Trigger Warning: Domestic violence and toxic masculinity
As the Men’s Football World Cup final approaches, I urge you to cast your mind back to two years ago in the Men’s Football Euro Cup final: to one of the biggest names in football — Cristiano Ronaldo — who took a knock early on in the game that his team went on to win, and come off in tears.
If you don’t follow international football, or your memory is as terrible as mine, you could always go back to the Champions League Final earlier this year when Mo Salah took his leave wet eyed early on because of a shoulder injury; or when the concussed goalkeeper Loris Karius apologised to fans for his mistakes through a face completely screwed up with emotion. Watching, as I did, at least one of those finals in a busy local pub, I was surrounded by a bunch of people with their emotions running high. I say people, I mean mostly men. And I say emotions, I mean mostly anger and disdain.
Karius took a lot of stick for his mistakes, and probably about as much for his emotional outburst. Diehard Liverpool fans sat around me in the pub and looked at Salah and turned their noses up at the fact that his tear ducts had shown up to the Kiev stadium. Several Twitter accounts dedicated to posting Ronaldo’s crying face still exist (although thankfully none of them seem to be active) because god forbid he show a perfectly legitimate emotion.
If your memory is even shorter than this, maybe just go back to Wednesday, when Gareth Southgate picked his distraught England players off the floor to applaud the fans for their support.
From the comments that come out around players showing emotion like this come the same kinds of gendered language we see used to discourage boys everywhere from crying, lest they be seen as ‘girly’. Salah’s “Egyptian King” moniker becomes “Egyptian Bitch”, Ronaldo is said to be “not a real man”. Former player-turned-pundit, Paul Scholes, comments on both Salah and Karius in the Daily Mail, saying “Players are more sensitive now” and “what’s crying going to do?” The Three Lions had their (frankly understandable) outpouring of emotion at losing in 120 minutes in the first semi-final that the men’s team had gotten to in 28 years, but it still lead to them being called both babies and pussies.
“Little boys want to be footballers, little girls want to marry footballers (or so the stereotypes go).”
Footballers are held up as these models for what it is to be a man — they’re athletic, they’re skilled and they have a sh*tload of money. Little boys want to be footballers, little girls want to marry footballers (or so the stereotypes go). But men don’t show emotion in this way, because they’re supposed to be mysterious and brooding. When the going gets tough, maybe they swear at someone, but they 100% do not reach for a tissue.
This disdain and discomfort at male emotions and vulnerability is known to be dangerous. We’ve talked before about suicide rates in men. About men not seeking mental health treatment. In the world of men’s football, it seems to lead to hooliganism. Following England’s win over Sweden, an IKEA in London saw some fans arrive to jump on and ruin beds, and a London Ambulance was trashed — and this happened when we won. Some of you may be quick to point out that women were involved in some of these incidents as well, certainly there’s a now infamous photograph of a woman standing on the ambulance, but the overarching picture is still very much one of toxic masculinity. The “Ladette” culture that surrounds female football fans is one where women try to be “one of the lads” and engage in the same harmful behaviours as their men counterparts, because everyone is trying to avoid being “girly”.
Nowhere is this toxic masculinity more evident than in the domestic abuse statistics. You’ve probably seen the tweet with these stats going around during this tournament, but there’s been a poster up in my local library for as long as I can remember saying the same as well. Reports of domestic violence were found to have increased on days England played during previous men’s World Cup tournaments, and to go up significantly more when England lost. This is all correlational, football is not the cause of domestic violence, and abusers love having an external factor they can point to as the ‘reason’ for their behaviour; but the culture of toxic masculinity is one of the things that they are latching onto to justify themselves and it is one of the things that we can work on stopping.
“When you give fans a choice between anger or violence and being ‘girly’, a high amount of them are going to take that toxic route.”
That guy who called Mohamed Salah “The Egyptian Bitch” probably doesn’t support domestic abuse. But, unwittingly, he contributes to the culture of toxic masculinity floating around the men’s game that contributes that self-justification to this behaviour — what better way to assert your dominance and manliness than hitting someone? When you give fans of the men’s game a choice between anger or violence and being ‘girly’, regardless of result, a high amount of them are going to take that toxic route, and it can escalate to being something deadly.
Although much easier said than done, it comes down to trying to break this cycle of toxic masculinity. To stop believing in the one-dimensional idea of a footballer, in the one-dimensional idea of a man that we have, and stop reinforcing this in the way that we are. Like Gareth Southgate, as mentioned before, picking his players up off the floor, consoling a member of the Colombian team after we beat them because he missed a penalty, encouraging players to embrace the beautiful game. If we let football players (and fans) experience a full range of emotion, and football would be much less of a hotbed of toxic masculinity.