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How the 2018 World Cup saved my mental health

By Dylan Brewerton-Harper

Dylan Brewerton-Harper looks back on the emotional and meaningful experience he undertook whilst watching the 2018 World Cup Finals in Russia.

It’s finally June and Euros fever is kicking in. England’s campaign begins on 13 June against Croatia, with the Three Lions looking to exact revenge on the team that ended English semi-final dreams at the World Cup in 2018. I watched that game with hundreds of England fans in Prague whilst interrailing, and yes – some tears were shed when Mario Mandzukic delivered the fatal blow in the 109th minute.

The country’s summer was defined by the thrill of watching England progress through the rounds, winning a penalty shootout against Columbia being the standout night. Yet, that hot summer also took on added significance for me. I had finished my A levels and left school, and that feeling of unbound freedom was sweet but was tarnished by turmoil in my personal life. A levels had taken their toll on my mental health, beginning in the January before my final exams. It was the first time in my life where I became crippled by anxiety. I didn’t want to leave the house; I didn’t even want to leave my room. I simply wanted to be left alone. As much as I may have put on a brave face and seemed my normal self when in social situations, underneath was a whirlwind of emotions that made me want to self-isolate long before the government were mandating it.

A fairly acrimonious and complicated break up only made matters worse, to the point where I felt I had become a shadow of my former self. And then came football. Before that summer, all throughout secondary school, I had shown little interest in football since the days of spending too much of my parents’ money on Match Attax to trade in the playground at primary school. Occasionally I would dip in and out of it, for big games such as the 2016 FA Cup final between my club, Crystal Palace and Manchester United.

Yet when the World Cup rolled along, the first game between Russia and Saudi Arabia being on the afternoon after my final exam, it was like returning to an old friend. The biggest footballing event in the world embraced me with open arms and saved me at a time when I most needed saving.

Thinking back, I watched nearly every game I possibly could from that first game to the final, including watching England take on Sweden in the quarter-finals on my phone on a quiet, sunny beach in Nice. It may sound extreme, but as I saw it at the time and now looking back, I really needed it to stay afloat. The ups and downs, the thrills of a goal and the heartbreak of a loss. All of the twists and turns of the competition gave me the distractions from life that I craved, the sometimes banal but reassuring machinations of the “beautiful game” got me through that difficult summer.

The past year and a bit has got me thinking about that period in my life. Since the summer of 2018, I have become what some might call a “football obsessive”. Not one of those annoying ones that has nothing else to talk about but football, but that feeling of escapism I got from the World Cup has stuck with me as I’ve got back into the game I loved as a kid with binders full of Match Attax. I started going to Palace’s home games the following season, as well as some memorable away days at Old Trafford and the Emirates Stadium. As a football fan, nothing beats the feeling of actually being at the games. The anticipation and excitement in the days leading up to the game, travelling to the ground, seeing the seas of red and blue-clad supporters, moaning about the line-ups and injuries an hour before kick-off, slipping through the turnstiles and sipping on an overpriced pint on the concourses. Every football fan will tell you how exciting these moments and experiences are.

The collective catharsis of a football game is deeply enriching and fulfilling. The cheers, the boos, the uncontrollable movement of limbs when the ball hits the back of the net. They are moments of pure, unadulterated joy. Many don’t understand the appeal, but you only know how good it can be when you experience it for yourself, and as I found it can be enormously rewarding for your mental health. It is a distraction, a vocation, an obsession. It can be whatever you want it to be.

Then along came Covid-19 and the rest is history. Had I known that the last game I attended back in March 2020 would indeed be the last, I would have savoured those moments more than usual. The loss of football in the first months of lockdown was tough. What else would get me through staying at home in my pyjamas all day and night? What did I have to look forward to? When football returned to our screens in mid-June, I had that same feeling as I did with the World Cup. The return of an old pal to help us all get through the often draining and dispiriting nature of lockdown. The same applies to the 2020/21 season, which made my first year of online university that much more bearable – something to look forward to, and something to distract me from what has been another tough year for students.

And so, the Euros couldn’t have come at a better time. As life begins to return to some form of pre-Covid normality, what better way to enjoy the hot summer ahead than cheering on the home nations back in the pubs with our mates, something we haven’t been able to do for so long.


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