Alcohol remains at the core of British sport, football in particular. With the World Cup around the corner pubs and off-licenses are packed with football themed alcohol promotions and gearing up for busy month. Meanwhile, the police and A&E departments are on an amber warning making preparations of another sort. Football and alcohol have a long history; pubs apparently offered the earliest organised teams spare land to use as pitches and a roof to get changed under. But the scale of corporate alcohol’s association with the national game, as a vehicle to sell more booze, means it has become very difficult to disentangle enjoyment for the game, from drink. The game today is saturated.
The list of talented footballers to have struggled with alcohol problems, from George Best to Paul Gascoigne, is long; wasted talent and wasted lives aren’t hard to find in British football. The culture of the professional game may be slowly changing for the better, but the influence of alcohol remains deeply entrenched. Sky’s dominance of premiership broadcasting rights has reinforced the true home of football not as Wembley, but the pub. Games are broadcasting at staggered times to keep the fans in the bars all afternoon most weekends. Advertising breaks abound with alcohol commercials. Drinks companies sponsor the main domestic and European tournaments, branding is highly visible in stadiums and most premiership teams have an alcoholic drinks partner. Large numbers of children and young people follow the game avidly. What message do they take from Carlsberg being the ‘official beer of the England football team’? That being a top level athlete is compatible with drinking, and perhaps that their idols enjoy a bit of a team tear up every now and then.
The association between alcohol and football is now so culturally ingrained as to be over-learnt, an automatic cognitive union built up over years. That’s the power of marketing. But the symbiosis of the relationship is not obligate, there is an inherent conflict between alcohol marketing and the health benefits of sport. The national passion for football should be an opportunity to promote active lifestyles, not more drinking. Removing alcohol sponsorship from sport starting with football would not solve all the related problems, but it would send an important message to aspiring youngsters. In Ireland, the Gaelic Athletic Association has voluntarily removed almost all alcohol sponsorship to protect young amateurs. A leaked shadow health document last month suggested a Labour Government would remove alcohol promotion from sport in the interests of public health, as has been achieved with tobacco. This deserves loud applause.
England might not win the World Cup, it’s nothing to do with the team having an official beer partner but that can hardly have helped inspire the next English Ronaldo, they’re more likely to be in the pub.