It is now three days after one of the most exciting FIFA world cups of recent times and already, to some of my male colleagues, it feels as if they have entered one of the black holes in the universe. In this year’s edition of the event, teams like Italy and the Netherlands which are usually fixtures in the competition were noticeable absences, and Germany, the defending champion, crashed out at the group stage. Underdogs like Nigeria (ahem), Iceland and Russia exceeded expectations, and Croatia, indefatigable in their pursuit of victory went all the way to the finals! To say the world cup was unpredictable and lively is, in my opinion, an understatement.
Still, as a superficial fan whose real passion is health – marginally interested in football, I watch only when one of my many teams are playing, and I can be bothered – I couldn’t help but view the whole thing through a population health (and more specifically a gender-health) lens. What impact I wondered, had the emotional rollercoaster we had been on collectively for 32 days, had on our health, and how does a truly global event like the world cup affect well-being in the widest sense of the word?
As every self-respecting health expert or even amateur knows, health is defined as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity.” For many connoisseurs of football, of course, “a state of complete … wellbeing” can only occur in football heaven, but I guess that is a discussion for another day. Anyway, I decided to satisfy my curiosity by doing a quick scan of some European dailies, and my findings suggested that violence (or more precisely, its absence), is an important contributing factor to good health and well-being during and immediately after the world cup.
Both verbal abuse and physical violence were reported during the competition among fans from countries such as Argentina, France and England, and a particularly insidious form of violence – domestic abuse – apparently increased during the tournament, at least in certain parts of England. Winning or losing a game did not seem to make a difference to the incidence of abuse, so for some women, I imagine the phrase “it’s coming home” must have had a particularly ominous sound. This, in spite of the fact that a campaign against domestic violence had been put out by the National Centre for Domestic Violence (NCDV), which drawing on findings from a 2013 study, issued warnings over the increase in domestic violence that might occur during the World Cup, as a result of England’s participation in the tournament.
On the other side of the channel too, women were targets of football-related gender-based abuse. As fans of the winning team, France, celebrated their team’s victory on the famous Champs-Elysées in Paris, some women participating in the revelries were allegedly sexually assaulted in what has since been tagged #Metoofoot.
That men and women experience the world in gender-specific ways is widely acknowledged, so it is not surprising to see that this extends even to ostensibly innocuous spaces like sporting arenas. Yet it is striking that both genders seem to experience the highs and lows that are associated with the successes and failures of their teams in such different ways. For many men the ebbs and flows of the tournament triggers an emotional reaction, but unfortunately, for the women who are at the receiving end of sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV), some of those male “emotions” can be important determinants of health and even in some cases, life.
While the campaign from the NCDV was graphic and very shocking indeed, it highlighted an area that is often overlooked when the issue of sport-linked violence is being discussed, and helped to fuel the conversation around domestic violence and the power imbalances that can cause it. Although I would much rather prefer a world that is free of SGBV, it was encouraging for me to see that attempts are being made to sensitise people to the issue, and to reduce the gender inequities and disparities which are its root causes. I wanted to draw attention to such laudable efforts and celebrate the little victories, because as they say, every little counts.