I have sons who love football and so for years I have stood in mud and cold by the side of small pitches watching kids kick a ball.  Then they grow up and want to keep on kicking a ball.  None of this do I have any issue with.  Health, fitness, being part of a team, social, fun, a game, a hobby for most, competitive, strategic. I coached some men during lockdown who mourned the camaraderie of the terraces, a weekly meeting with friends with a shared passion and I get that, I do.  All good.

What bothers me is this:

  • The way dads (and it is 99% of the time dads) scream and shout aggressively at young children, their own and other people’s from the side lines
  • How, years ago, when England played Germany, the chants in the English pub was all about who won the war, (even from the usually sane men I was with), no I don’t think it’s banter or funny.
  • The racism, homophobia
  • Corruption…how did Qatar win the bid?
  • The ridiculous amount of money top players earn when nurses, doctors, barristers are striking for more pay
  • The sense of privilege it gives some top players who are accused of rape or abuse
  • The tribalism of the terraces and fans.

I could go on, but watching the world cup with sons, I feel deeply uncomfortable at the contorted faces of men (I would say no more than 20% of the crowds are women).  They are the faces of war, of aggression, of attack, of furry.  The pack uniting against an enemy.  Mindless deindividuation, when the individual gives up their moral agency and becomes a part of an anonymous crowd.

Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment, for all it’s ethical problems, illustrated what happens when people can hide behind a uniform, a role, a crowd.  The team colours, the face paints, the banners, the hats and wigs all give a sense of group and team as well as masking individual responsibility and agency.  Zimbardo’s experiment was shut down in a matter of days after normal men, randomly chosen, but given uniforms, bullied other normal men, also in uniforms, until some of them had a break down.

I know you can argue that it is just for the game, they took it off, the aren’t like that really, but I guess the thing that scares me as a woman, is the aggression I see in those faces, the snarling, fist raising, unified battle cry.  It seems to me that it is this which led to the death of Sarah Everard and all the women who are killed by their partners (2 a week…it doesn’t even make the papers).  It is what led to the death of Abraham Badru who stopped a gang rape of a young girl and was later killed for testifying against the rapists, the many young lives lost to knife crime. It makes me feel sick. It normalises aggression, makes it acceptable, even glorifies it as a sign of team loyalty.

Toxic masculinity. I don’t believe toxic masculinity is a character trait which some men have an other’s don’t.  I think it is an enactment of behaviours, which are situational, which is an expression of power over, whether conscious or unconscious.

I don’t know what to do about it.  I don’t know if it’s just me, but when I see those screaming, fist shaking, wide mouthed roars, I feel scared.

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