There is undoubtedly a long and often troubled relationship between football, football fans and alcohol. The ban on alcohol at the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar drew a lot of commentary, in traditional media and on social media alike. In the UK, however, there are already limited bans on alcohol at football matches due to long-held concerns about the effects of alcohol on football-related violence and other public order issues.
Away from the stadia themselves, fans might also drink to excess when watching the games at home, in pubs or other venues like fan parks. So, is there actually a link between football in general, the World Cup in particular and alcohol-related harm?
Alcohol Ban in Qatar for FIFA World Cup
The sale of alcohol is strictly controlled within the conservative Muslim nation of Qatar. Organisers had promised it would be available at games and in fan parks, however, before reversing that decision just days before the 2022 World Cup kicked off. The Guardian reported that the host nation made the decision that “everyone inside World Cup stadiums had to feel comfortable – and that this would not be the case if fans were seen drinking alcohol or turned up drunk”.1
The eleventh-hour nature of the decision drew a lot of criticism, but it should be remembered that there are similar limitations on alcohol sales at games within the UK.
The Criminal Justice (Scotland) Act 1980 has prohibited the sale of alcohol anywhere within football grounds (apart from corporate hospitality areas) for more than three decades. The Scottish Government is also currently consulting on restricting the advertising and promotion of alcohol in football and other sports.2 In England, drinking in the stands or other areas of a football ground with a view of the pitch has been banned in England’s top five tiers since 1985.
Implications of Drinking in the UK
In general terms, drinking is a huge problem throughout the UK – whether football-related or not. In England alone, it is estimated that there are more than 600,000 dependent drinkers, with less than a fifth receiving any sort of treatment.3 Alcohol has a huge impact on people’s health, being the single biggest risk factor for ill-health, disability and death among people aged 15-49, and the fifth leading risk factor across all age groups.4
As you might expect, this also puts great additional strain on the NHS. Alcohol-related harm is estimated to cost the NHS in England £3.5 billion every year. In 2019 it was reported that alcohol-related admissions to hospital had grown by 17% over the previous decade.5
Then NHS England chief executive Simon Stevens said: “Drinking to excess can destroy families, with the NHS too often left to pick up the pieces.”
As well as illness, injury and accidents, alcohol has been strongly linked to violent crime and antisocial behaviour. In 2019/20, in 42% of violent incidents, the victim believed the offender to be under the influence of alcohol.6 Alcohol has been linked to many different types of violent crime – from football violence to robbery, domestic abuse and sexual violence.
Dangers of Football Fans and Alcohol Consumption
Given that many people drink outside the stadium and at half-time, there have been suggestions that the previously mentioned ban on drinking in football stands in England be lifted. The ban was introduced in 1985 in a bid to curb alcohol-related hooliganism. There are arguments for and against but Mark Roberts of Cheshire police told the digital, culture, media and sport select committee that he believed repealing the band would lead to more violence.
“People would still drink to excess outside, but then arrive and carry on drinking. And so you’d afford them 90 minutes extra time to drink. And more alcohol causes more problems,” he said.7
There is little empirical evidence on the impact of alcohol on football-related violence. Organised or pre-planned football violence may still occur but given alcohol’s effects on inhibitions and its links to violence and crime in general, it seems likely that it may have an effect on more random acts of violence and antisocial behaviour.
Is Alcoholism Made Worse by Football?
Beyond drinking in and around football grounds, many people gather in pubs or drink while they watch World Cup games at home or with friends.
Spending at pubs, bars and clubs increased by 20.5% when England played Wales in this year’s World Cup, compared with the same day in 2021.8 The 2018 World Cup also saw record spending on alcohol at supermarkets and corner shops, with an all-time high of £287 million being spent in the week that England played Columbia and Sweden.9
Football might not be a primary cause of alcohol addiction but the drinking culture that still surrounds the beautiful game can certainly be a contributory factor. The World Cup only comes around every four years (with the European Championship taking place in between) but it seems that the competition can be an excuse or trigger for binge drinking. In some cases this could potentially be a tipping point for a longer-term drinking problem, or contribute to short-term issues such as violence, antisocial behaviour, accidents and alcohol poisoning.
Football fans who follow the game beyond major international competitions may also find themselves drinking to excess more often than they otherwise would. They might not be able to drink in their seats during a match but they can around the game, with heavy sessions often occurring before and following the match. Again, they may also drink more when watching games on big and small screens in pubs or at home, potentially contributing to problem drinking and a growing addiction to alcohol.