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By Andrew Leigh - posted Wednesday, 23 June 2010

In 2006, the World Cup was held in Germany. Following the tournament, a team of Munich cardiologists analysed the pattern of heart attacks. On days when the German team played, cardiac emergencies doubled for women and tripled for men. The increase was so dramatic that the researchers suggested fans with heart conditions might consider increasing their beta-blockers or having an extra asprin on game days.

If you’ve missed sleep for the Socceroos lately, you’ll know that sport isn’t always good for your health. But as a series of research papers have shown, the relationship between what happens on and off the football field isn’t always as straightforward as it looks.

In a novel experiment, a team of psychologists tested testosterone levels among male Brazilian and Italian fans before and after the 1994 World Cup grand final. Brazilian fans, whose team won after a penalty shoot-out, saw their testosterone levels rise. But Italian fans saw their testosterone levels drop. Individual sportsmen have been shown to get a testosterone boost from a win (and a testosterone slump from a loss). It seems that fans react in the same way.


Yet just because losing fans have lower levels of testosterone, it doesn’t mean that they’re better-behaved. Analysing US NFL games, researchers have shown that when the home team suffers an unexpected loss, domestic violence rates surge upwards. (The size of the increase is comparable to the rise that occurs on hot days.) Here’s hoping that Australian soccer fans are less aggrieved in the event that tomorrow morning’s game against Serbia doesn’t go our way.

But the new wave of “soccernomics” research doesn’t just analyse the impact of sport on society - it also looks at the reverse. In a carefully conducted study of yellow and red cards given to soccer players in the European professional leagues, a team of researchers show that players from countries that have recently experienced a civil war are more likely to engage in rough play. Experiencing violence as a child, it appears, translates into playing more aggressively on the field. The researchers note that soccer players from Colombia and Israel are among the roughest. (Playing for Inter Milan, Colombian defender Iván Ramiro Córdoba acquired 25 yellow cards in just two seasons.)

Another intriguing way that society affects soccer is through players’ birthdays. It turns out that national soccer teams have a disproportionate number of players whose birthdays fall early in the competition year. For example, European leagues are populated disproportionately with players born in January. Although various explanations have been proposed for this curious fact, the most persuasive story is that youth soccer coaches are pressured to worry too much about winning, and not enough on nurturing the relative young members of their squad. As early as age 12, those who are born late in the competitive year can be seen dropping out of the sport.

The effect of this can be seen in Australia too. When FIFA moved the cutoff date for Australian youth soccer games from January 1 to August 1, researchers observed a tangible shift in the birthday distribution of professional soccer players. Under the old regime (which applied until 1987), teams tended to have more players born in January. Under the new regime, Australian professional soccer teams tended to have an excessive number of August-born players.

Indeed, in the current 23-man Socceroo squad, four have birthdays in August (twice as many as chance would predict), while 15 are born in the six months from August to January (one-third more than chance would predict). It’s a fair bet that if we hadn’t changed the cutoff age for youth soccer, the national team would look different than it does today.

So, soccer can be unfair, its players sometimes reflect their violent past, and its fans can occasionally find the result tests the ticker. Would we expect anything else from the game once described as “the opera of the people”? For all its oddities and foibles, soccer remains the world’s most popular game. And to Pim and the boys: no pressure, but a nation’s testosterone levels are in your hands.

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First published in the Australian Financial Review on June 22, 2010.

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About the Author

Andrew Leigh is the member for Fraser (ACT). Prior to his election in 2010, he was a professor in the Research School of Economics at the Australian National University, and has previously worked as associate to Justice Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, a lawyer for Clifford Chance (London), and a researcher for the Progressive Policy Institute (Washington DC). He holds a PhD from Harvard University and has published three books and over 50 journal articles. His books include Disconnected (2010), Battlers and Billionaires (2013) and The Economics of Just About Everything (2014).

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