Suicide, Soccer, and the Need to Belong


I finished up with Soccernomics by Simon Kuper and Stefan Szymanki about a week ago. Overall, I enjoyed it; it’s an easy read that can appeal to both seasoned soccer fans and novices. It features a good takedown of the English ideology on tactics, a thorough study of successes in the transfer market, and ranking the top soccer countries (Spoiler alert: Norway. I know. Read the book). Kuper and Szymanski also ventures into a favorite topic of this blog, sociology.

It has long been the American perspective that soccer fans in other countries are insane. They riot, through flaming objects, and commit suicide if their team loses. Well, apparently it’s only the first two. In fact, even losing teams can help prevent suicide:

In Europe today, there may be nothing that brings a society together like a World Cup with your team in it. For once, almost everyone in the country is watching the same TV programs and talking about them at work the next day, just as people used to do thirty years ago before cable TV arrived. Part of the point of watching a World Cup is that almost everyone else is watching, too. Isolated people– the types at most risk for suicide– are suddenly welcomed into the national conversation. They are given social cohesion. All this helps explain why big soccer tournaments seem to save so many female lives in Europe, even though relatively few women either commit suicide or (before 2000 at least) watch soccer. The “pulling together” during a big soccer tournament is so universal that it drags many women along in a way that club soccer does not. It may also be that during tournaments, some troubled women benefit from a brief vacation from male partners who are distracted by soccer.

Other than sports, only war and catastrophe can create this sort of national unity. Most strikingly, in the week after John F. Kennedy’s murder in 1963–a time of American sadness, but also a time of pulling together–not one suicide was reported in twenty-nine cities studied. Likewise, in the US in the days after the September 11th attacks, another phase of national “pulling together,” the number of calls to the 1-800-SUICIDE hotline halved to about three hundred a day “an all-timelow” writes Joiner. And in Britain in 1997, suicides declined after Princess Diana died. (233)

There’s the eternal statistics’ caveat here that correlation does not equal causation, but judging by the numbers in the book, it is indeed a strong correlation.

It does make sense; as was famously noted in a commercial for the last World Cup, the Ivory Coast was so “pulled together” that they actually suspended a civil war during the World Cup. But I’m interested in why this is. Personally, I have a lot of intellectual capital behind the idea that nationalism is a bad thing. It has its roots in anti-intellectualism. After all, blindly declaring that your country is the best or special discards a real analysis of its faults. Nationalism was a major cause of the World Wars, and helped lead our country into an empire.

And yet, here it seems that it saves lives. In terms of current events, one wonders what would have happened had that plane been blown up on Christmas day. As a liberal, the temptation is to say that the GOP would have blamed Obama for a lax approach to national security. However, the country was pretty divided in the first year of George W. Bush’s presidency, and yet the president achieved 90% approval ratings in the days following. Of course, the plane didn’t blow up, and the GOP got to blame Obama for being soft on terror anyway. Ain’t that a sociological bitch?

It still amazes me, though, that a game is able to literally prevent people from dying. It’s one of those things that makes me very frustrated with anyone who tries to deny the legitimacy of sociological problems. Sadly, the absence of a sport can have the opposite effect; Hunter S. Thompson grew increasingly depressed after the NFL season ended. He wrote a suicide note entitled “Football Season is Over” (Ed’s note: no one ever titles suicide notes these days. shame.)

No More Games. No More Bombs. No More Walking. No More Fun. No More Swimming. 67. That is 17 years past 50. 17 more than I needed or wanted. Boring… (224)

Thompson even found common ground on the game with his arch-nemesis, Richard Nixon. In him, we find a concrete measure of how powerful a sport can be; in its presence, it’s strong enough to bring together sworn enemies. In its absence, death.

Buy Soccernomics here. Good for the sports, economics, and sociology fans alike.


I didn’t even really make the connection, earlier, that what happened in the Ivory Coast with the World Cup was essentially a large scale version of what a sport did to Thompson.

One Response to “Suicide, Soccer, and the Need to Belong”

  1. Cheers for the great content, have bookmarked your site and will be back!!

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