The World Cup’s good for the family

I’m no football fan, but I enjoy the gathering together of friends and families knowing that all ove

One of the life skills a woman has to develop as she sails out of her twenties and into her middle years is the skill of dumping friends (and being dumped, gracefully). This doesn't apply to men, possibly because this dumping is nearly always to do with children. Even when it doesn't seem to be.

Your fun drinking partner turns into a dull pregnant person, self-obsessed and self-satisfied and telling you about how far along her baby is today. The one you managed to avoid when she was pregnant morphs into New Mother - if anything, more boring and distracted than the pregnant one. The mothers who remain sentient and intelligent suddenly give up work "for the kids", and then moan about it while sinking into self-­indulgent shopping trips and complaining how busy they are. (Once, while I was at work, I took a call from a mother who was at home checking what her children had been given for Christmas for the past few years, and she wanted to know if I remembered some present or other. She had a list!)

It can be hard work to sustain a friendship when you've got out of sync on the children front. The ones who haven't had kids yet seem equally out of reach to the ones who have. The nastiness that was once witty stops being funny. Ditto, the drug-taking. The career becomes an obsession, to the detriment of everything else. There is a ten-year period when having children or not having them becomes, like it or not, the defining feature of a woman's life and character. None of us is exempt.

Community bonding

Last week, I discovered another reason why I would question a friendship: I don't like women who dislike the World Cup. Which is odd, because I am not a sports fan and I don't like women who are football fans, either; it seems unnatural, a substitution for real interests - such as children, perhaps. Chomsky called cheering for a football team "training in irrational jingoism"; it is "a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority, and group cohesion behind leadership elements". Which may explain why it's more attractive to men than women.

It is also very bad for the heart: a number of pieces of research have shown a jump in heart attacks during the World Cup. The risk of hospital admission due to heart attacks in Britain increased by a quarter on 30 June 1998 - the day England lost to Argentina in a penalty shoot-out - and the following two days. It's much worse in Germany; among Germans in 2006, on the days of matches when Germany were playing, cardiac emergencies increased more than threefold for men compared to the same periods in other years, and nearly twofold for women.

Not even the Swiss are safe: there was an increase of 77 per cent in "sudden cardiac death" among Swiss men ­during the 2002 World Cup finals, and a rise of 33 per cent among women, compared to the same period a year earlier. The increases happened during the early hours of the morning, when the games in South Korea were being broadcast in Switzerland.

Yet I still like the World Cup because of its community spirit. Television has come under a fair amount of flak in the past few decades for destroying community life. It started in the UK with the sociologists Michael Young and Peter Willmott, who in 1957 charted the effects on a community of East Enders of mass re­housing in the new suburbs. One of the most striking effects was the embrace of television in suburbs that lacked the social structures and meeting places of the East End.

Bethnal Green had one pub for every 400 people; the new suburb, a pub for every 5,000. Families saw less of their friends and extended family, no longer bumping into them on a daily basis. And television ownership rocketed: in Bethnal Green, it increased from 21 to 32 per cent between 1953 and 1955; in the suburb, it rose from 39 to 65 per cent. This wasn't because those in the suburb were markedly wealthier. One of the reasons they didn't see their friends any more was because they couldn't afford the fare to Bethnal Green. The researchers found them all watching telly instead.

From Young and Willmott to Robert Putnam, many have blamed television for destroying social capital - the links between a citizen and his or her community (bowling clubs, political party membership and so on). Yet, in the past, watching television was a communal experience, with families gathered around sets instead of scattered in separate rooms, surfing different channels. The entire nation joined in events from the coronation to the live 1954 dramatisation of Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Capitalist bondage

Today, only The X Factor and the World Cup fulfil this function, plus the occasional death; Diana's funeral springs to mind. But The X Factor is corrosive, hawking cheap fame and vicious personal criticism as entertainment. Which leaves us with the World Cup. The reason why I like women who can embrace it for a few weeks (and then drop it) is simple: what we enjoy is the gathering together of families and friends to watch matches, knowing that all over the country everyone else is doing the same (except the ones I don't like).

At least, I thought it was that simple. But hark at this from the sociologist Cornel Sandvoss, who writes about the interplay between mass media and fandom. What I hadn't realised is that sport reproduces structures of capitalist domination, with the symbiotic relationship between football and television representing the interplay between Fordist industrialisation, standardised consumer capitalism, suburbanisation and technological rationalisation. Crikey. Anyone want to come round and draw up lists of Christmas presents with me on Wednesday afternoon?

This article first appeared in the 21 June 2010 issue of the New Statesman, The age of ideas