Is the World Cup Bad for Your Health?

Researchers find a spike in heart problems among European soccer fans during World Cup matches, while other studies show the players on the pitch are suffering fewer injuries.
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Researchers find a spike in heart problems among European soccer fans during World Cup matches, while other studies show the players on the pitch are suffering fewer injuries.

Is watching the World Cup hazardous to your health? Well, let's put it this way: If your country's team is losing, keep a defibrillator handy. A British Medical Journalanalysis found the risk of being admitted to an English hospital for acute myocardial infarction on June 30, 1998 — the day England lost to Argentina in a particularly tense World Cup match, decided by a penalty kick shoot-out — was 25 percent higher than average for that day of the year. The spike in hospitalizations for heart attacks — about 55 more than otherwise would be expected — continued for two more days, suggesting the emotional turmoil of the loss and/or the drinking binges it provoked did not subside quickly.

Cardiologists on the continent have noticed the same correlation. A study in the International Journal of Cardiology compared incidents of sudden cardiac death in Switzerland during the 2002 World Cup compared to the same period one year earlier. It reported a 77 percent increase in such fatalities among men and a 33 percent increase among women. And a paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine found the number of cardiac emergencies in metropolitan Munich was 2.66 times greater during the 2006 World Cup than compared to the weeks just before and after the event. Concluding that "preventative measures are urgently needed" before the next tournament, the authors offered a series of suggestions, ranging from cognitive therapy to "the administration or increase in dose of beta-adrenergic-blocking drugs."

But there's no need for beta-blockers in Bordeaux. An article in the journal Heart reported the number of deaths from myocardial infarction in French men was "significantly lower" on the final day of the 1998 World Cup compared with five days before or after. The match was a huge event in France — something like 40 percent of the population tuned in — and it took place in the evening, meaning the lower heart attack rate was largely recorded during the hours leading up to the first kick. The researchers speculate that the "immense fervor and collective euphoria" of fans may have compensated for the higher stress levels and increase in alcohol consumption, resulting in a net health gain. Of course, it didn't hurt that the French team won.

Finally, in Scotland, a team of psychiatrists reported "reductions in emergency psychiatric presentations to hospital occurred during and after the finals of the World Cup football competitions" in a 1990 study in the British Journal of Psychiatry. They suggested this could be the result of the "enhancement of national identity and cohesion" experienced by watching the national team in action. Soccer: It'll keep you sane, if it doesn't kill you.

So what about the health of the players themselves? According to the American Journal of Sports Medicine, 171 injuries were reported during the 64 matches of the 2002 World Cup, for an average of 2.7 per match. Seventy-three percent were the result of contact with another player. A follow-up report on the 2006 World Cup by some of the same researchers reported 145 injuries for those 64 matches, reducing the rate to 2.3 per match.

One apparent reason for the welcome decline: "In the 2006 World Cup, the national teams had a longer period for preparation" than in 2002, when the tournament began almost immediately after the end of the domestic season for many teams. The athletes were better rested, and pre-existing injuries had more time to heal.

In addition, new rules were implemented "protecting players from tackles with the highest propensity to cause injury," the researchers reported. "The International Football Association Board gave referees the authority to severely sanction what were felt to be injurious fouls such as intentional elbows to the head." A change that, in retrospect, is clearly a no-brainer.