Offside, 11 June

Euro 2004: The public health zealots come out to play

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Love it or loathe it, football is about to dominate the nation’s cultural life for the next few weeks. Of course you don’t need me to tell you that – and I’m not just referring to the ubiquitous St George flags fluttering from car windows. No, you can tell by the shrill hectoring chorus of public health warnings that now seems to accompany every major football tournament.

If you thought that Euro 2004 provided the perfect opportunity to relax on the sofa, crack open a few bottles of lager, and enjoy a feast of live international football, then you were mistaken. Watching football on TV in your own home is, according to medical experts, an accident waiting to happen.

The Chartered Society of Physiotherapists has published an injury survival guide for armchair fans (see Don’t Panic: Sofa supporters). ‘A typical England performance can be an emotional and physical rollercoaster ride for supporters. A bad decision from the ref, a stunning free-kick from Beckham, or most risky of all, a penalty shoot out, can provoke reactions among fans that sometimes lead to post-match pain and injury’, warned physiotherapist Sammy Margo.

So – ‘When protesting about a bad tackle, resist the urge to flail your arms around’, the guide advises couch potatoes. ‘To vent your anger at the referee it is often safer to take a deep breath, stand up and stamp your foot’. It reminds me of those unintentionally comical 1950s public information films on how to survive a nuclear attack. ‘Oh bother, England have just lost on penalties. Now listen darling, just take a deep breath, assume the standing position, and stamp your foot firmly, like so’.

Not to be outdone in the contest for nuttiest health scare of the week, the Royal College of Speech and Language Therapists warned of the risk of ‘voice abuse’ caused by excessive singing, shouting, and screaming during football matches. The College reported an increase in the number of people attending clinics with hoarse throats or lost voices after the 2002 World Cup. It advises fans to protect their vocal chords by not overusing their voices for long periods of time, drinking plenty of water and juice, cutting down on alcohol, and reducing smoking. I’m no ENT specialist but I would bet that watching dull football probably has the same effect, which can only be good news for Middlesborough fans.

Apparently, fans who scream and shout in anger are most at risk of vocal damage. ‘Happy yelling is less likely to cause voice damage’, says voice therapist Jayne Comims. ‘When you are angry and frustrated you tighten up and cause more injury’. Well that’s us buggered then, isn’t it? After thirty-eight years of hurt the English don’t know how to do happy.

Does anyone actually take these silly scare stories seriously? I hope not. What these health zealots just don’t get is that football fans actually love getting sore throats and sustaining minor injuries. Like war-wounds we can boast about our ailments to our friends and family. ‘Did I tell you how I sprained my back when Beckham scored that penalty and spent all night in casualty?’ It makes us feel liked we’ve suffered for the cause (assuming, of course, that the injury was sustained during a dramatic England game rather than a turgid 0-0 draw that almost certainly involved a Scandanavian team).

And, while I wouldn’t wish it on anyone else, surely no great game of football is complete without at least a couple of people having heart attacks or injuring themselves in bizarre circumstances? There have been several studies by academics – who evidently have nothing better to do with their time – that show that major football matches are, quite literally, heart stopping for some people.

A classic of the genre was the report which found that Edinburgh Royal Infirmary had treated 151 patients for football-related problems during the 1998 World Cup. Most injuries were, as one might expect, alcohol-related but there were also cases of chest pains, seizures, hyperventilation, an asthma attack (as Scotland were beaten 3-0 by Morocco), and self-inflicted deafness through shouting at the TV. My favourite casualty – if that’s not too tasteless an accolade – was the fan, who was found unconscious in full Scotland replica kit after overdosing on temazepam, and who received treatment for psychosis because he imagined that the Scotland squad was talking to him through the TV screen. A very Scottish casualty.

It’s a risky business being an armchair fan. While we English supporters prepare to run the gauntlet of heart attacks, voice damage, and back sprains, the Scots should just be thankful that they’ve got such a crap football team.

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Topics Politics


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