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Is World Cup fever too hot to handle?

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Published on 10 July 2018

World Cup fever
World Cup fever

It is England’s biggest footballing event in a generation and national pride is soaring.

 The feel-good factor is helping boost the country’s economy by millions of pounds and TV viewing audience figures are expected to be record-breaking.

 But amid all the excitement, one University of Sunderland academic has told how the line between celebrating national identity and an unjustified sense of general superiority is a thin one.

 Dr Paul Davis is a Senior Lecturer in the Sociology of Sport at the University and has written several papers on fan behavior.

Dr Davis said: “Sport contests and tournaments can be seen as audible and visible celebrations of national identity and ethnic pride. In this respect, it seems a good thing for English people to come together, identify with the team, cheer their wins and regret any losses.

 “As sport theorists have observed, it is only a short step from the above healthy celebration to, for instance, xenophobia, racism, aggression, excess and violence.

 “Saturday, for instance, saw some very unsavoury behaviour among England fans after England’s win over Sweden. With a major success such as winning a World Cup, there is the danger that a healthy national self-confidence shades into an unjustified sense of general superiority – not just football superiority - over other nations.”

 “There is the broader danger that the sporting success distracts from political concerns such as poverty and structural inequality. Sportive nationalism, like many good things, courts hazards to be treated with care.

 “In the case of the England team at the World Cup, there are also some specific points to be recognised. It’s easy to think and speak as though everyone in the UK is massively excited.

 “However, even in a football country like England, there are plenty people who are not interested in football under any circumstances, and a fair proportion of those hate it. As with royal weddings or the death of Diana, there will be a robust constituency who will steadfastly avoid it.

 “Second, it is unreasonable to expect Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish people to fully share the excitement English people naturally feel - as it would be unreasonable to expect English people to fully share the excitement if Scotland or Wales or Northern Ireland were in the World Cup semis and England weren’t. That is not a justification of the hostility and failure-wish that some Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish undoubtedly will feel, but merely a recognition that they can’t make themselves English for a few weeks.

 “While commentators and pundits are not responsible for the fact that their legitimately pro-England sentiments are exported across the UK, they might want to be mindful and respectful of the fact that the Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish are part of their audience.”

 Dr Paul Davis is an expert in the sociological and theoretical aspects of sport, exercise, physical education and physical activity. He has a background in the Philosophy of Sport, and has interests in ethical issues in sport, particularly gender.