For many football fans, the World Cup is, put simply, the best thing there is, every four years.
Relentless drama, goals, misses, triumphs, and miseries, that even captivate football agnostics. It simultaneously ruins and revitalises social lives as we alienate loved ones and reconnect with friends not spoken to in years; an onslaught of beer gardens, sun-glared projection screens, and hastily-minimised chrome windows on work desktops.
First there’s the day after the final group stage match; the first World Cup day without any football, an oxymoron so profound that it’s not only sad on a surface level, but symbolically dread-inspiring, signposting the looming descent into normality.
The knockout rounds pass in a blur, culminating in the fleeting final, the most anticipated milestone in the four-year football calendar that seemingly ends the moment the final whistle is blown. No more World Cup, and a month until the football season begins again in earnest.
What comes next is a fusion of boredom, wistful melancholy, and an abstract sense of absence, as if something meaningful in your life has irrevocably vanished.
The World Cup comedown is very real.
The Mental Health Foundation are an organisation which encourages discussion around football’s relationship with mental health and they diagnose various mental health signifiers, including two that are arguably amplified during the World Cup.
One is “Catharsis,” where “pent up internalised feelings and intense emotion such as frustration, annoyance or sadness, can be vented in a socially acceptable way.”
The prolonged, concentrated duration of the World Cup can assumedly act as an even more substantial proxy for this catharsis, an opportunity to purge weeks, months, years of built-up frustration.
“Whole office blocks will be stained by the return of “what you up to this weekend?” - small talk which isn’t answered with: “watching Egypt against Saudi Arabia”. Unthinkably bleak”
Mark Rowland, Communications Director at the Mental Health Foundation, affirms:
“The feelings we get during a World Cup are real. The joy can be intense as can be the crushing disappointment.
“Too many of us don’t feel much emotion at all in our lives. That is a worrying sign so we’d encourage people not to dismiss intense feelings but rather embrace them.
“Like all human reactions, it is possible that these feelings lead to destructive behaviour (drinking too much) and that is something to watch for, but feeling emotions is good for us; an important antidote to indifference.”
The imminent boredom of the everyday, especially off the back of England’s blockbuster World Cup tournament, is something I’ve seen people mention both on social media and heard in real life: “After all this, how are we expected to just go back to work and living our lives?”
For all the jokes about an England World Cup win catalysing a benevolent workless utopia where the streets are paved with your sarnie of choice and the rivers overspilleth with lager, this time next month you’ll be in the office kitchen watching the Nespresso machine do its thing, expertly navigating the ebbs and flows of conversations about colleague #1’s extortionate daycare costs, and how colleague #2’s mate’s stag do peaked too early and they just ended up at Reflex.
Whole office blocks will be stained by the return of “what you up to this weekend?” - small talk which isn’t answered: “watching Egypt against Saudi Arabia”. Unthinkably bleak: a full-blown existential crisis condensed to a few trips to the pub and an incognito tab on your desktop.
Rachel Buchan, a psychotherapist based in London, draws parallels between the experience of the World Cup and that of a holiday or festival.
“If someone is a fan and they have been following it from the beginning, the ending of that intense period can be met with a sense of ‘What will I do now?,’ ‘What will bring me that same feeling?’ and ‘What will fill up that space?’
“It’s the sense of a gap left where something fun, exciting, and dramatic has been. There will be a sense of an ending like the ‘festival comedown’ and this is okay.”
A second signifier the Mental Health Foundation mention is ‘Identity’, characterised as, “a sense of belonging, identification and inclusion within a larger group.” Mark expands on this, asserting that the World Cup provides an opportunity, “to build shared narratives and invest emotionally in the outcome of things that are bigger than ourselves. These are mostly safe ways for us to express our identity, passion and give meaning to our lives.”
The Foundation’s explanation continues: “However, the stronger the identification with the team, the stronger the emotional reaction to wins and losses and the more extreme the highs and lows.”
When the sense of national identity is as strong as it is during the World Cup, and the compressed intensity of the experience raises the stakes so high, the sense of grief after an extreme low can be monumentally affecting.
“Once we decide to care for anything in our lives, we become vulnerable to being hurt by loss. It’s the same for football,” Mark clarifies.
“For some of us, we can become attached to the World Cup and the success of our nation’s team. Because there is little control we can exert on the outcome, it is almost inevitable that disappointment will follow.
“But it’s reasonable if you care about something to experience withdrawal or a sense of grief when it’s all over. Allow yourself a little cry if you want to.”
Of course, this is just as pertinent a point for football outside the World Cup bubble. As a Scot, my grief cry customarily occurs the year before a World Cup, as we inevitably lose away to Lithuania days after gloriously beating Italy at home, impeding our qualification and consigning us to another tournament of beautifully bitter and gorgeously snide commentary from the sidelines. Feelings of loss, whether over your team’s knock-out or the tournament’s ending, are natural.
Optimistically, the Mental Health Foundation also note that one study found a decrease in emergency psychiatric admissions during and after the 2014 World Cup, seemingly due to the positive social aspects of the experience. This is a critical takeaway; socially engaging with friends who might be struggling is demonstrably beneficial for some people. Alongside the inherent entertainment and dramatic value of tournament football is the shared ecstasy and agony in the communal experience, which contributes just as much to our emotional investment and reward. Arguably much of the grief originates in the loss of the regularity of these friendship experiences, but they can be replicated outside World Cup month.
Moreover, there’s nothing wrong with pre-emptively organising a replacement hobby, regular social activity, or even advanced plans for the approaching football season, to satiate the World Cup’s absence and maintain that positive headspace it provided.
As Mark says: “make a plan for after the World Cup to find different ways of connecting with people in your life and working towards a meaningful goal that is bigger than you.”
The World Cup may be over, but that doesn’t mean you must resign yourself to a vacancy of excitement and meaning.
Or, if you’re already craving a truly thrilling emotional rollercoaster, join me in supporting Scotland’s Euro 2020 qualification campaign. Strap yourselves in.