medical experts have established that there are many negative health effects that people are disposed to while watching live football.

For instance, in a study published in August 2022, Juan Enrique Puche, a doctor of medicine and biology at the University Foundation San Pablo, Madrid, Spain, said sporting events, such as football matches, can cause viewers to experience cardiovascular issues that may cause damage to the heart muscle.

Also, while trying to comprehensively shed light on whether viewing football games is associated with a higher risk of cardiovascular disease, a group of Chinese researchers, in 2019, found that viewing football matches was associated with a higher risk of fatal overall cardiovascular disease. They however noted that victory of the viewer’s team could have a lower risk of fatal cardiovascular disease.

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Similarly, in 2020, researchers at the University of Oxford said football fans are putting themselves at risk of a heart attack due to the intense levels of physical stress caused by watching their team. The study, conducted by seven researchers from the university, verified a scientific link between fans’ intense group bonding with their team and levels of cortisol (stress hormone) while they watched football.

Titled “Devoted fans release more cortisol when watching live soccer matches,” and published in the journal, Stress and Health, the study collected the saliva of 40 football fans before, during, and after three World Cup matches, including Brazil’s historic semi-final loss (1–7) to Germany. The research found that levels of the hormone cortisol shot up during the games.

“Cortisol rocketed during live games for the fans who were highly fused to the team,” said the lead researcher at the Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion, University of Oxford, Dr Martha Newson.

“It was particularly high during games where their team lost. Interestingly, there were no differences in cortisol concentrations between men and women. Despite preconceptions that men tend to be more bonded to their football teams, women were in fact found to be slightly more bonded to their national team than the men”, Newson said.

 

Practical proofs

The validity of such studies as above was proven during the 2023 African Cup of Nations, held in Cote d’Ivoire, from 13 January to 11 February, 2024. For instance, no fewer than five Nigerians were confirmed dead at different locations, after watching the semi-final match between the Super Eagles of Nigeria and the Bafana Bafana of South Africa.

A former member of the House of Representatives, who represented the Ika Federal Constituency of Delta State, Dr Cairo Ojougboh, died while watching the match. Ojougboh reportedly died shortly after a penalty kick was awarded against Nigeria. He was said to have shouted and slumped due to a massive heart attack when South Africa scored.

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Also, a member of the National Youth Service Corps, serving in Adamawa State, reportedly died during the penalty shootouts of the same match. The NYSC Coordinator in Adamawa State, Jingi Dennis, said the corps member was confirmed dead at the General Hospital in Numan. Similarly, the Deputy Bursar of Kwara State University, Malete, Alhaji Ayuba Abdullahi, also died while watching the match.

Following the tragic incidents, the Super Eagles team sympathized with the families of the deceased through a post on their official X handle on 9 February. The post read: “During the course of our semi-final match, we tragically lost a few supporters. In a cruel twist of fate, their fervent passion for the beautiful game unwittingly led them to their final moments.

“As the Nigeria vs South Africa match unfolded, they were lost in the thrill of the game, unaware of the looming danger. May their souls find eternal peace. They will forever be remembered for their love for football and the togetherness it brings. Rest in peace.”

 

Further findings

In 2021, five researchers in Zagreb, Croatia, carried out a study on the incidence of cardiovascular events when watching intense football matches. The study was titled, “Incidence of cardiovascular events when watching intense football matches – sex differences”.

Among other things, the study aimed to determine whether there was an increase in the number of emergency admissions for cardiovascular disease in the emergency room and clinic for cardiovascular diseases of the Sestre Milosrdnice University Hospital Centre, during and after the matches that the Croatian national team played in the FIFA World Cup 2018.

The hospital’s database was examined for the dates when Croatia played its matches, plus two more days after each match. An unexposed period that included the same dates in 2017 and 2019 was formed. It was found that watching Croatian national team’s matches and cheering represented an additional risk for a cardiovascular disease incident, especially in women.

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The researchers also found that arrhythmias (a problem with the rate or rhythm of your heartbeat) and angina pectoris (result of myocardial ischemia caused by an imbalance between myocardial blood supply and oxygen demand) were the cardiovascular diseases that occurred more frequently in the exposed period.

A similar study was carried out in 2013 to evaluate the acute effects of environmental stress induced by the World Cup on increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases in Brazil. The study took place from May to August, in 1998, 2002, 2006 and 2010, to examine four consecutive Brazil World Cup matches. It was found that the incidence of myocardial infarction increased during the period of the tournaments.

 

Experts’ views

While reacting to the deaths of Nigerians during the Nations Cup, a Professor of Medicine and Consultant Cardiologist at the University of Ilorin Teaching Hospital, Ilorin, Kwara State, Philip Kolo, told The Punch that watching live matches is very dangerous for those who have heart disease. On his part, a former Chairman of the Association of Private Medical Practitioners of Nigeria, Dr Tunji Akintade, said one of the reasons for sudden deaths during matches is excitement.

With the hazards attached to watching football matches, irrespective of the health benefits of watching the round leather games, it is important for viewers to be conscious of their health status before settling down to watch a football match. The Oxford study recommended that football viewers can use humour and hugging as coping mechanisms.

To Prof. Kolo, however, “The ideal thing is that, if you are interested in sports, especially when your favourite team is playing, it is better to watch the recorded match, instead of watching the live match.”

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