The beautiful, beer-filled game

Andrew Misell | June 2018 | 8 minutes

As the FIFA World Cup kicks off in Moscow on 14 June, the relationship between alcohol and football is again under scrutiny. Here, Andrew is specifically talking about alcohol and watching football.

For more on the link between alcohol and sport more generally, try this blog about last year’s Hitting the Bar conference.

The bond between beer and football has to be one of the most powerful partnerships of our time. A pint or two before the game, a swift one during the break. And when the final whistle blows, it’s time to head to a bar to pontificate on your side’s performance and make wise predictions about the next game. Of course, there are also the thousands watching from home, who don’t need to wait for half or full time to get a round in.

“And why not?” you may well ask. Football is a sociable game, the People’s Game, through which thousands gather together to encourage and rebuke their team, to celebrate victory and console each other in defeat. It’s the kind of camaraderie that’s thin on the ground these days. And if it’s a bit boozy, well, isn’t that just part of the fun?

But fans aren’t the only ones who are keen to keep the beer flowing. As we enjoy Russia 2018, who can forget how FIFA strong-armed Brazil in 2014 into overturning a long-standing ban on drinking in sports stadiums. “Alcoholic drinks are part of the FIFA World Cup, so we're going to have them,” Jérôme Valcke famously declared. As in Brazil, in Russia this year restrictions on alcohol at sporting venues will be relaxed for the World Cup.

For FIFA, there’s a clear commercial logic. Beer industry sponsorship is a major source of revenue for the Fédération. For brewers, sponsoring the tournament ties their products to positive values of community and loyalty, and puts their names on the world’s TV screens. During the UEFA Euro games in 2016, television viewers in England and Wales saw almost one advertisement a minute for Carlsberg. It’s everything a brand manager could wish for.

But is it good for the game? Gary Lineker spoke for many when he said, very simply, of the alcohol industry’s involvement in sport, “I don’t like it… I do not agree with it”. One of his major concerns was about the messages children pick up when their favourite sports are so closely associated with products so plainly unsuitable for minors.

This desire to make football more welcoming to and appropriate for children is one argument that has been used to support maintaining Britain’s ban on consuming alcohol in sight of the pitch. Football’s changed a lot since that ban was introduced in the 1980s, in large part for the better, and the fear for some is that this could all be undone if we were to go back to 90 minutes of uninterrupted boozing.

But what exactly are we trying to achieve when we seek to manage the presence and use of alcohol at sporting events? Almost all of us would agree that drunken violence is beyond the pale and needs to be prevented. But what about a bit of shouting or sweary singing whilst under the influence? I’d be happier without it; but for many, the lack of just such a freewheeling, unstuffy atmosphere is exactly what’s wrong with modern football. There have even been complaints that today’s football crowds are too quiet.

What about just being drunk, then? What do we think about that? We might be willing to put up with sharing a row of seats with people in an advanced state of intoxication – so long as they don’t bother us too much. Unfortunately, their behaviour is quite likely to bother us, especially if we’re taking a serious interest in the game. In rugby union, where pitch-side drinking is commonplace, fans of the game have been complaining for years that their view is obscured and their enjoyment spoiled by the back-and-forth trips to the toilets of people who seem to have ingested some kind of diuretic, and have a tendency to stumble on the way.

So, is alcohol itself a problem at the football? Most of us would say “no”, at least in theory. Alcohol and sport may go together just fine from time to time; but why do they have to be so closely entangled so often? And in whose interests is it that so many of us, when we think “football”, also think “beer”?