Are Toxic Fan Bases to Blame for Football’s Mental Health Crisis?

“Footballers are really in a melting pot of anxiety.” – Harry Latham-Coyle. Why it’s time to take male mental health in football more seriously. 

12.5% of men in the UK are suffering from a mental health disorder. Football is often praised in helping to support positive wellbeing not only through its physical benefits but through creating social communities and alleviating emotional stress. For those who play, and for those who watch, the physical activity can be as powerful as medicine or therapy.  

But what happens to the wellbeing of footballers when the sport they love to play is tainted by abusive fans? 

In the past few weeks we have seen a number of problematic incidents. One of the most notable came at Arsenal, as Granit Xhaka lost his captaincy following an angry outburst when he was booed off by his own fans. Toxic fan bases are not limited to the Premier League, either. Over in Serie A, Mario Balotelli threatened to leave the pitch after he was racially abused by opposition Verona fans, and in the Ukrainian Premier League, Shaktar Donetsk’s Taison was left crying ‘tears of helplessness’ after being sent off for reacting to racist abuse. Taison defended his actions saying ‘My role is to fight, to beat my chest, to lift my head and keep fighting. […] Football needs more respect, the world needs more respect!’ 

After telling the Gunners to ‘f*** off’, tearing his jersey off and storming down the tunnel Xhaka’s angry outburst indicates an aggressively masculine exterior. This stereotypically masculine demeanour suggests that he is equipped to handle the abuse. But the reality could not be further from the truth. Xhaka has opened up about the mental and emotional ramifications of this continued abuse: ‘When my shirt number lit up […] and our own fans broke into gleeful jubilation, that hit me very hard and really upset me. […] It was very hurtful and frustrating.’ Long before the Crystal Palace game Xhaka had been subject to endless online abuse being told ‘Kill your wife’ or ‘Wish that your daughter gets cancer’. While Xhaka’s response towards the fans was undeniably belligerent, it was not born from aggression, but from the toxic expectations that society and football fans place upon male  players. Xhaka simply reacted in defence after struggling to cope for far too long. 

With tensions already rife over at the Emirates, it was only a matter of time before emotions reached a head. If Emery knew his captain was facing such abuse, why did he fail to give Xhaka adequate support before he reached boiling point? This begs the bigger question: what do football clubs do to support the mental wellbeing of their players and the demands of being under mass scrutiny? 

Some fans may argue that footballers are paid enough to handle any negative criticism. Of course, fans pay a lot of money and don’t want to see average performances (including myself!) But that is no excuse to subject players to vile abuse. Regardless of being paying customers, the fans have a responsibility to remember that they are primarily supporters; followers and promoters of the art. No amount of money will make any footballer happy if they are surrounded by fans who are doing their upmost to bring them down. If fans want the best for their club, they might want to consider how a better attitude could result in confident performances. If clubs want to attract the best performing players to build a top team, they need to pay attention to the culture they are promoting.  

Despite the negatives, it is great to see Arsenal leading the way by offering the midfielder counselling. Emery has also declared the club’s priority in looking after Xhaka’s mental health: 

“Really, he knows he was wrong and he feels inside very deep. He is now devastated and sad […] He is down and the most important thing now is that we look after him to recover our best Granit Xhaka.”  

Xhaka’s teammates have publically supported him, expressing how important it is to not only confront your emotions but to support other people in being emotionally honest. Defender Hector Bellerin emphasises the importance of supporting one another off-field: “We are all humans, we all have emotions, and sometimes it’s not easy dealing with them. It’s time to lift each other up, not to push each other away. We only win when we are together.”  

Tottenham Hotspurs’ Ben Davies, and fellow rival, demonstrated that it is more important to support a fellow player’s mental wellbeing by putting differences aside and offering his moral support: 

“I spoke to a psychologist we had at Wales and he said that footballers are really in a melting pot of anxiety when their performance is critiqued by millions of people every game. […] It’s a stressful environment. I get it if players get down and if players have evenings when they are struggling. That is normal and it’s something that needs to be spoken about more. All you can do if it’s your team-mate is try to help.” 

Unfortunately, there is still progress to be made, especially when it comes to tackling racial abuse in football. Verona have publicly denied racism amongst fans, despite evidence from the Italian sports newspaper Gazetta dello Sport claiming “a monitor from Italy’s football federation […] heard the abuse coming from around 15 fans.” Balotelli was seen at full-time to be ‘visibly upset and covering his face’ after receiving monkey-chants yet his own team Brescia have criticised the striker’s response: “If Balotelli was not ready psychologically to face the Verona fan base, then he should’ve said so and left his place to someone less… irritable than him. None of us would’ve been upset if he had, quite the contrary…” 

Not only does Brescia Ultras’ statement showcase a lack of sympathy but the team fails to support their own player by completely disregarding the psychological damage that racism causes. It is worrying that the club believes players should be ‘ready’ for abuse or not deserving of a place.  

The honesty and vulnerability of these players should serve to remind us how football creates a community and that fans should be united through their love of sport rather than divided by negative ideologies. Although Balotelli’s attitude is seen as problematic, just as Xhaka’s behaviour was troublesome, it is ultimately the club’s responsibility to prioritise their players’ mental health and ensure the correct actions are taken when players face abuse. Otherwise they risk being bystanders.