The Psychology of the Beautiful Game

Lynda Hedley, Daniel Woodroffe and Zac Waldman

With the London 2012 Games fast approaching, we explore the psychological support that sport can offer to some.

Football (soccer) team loyalty in the UK is a well-known, much written about phenomenon. Fans express their loyalty in many personal and political ways. Within this small country, divisions exist which sometimes cause fans of rival teams to come to blows. The passion and labile emotion of team supporters is hot and fiery; the probability of fan-rage is high and measures have been taken over the years to mitigate these manifestations: alcohol has been banned in stadia and supporters at top division matches now have to be seated.

Some of the most notorious splits have their foundations in religion: Celtic (catholic) and Rangers (protestant), Manchester United (catholic) and Manchester City (protestant), and Everton (catholic) and Liverpool (protestant). In London, Arsenal and Tottenham are enemies while West Ham and Millwall are divided by trade, West Ham being loyal to ironworkrers and Millwall to dockers. Millwall also has a reputation for having racist fans and Tottenham is identified as a Jewish club. Having a strong identity is attractive and draws supporters.

Tom Goulding (2011) writes of two different types of football fan – the thinking, nerdy type and the passionate type. He describes the latter as an abuser of expletives and racist commentary, a hooligan prone to polarised mood swings dependant upon the outcome of a game. He writes, too, that some fans can be both types, but stresses that the second type has more fun.

This fun sometimes results in violence and UK fans have been some of the most troublesome, here in the UK as well as overseas. This has resulted in the control and banning from matches here and in other countries both of individuals and of groups of fans who brandish the Union Jack, shout racist remarks and, under the influence of alcohol and high passion, have inflicted many thousands of pounds’ worth of damage through vandalism. This kind of behaviour characterises the worst type of tribal loyalty. Some fans identify with their beloved national club or local team so strongly that when their team loses they suffer symptoms similar to post traumatic stress or depression. Equally, they experience euphoria at a win. The personal high or low is always at a cost and it could be that endorphins create addiction.

Sometimes though it’s hard to get it: the striker scores one single goal over 90 minutes of play and you celebrate? You attack the opponent? You sneer racist insults?

One could be forgiven for thinking that football culture is inherently tribal, violent, ugly and male and all football fans not dissimilar to Hobbesian men: nasty, brutish and short (Hobbes, 1651). But meet Malcolm.

Malcolm is tall, gentle and polite. He was my football fan client. We worked together for six months. He was 32 years of age and admitted to having difficulties in relationships with women and had experienced some unpredictable outbursts of temper that frightened them away. He felt, correctly, that his problem stemmed from the loud arguments between his parents he had witnessed since he was very young and the fact that his mother left the family with no explanation or goodbye when he was 10 years old. Moreover, his father was not attentive, soon found a new partner and the arguments started again. He felt neglected and withdrew to places where he felt safer and happier. Later he moved into his grandmother’s home where he still lives today.

His grandmother and one other feature in his life – his favourite UK football team, Arsenal – saved him. Since about the age of five, Malcolm had been taken by his father and his father’s friend to watch Arsenal play at many venues, a custom that had developed into his family culture. When Malcolm felt depressed Arsenal was his secure base, his object of constancy, something that would never let him down. He met the team, revered Arsene Wenger (manager) and was even an extra in the 1992 film Fever Pitch. I could say that Arsenal was a ‘transitional object’ for him as he grew up but, since his loyalty has found permanence in his life, there has been no transition. I found the Arsenal aspect of Malcolm’s story fascinating and the idea that a football team could be of such importance in another’s life was news to me, until I looked into it a little more deeply.

After the end of therapy, Malcolm agreed to an interview about what Arsenal meant to him. He described how he was introduced to Arsenal, how important it is for him to support a team close to where he lives (territorial loyalty), how he felt Arsenal became his family (his identity) and his distress when Arsenal loses a game (family loyalty). To identify himself he wears the club strip and is uncharacteristically liberal over national pride. I have included seven themes in this interview:

1 You should support your local team

LW: What do you think about supporting a local team Malcolm?
Malcolm: Well I live in north London. I’m very much a believer in you should
support where you are from.

LW: Your local team?
Malcolm: Yeah, I’m very much a believer in that. So obviously your local team; I live in London and my dad picked by far the best London team. So in that sense they pointed me in the right direction as such and, you know, it could have been a lot worse. So, as I say, I’ve turned out the way I am about my job and that and how I am about football because of them….My dad even named me Malcolm after Malcolm McDonald who played for Newcastle … and my Nan is from Newcastle. So Malcolm McDonald played for Newcastle and then Arsenal signed him and that was when I was born. So I was named after an Arsenal player. Just through pure coincidence I was born on the same day as Thierry Henry who is now Arsenal’s all time leading goal scorer. And I was… I was there when he broke the record. And he broke the record in Prague. He scored two goals. He was injured and he wasn’t even supposed to be going to Prague and they took him and someone got injured and they had to… they just threw him on and they said there’s no-one else. Go on you’ve got to play even though you’re like 70% fit. And he scored two goals, broke the record, so he became Arsenal’s leading all time goal scorer. And then, as you say, I was in Fever Pitch as well and I was also at Anfield in 1989 when Arsenal won the league with like the last kick-about. It’s the closest league ever.

LW: Beating Liverpool?
Malcolm: Yeah, and obviously… and as well, since then they’ve obviously won the League, unbeaten, which is the only club… I mean, I’ve seen all this and I just feel, you know… I’ve been involved in all this anyway. So right from the sort of word go …I was always going to be a big Arsenal fan anyway and then, as I say, just the way things have panned out has just made me feel like they’ve been… well no two ways about it, the only consistent thing in my life and I don’t see how that’s going to change.

LW: And are your friends Arsenal fans as well?
Malcolm: Yeah, most of them. I mean, I’ve got obviously friends who are not but… I couldn’t be like best mates… I don’t know. I don’t think I could be best mates or really, really close to someone if they supported another team… and properly supported, I don’t just mean, ‘Oh I support Man United’, although they don’t know where Manchester is. I think I’d find that quite difficult like to be actually really close to somebody because I just wouldn’t understand it.

2 It’s like being part of a tribe

LW: So it’s terribly important to you to have that in common?
Malcolm: And a lot of my best friends, you know, are Arsenal fans or… Like my mate from Australia, he supports West Ham, but that’s alright because when he arrived from Australia he lived in East London, so I’m like, ‘Well that makes sense’. He supports West Ham. You know my best friend’s an England supporter. He’s just mad about England. He doesn’t really care about clubs. So, again, that’s fine with me. That’s not a problem, but I don’t… I couldn’t sort of be close and just have that kind of bond that I’ve got with some of my friends … because you understand each other. You know you’re singing from the same song sheet. You get upset about the same things. Like when Arsenal lose, yeah, it’s deflating, but you know you’re around five or six other people who feel exactly the same as you.

LW: So if someone insults Arsenal, the team, what would you do?
Malcolm: I’d take that personally. It depends on the situation.

LW: You’d take it personally?
Malcolm: That is… that is one situation where I’d be ready just to snap.

3 Arsene Wenger, manager of Arsenal, is to Malcolm a huge hero

Malcolm: I take it for Arsenal personally and Wenger especially and I do … feel like he’s like a family member and I would defend him.

LW: Have you met him?
Malcolm: I met him briefly, just like bumped into him at an airport a few years ago when we were coming back from Kiev.

LW: And what did you do?
Malcolm: I just went up, just shook his… you see, I’m not… I don’t get, like,
carried away and all that, because I think he must get that all the time. I just shook his hand and sort of thanked him. It’s like when I met Michael Thomas as well, the bloke who scored the winning goal at Anfield. I met him, I don’t know, five years ago and, again, I just went up to him and said, ‘Oh, I don’t want to like make a big deal out of it but like thanks for what you did, blah, blah, blah’, and I just shook him by the hand.

LW: So he’s like the leader of the tribe, the top of your family?
Malcolm: And he is… yeah, and the thing is with Wenger, just to see what
Wenger’s done is absolutely phenomenal.

LW: Which is what?
Malcolm: Well, he’s… he’s kept Arsenal going. He kept Arsenal competitive. In fact, I mean, when he first joined he won the double straight away.

4 I support my team

Malcolm: I support the team as in I help finance the team, I pay my money
for my season ticket, I buy my shirts. Every time there’s a new shirt I buy it.

LW: So have you got a wardrobe full of shirts?
Malcolm: I’ve got loads of shirts, yeah [laughs].

LW: You don’t throw them out?
Malcolm: I’ve got … I’ve lost count of how many I’ve got.

5 He called it his family

LW: Right. You said during our therapy that you considered Arsenal to be a bit like your family.
Malcolm: Family, yeah, definitely and, yeah, again, people go, ‘How can you say that? What about your family, you know, your family?’ Okay, Arsenal is… when I say Arsenal, I include my dad in that and I suppose… I mean, you see again, both my parents probably did a lot wrong when I was growing up, you know, but my dad did his best, okay. And I know he was going through a bad time because he was always working, and … he still sometimes makes a complete arse of things, like with me and my sister now … but obviously with my mum she never did her best. She does now, but she never did. And so, to me … I look after my dad more than vice-versa, and when it comes to family I put my dad in that bracket …. and all my friends that go with me are like my family. I’ve never really had that family background as in, you know, 2.4 children and mum and dad and all that kind of… like birthdays and Christmas and all that sort of stuff doesn’t mean anything to me. So if it’s my sister’s birthday, so what? It’s just another day. Same with me: I hate my birthdays and stuff like that; it doesn’t bother me. What matters to me is football.

LW: It’s not just football though, is it, because you…. you weren’t so enamoured with the World Cup?
Malcolm: Oh yeah, international football doesn’t interest me.

LW: You don’t care so much about England?
Malcolm: Yeah, exactly, it’s Arsenal … the key thing. And, as I say, the reason is because I know Arsenal will be there till the day I die, they’re never going to go anywhere, and the joy that they give me is like when it goes well it’s just unbelievable. Yeah, they can… they hurt me… the thing is, Arsenal obviously hurt me, disappoint me, upset me, all these things, but never on purpose though. Arsenal are never spiteful, Arsenal are never selfish.

6 He takes it personally when Arsenal loses a game

LW: Do you get depressed when they lose?
Malcolm: Yeah, oh yeah. When they lost the other week I just went straight home…I can’t even remember what I did…I just went home. It was devastating really. It’s just like nothing, you’re like… I just didn’t feel like doing anything. I was supposed to go somewhere and meet someone. I think I was supposed to meet my friend who was over from Australia, that was it. I hadn’t seen him for ages. I saw him on the Friday … I was going to meet him again on the Saturday, but Arsenal lost, so I just… I just went straight home after the game and I can’t even remember what I did.

LW: So it was like you’d lost something?
Malcolm: Yeah, it… it’s a horrible feeling because it just deflates you.

LW: You felt deflated?
Malcolm: I felt totally deflated, yeah.

7 His loyalty transcends ideas about national prejudices

LW: What do you think about Thierry Henry coming from France and playing for Arsenal?
Malcolm: Yeah, that doesn’t bother me.

LW: Doesn’t bother you?
Malcolm: No, no, I love Thierry Henry.

LW: Sure, you don’t mind the fact that he’s French?
Malcolm: No, no. I mean, no, as soon as you pull on an Arsenal shirt it doesn’t matter where you come from. I don’t dislike many…I don’t overly dislike any kind of races or other nations as such … like a lot of English people never used to like the Argentineans.

LW: Would you say you welcome them?
Malcolm: Oh yeah. I’d welcome anyone.

LW: If they supported the team?
Malcolm: Yeah. Oh yeah, definitely, and that’s… I’ve had this argument
before; people say: ‘Oh, you’ve got no English players’. Well what do you mean we’ve got no English players? For a start we’re from London; there’s no English people in London any more… You see, this is used as another thing. This is another Wenger comment: reporters asked ‘Wenger, why have you got no English players?’ So Wenger said to them: ‘What’s the campaign at the moment? What’s the big campaign all about? Let’s kick racism out of football. So what do you want me to do, do you want me to look at someone’s passport and be racist or not? Make up your mind.’ And the journalist was just like… you know, it’s a perfect answer.


It is clear from what Malcolm says that allying himself with Arsenal has given him what he might have learned had his family remained contentedly intact: his own personal, boundaried territory; a sense of belonging; a safe and supportive head of the family; family structure and culture; mutual support from family members and united, sharing of sympathies and emotions.

As a woman who only pays a real interest in football once every four years (with the World Cup), my understanding of the importance and wider implications for others of ‘the beautiful game’ was limited. Malcolm taught me that allegiance to a team was more than just something for men to talk about in the pub; its emotional significance is almost tangible. For Malcolm and other supporters it offers an identity and a constant object in place of deprivation. When life was impossible, Malcolm always felt he could rely on Arsenal. I cannot criticise him for this. He is right; he was failed by his people but the club was always there for him and it was his truth. His truth was tested time and time again and he was not let down. This tribal loyalty enhances fans’ lives in a way unknown to me. Speaking socialistically, football can be seen as a kind of warring sport, gladiatorial, played out in an arena and watched by thousands. Overall it is a  healthier substitute for war games.

Although Malcolm came to see me for only six months, he left with a sense of hope, had made decisions about his life while with me and seemed to have a greater understanding of his problems than when he arrived. Using his commitment to Arsenal to help him consider what he wanted from relationships, what was missing in them and how to grieve his losses, was a great resource for use in our days in the therapy room.

[This text has been written with the client’s full consent and has been read and edited by him].


Lynda Hedley is a psychotherapist working in N W London and is a member of the Contemporary Psychotherapy editorial board.
Daniel Woodroffe is a sociology student at Nottingham Trent University and a West Ham supporter.
Zac Waldman is currently working in a London restaurant and is an avid Arsenal supporter.


Hobbes, T (1651) Leviathan in The English Works vol. III
Molesworth, Sir William (Ed) (1839-45) London: John Bohn

Football War. From Wikipedia.
BBC News, 12 August 2000, Football violence on the rise.
Dr Stephen Dilks, October 2010, English Tribalism: Local allegiances in Football.
Tom Goulding, April 2011, Watching and Thinking.
About Thomas Hobbes:
List of books and texts about sport, sport psychology and sociology


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