Football and alcohol are so interconnected that it is almost impossible to imagine one without the other. If you are in any doubt about the relationship, the millions of pounds that companies like Budweiser are willing to part with to simply sponsor events such as the World Cup should make it clear. They wouldn’t invest these vast sums unless they were able to sell more of their product.
Despite all the reassurances prior to the football tournament that alcohol would be available during games, the Qatar World Cup organisers have decided otherwise and reneged on the agreement. This will be unfamiliar territory for alcohol companies that usually get their own way, particularly when it comes to football.
For many fans, this ban on alcohol won’t matter. They can still drink before and after matches as their hotels will supply them with alcohol. So, at most, it will be a minor irritant as they go without a pint as they watch their national team.
No doubt Qatar’s ruling family think they are merely upholding their religious and cultural beliefs in relation to alcohol. Given the dark history of football hooliganism in the UK, in which alcohol played a part in fuelling violence on and off the terraces, it is difficult to mount a convincing defence. Although we’re nowhere near the levels and frequency of violence witnessed at matches in the 1970s and 1980s, we are still not entirely rid of the scenes witnessed at the height of alcohol-fuelled brawling.
While we don’t want to live in a society like Qatar, which has little regard for human life, their decision to ban alcohol at football matches prompts us to think about why it is so embedded in our national game. If you are able to suspend everything we have been conditioned to think about alcohol, which isn’t easy given its place in our lives from birth to death and all that goes between, then it really doesn’t make sense for these two to be such close bedfellows.
After all, alcohol does nothing to enhance sporting ability. In fact, it is effective at reversing all that is needed to perform optimally, both physically and psychologically. Alcohol is a sedative, and disinhibits and impairs judgement – which is not exactly what elite athletes aim for.
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In that sense, it is a testament to how successful the alcohol industry has been in curating the image of its product, that we don’t see how truly bizarre the association between football and alcohol is. Make no mistake, the alcohol business has worked hard for decades to achieve this, and one of the most successful efforts is through sponsoring events like the football World Cup. If they could, they would have their brands emblazoned on players’ shirts.
In the UK, the industry has fought tooth and nail to be able to self-regulate, even though there have been multiple breaches of guidance in relation to alcohol promotion in sport, including football. In some ways, you have to admire their lobbying ability as they win more than they lose when there is any political attempt to push back on their behaviour.
There are many aspects of the regime in Qatar that are abhorrent, such as their treatment of migrant workers and LGBT+ people, but that doesn’t mean everything they believe and do is wrong. Like the royal family in Qatar, our politicians should show some leadership and courage by standing up to the powerful alcohol lobby and ending the close ties between alcohol and football. No one would suffer, and the game would be far better for it.
Ian Hamilton is a senior lecturer in addiction and mental health at the University of York