Small pleasures: Footballers actually being happy

Sarah Winterburn

Why do we watch sport, anyway? What do we get out of it?

At its best, sport has the ability imbue us with a vicarious pleasure so intense and real that it doesn’t feel vicarious at all. We feel like we have been part of a team’s success, even if all we’ve done to support the cause is sit watching the telly before using one half of the club-branded adult toothbrush twin pack.

Our sides’ successful periods suck us in to such an extent that we begin to refer to them as ‘us’. “Gosh, we sure made some good foot-goal happen there. That other side were powerless in the face of our incredible soccerball skills,” you’ll say elatedly if unclearly as you lounge around and idly set about proving that four eclairs can indeed fit in a human mouth at once.

But when your side loses, your pronoun suddenly switches. “Those lazy bastards!”, you shout through a shower of cream and pastry. “They are the worst sporters I ever watched shuttle an orb about the grass.”

This is, apparently, known as BIRGing and CORFing, or ‘Basking in Reflected Glory’ and ‘Cutting off Reflected Failure’. Leaving aside that they should really be called BingIRG and CingORF, it’s an incredibly telling psychological principle. Not only are there obvious social advantages to marking yourself as a member of the strongest tribe, but it makes you feel good about yourself too: “Look what good judgement I have. I have either been born into or have personally selected the best group. I am a winner. Does a choux bun count as an eclair do you think?”

It’s for exactly this reason that public relations is a nightmare for clubs and players. There’s no rational reason why Manchester United or England fans should be irritated by Jesse Lingard doing a little dance: it does not effect his level of effort any more than your whistling happily at work would negatively affect your job performance, unless you happen to be an undertaker.

You really can’t win as a footballer. If you are going through a bad spell and nobody is talking to each other, pundits will criticise the lack of togetherness at the club; but if you let it be known that you’re enjoying yourself on the training pitch, you lack concentration.

I joke about the undertaker thing, but I think that’s genuinely how a lot of people see it when players at their club don’t match their emotions. Most fans will probably spend a few hours a week thinking about their team, and how they feel about it will be coloured by the most recent result. But we spend the majority of our time thinking about other things: the mortgage, the kids, the job, the wife, the mistress, the patisserie.

Because of this, we have a clear separation: we feel annoyed 100% of the time we’ve spent thinking about our team that week, while the rest of our lives is the usual mix of other emotions.

Therein lies the problem. We expect the players to feel the same frustrations we do, but they don’t have a ‘rest of the time’, particularly if they are considered tabloid fodder. There is now seemingly no time when footballers are permitted to feel any emotion that differs from those of the supporters: not in their free time, not in training, not in the dressing-room, and certainly not on the pitch.

Needless to say (though I’m saying it anyway), it is a wholly unreasonable expectation to place on anyone, especially young people. Yet the response even from those who have played the game is to chastise the players for their lack of tact, rather than to point out that expecting players to be annoyed for 168 straight hours after a defeat would be incredibly unproductive even if it were possible.

You and your whole family are made of meat and chemicals; footballers are too. Moments of genuine happiness are sadly too few and far between in the world: the evident joy lovely boy Lingard gets from having a little boogie around is about as happy as any of us can ever hope to be. So don’t we just embrace the small vicarious pleasure of seeing a young man happily grooving about, regardless of how his team is performing?

Otherwise, why do we watch sport, anyway? What do we get out of it?

Steven Chicken – follow him on the Twitter