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World Cup Psychology

How the beautiful game and the science of the mind will collide in Brazil.

Football (aka soccer) has long been an interest of mine. It is the only other thing I enjoy as much as psychology. Fittingly, I will offer a few psychological observations on the upcoming world cup. After all, much of the world will come to a standstill for 30 days, so it does make sense to decode some of the behavioral highlights we can expect, on and off the pitch, and both sides of the screen.

The psychology of individual players

We all have our favorites, and the best of the best will be there (the only exception is Zlatan, which those with no taste in football have celebrated). The psychology of individual career success, job performance, and sports is key to inform our expectations:

The Pressure of High Stakes: The history of the world cup is the history of fallen heroes. Most of the greatest names in football history have missed penalties or disappointed in the world cup, where the stakes could not be higher. Messi was already the best player in the world going into the last world cup and he managed to not score a single goal then. Now he faces the last chance to make an impact with Argentina, while Cristiano will need to help Portugal out of one of the groups of deaths (though surely he only cares about his personal record).

Unlikely Heroes: The key reason for the underperformance of top athletes in top competitions is that excessive pressure is over-adrenalizing. For the same reason, the world cup always features unexpected stars: good players who were not expected to excel and benefited from not having much pressure – in most cases, if a player can maintain their usual levels of performance, he will have a good world cup. Then there are the players who consistently over-perform in world cups: Miroslav Klose (yes he is still playing and will go to Brazil) takes the crown, and could even break Ronaldo’s all-time goal-scoring record.

Money Can’t Buy it All: Although football has become a game of billionaires, its popularity remains intact. Unlike with club tournaments, national teams cannot buy success with cash, and for an entire month some of the best-paid athletes in the world will work for free. Of course, their performance will have financial consequences (e.g., sponsorship or new transfer deals). Yet, the fact that they will be as motivated to win as when they play for a salary, demonstrates that they are not only driven by money – fame, love, and recognition are as important, and this is the perfect stage to achieve that.

The psychology of teams

Not just in sports, but in any domain of performance, any significant accomplishment is the result of coordinated team efforts rather than individual performance. In line, the world cup provides a great opportunity to understand the psychology of high-performing teams.

The German Synergy: One of the reasons why Germany is always so dangerous in world cups, is that they truly understand the meaning of team spirit. At times, the individual players may seem quite average but their contribution to the team is so important that they end up performing better than the stars. Spain has copied the formula – with even better individual talents – and it paid off. Before that, Italy did. Will any other team be capable of functioning like a true team? And who will be the teams who despite having great individual players are unable to perform as a team?

Leadership: The main goal of a leader is inspire teams to perform well (the reverse of what Maradonna did as coach in 2010). This requires not just motivation, but the ability to suppress the selfish agendas of individual players and the egos of the alpha males, so that they focus their efforts on the collective task – remember France during the last world cup? Because most players will have spent very little time together before the tournament, this wont be easy. It is therefore essential that teams have a leader inside the pitch, as opposed to just relying on their manager. A good way to guess whether a team will perform well or not is to examine how effective and influential their captains are as leaders – all English eyes will be on Gerrard rather than Rooney; and the Belgians can expect more from Vincent Kompany than Eden Hazard.

Team Roles and Balance: In a high-performing team, each individual functions like the vital organ of a body – they may not seem that useful in isolation but if you remove them the entire system collapses, unless you can find a good replacement for that function. Which teams will be well-balanced? As said, Germany and Spain have found the recipe, though they are lacking good strikers. Brazil is surprisingly defensive this time, and Argentina are notoriously unbalanced even by its own standards – the best team would feature the Brazilian defenders playing with the Argentine strikers, wearing a Spanish jersey, and running like the Germans, with the pragmatism of the Italians.

The psychology of the fans

As my friend Adrian Furnham noted, psychologists are the only people who go to a strip joint and look at the audience. For the same reason, no matter how interested you are in football, if you are into psychology you will also enjoy analyzing spectators’ and fans’ reactions: their high’s and low’s; their rational and irrational arguments; their passion and post-tournament depression.

The unrivalled popularity of football can be explained in terms of its ability to fulfil three fundamental psychological needs:

The Need for Status: It does not matter if you support your own country or have adopted a team to follow. Either way, your favourite team will make you feel like a winner if things go well, and somewhat of a loser if they don’t. There are no neutral spectators during world cups. The stakes are high even for the fans and there is as much joy in watching your team win as in watching others lose. At least all this passion and anger will be released in a socially accepted manner – even displays of nationalism are accepted, temporarily, during major sporting events. It is all very cathartic – as Nietzsche said, in peaceful times the violent man makes war to himself.

The Need for Affiliation: Beating other teams and making fun of their rivals is just half of the story – the other half is to bond with others who support our teams. Indeed, most people will share their joys and sorrows with their fellow supporters and, as any beer or Coca Cola commercial illustrates, football is also about bonding with others. Ultimately, football unleashes our primeval tribal tendencies – it reminds us of the psychological importance of having an in-group, a strong sense of identity, and knowing not only who we are, but also who we are not.

The Need for Meaning: Football transcends football – it is a way of life and a metaphor for everything in life. Perhaps more importantly, it has the capacity to engage people much more than work, and some times even relationships. But the seemingly irrational passion for this sport rests on a profound psychological fact: football provides a strong sense of meaning to most people – it is, in many ways, the unintellectual alternative to metaphysics. What football haters don’t understand is that any discussion about football is much more than a discussion about football. Most notably, discussions about football are discussions about values and our preferred way of life; they are therefore highly moral, even when they seem trivial and anti-intellectual (as with discussions about Cristiano Ronaldo’s selfishness, John Terry’s racism, or Wayne Rooney’s temper).

In short, the world cup will illustrate key psychological principles and theories. Sadly, psychological expertise will probably not help you predict the results, but at least it will help you understand them.

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