The crying game: Why was everybody sobbing at World Cup 2014?

The 2014 World Cup was an emotional affair, but why? Matt Allen tries to find out...

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With the drama of the World Cup now almost a distant memory, we can talk about the passion: Brazil delivered raw emotion on every level. The ecstasy of Mario Gotze's wining goal in the final; the anguish of England, Brazil and Italy. There was pain (for Neymar and Giorgio Chiellini, in the literal sense), unimaginable highs (the progress of Costa Rica) and unfathomable horrors (poor, poor Spain). The tournament was a month-long soap opera plot made flesh, but without the impenetrable chatter of Danny Dyer.

Most of all, though, there were tears. Lots and lots of tears. Tears of joy, tears of soul-crushing defeat; tears caused by injuries, and tears brought on by the rousing trumpets of a national anthem. While doing his best impression of a headless chicken during Brazil's 7-1 spanking at the hands of Germany, David Luiz even spluttered tears of a clown. As, presumably, did the accounts manager at PSG, who would have received a purchase invoice to the tune of £40 million around about the same time.

A festival of sensitivity

This, then, was the World Cup where football went "emo". A festival of sensitivity during which it became acceptable to embrace one's softer side and express sensitivity at every possible opportunity.

Of course, tears in football are nothing new. There have been a litany of 'cry babies' in the game, from Pele's overwhelmed celebrations in the 1958 World Cup final, to the red-eyed meltdown of Paul Gascoigne at Italia 90, when his dream of spearheading England's charge to the final was cut short by a booking and suspension. His subsequent outpouring arguably softened the unwieldy and macho image of the domestic game forever.

Ivory Coast's Serey Die sobbed as he thought of his difficult road to the World Cup.

Ivory Coast's Serey Die sobbed as he thought of his difficult road to the World Cup.

But Brazil 2014 felt like a step too far. A moment in time when excessive emotion became a given in the game; when players felt they had to show their pain at being kicked out of the group stages should anyone doubt their commitment. In the literal sense a watershed occasion. But why did this happen? How did the game transform its playing personnel from stiff upper-lipped hard men into trembling-mouthed softies?

The answer, according to Tom Bates, Performance Psychology Coach at West Bromwich Albion is multifaceted, though it has much to do with the changing nature of global cultural development.

A cultural shift

"There's been a shift in Britain," he says. "It’s a cultural shift around the world, too. What we’ve realised - and this is something my missus has been telling me for several years - is that it’s not a weakness to discuss your emotions; to show that you care, or to show another level of yourself.

"In fact, it’s actually a strength. A great strength, because there’s something magical in being able to embrace those emotions and then use them as the fuel, the fire to move forward. The difference comes when you show those emotions and those emotions become too much for you."

Nevertheless, it's clear that when the emotional dramarama goes far, the results can be catastrophic. Before Brazil's car crash semi-final, shirts bearing the name of their injured talisman, Neymar were held aloft during the national anthems. Bates argues that this gesture created a "funereal" vibe. "It was as if they were in mourning," he says. Which is where the psychological science comes in.

World Cup poster-boy Neymar wipes away a tear after injury rules him out of the semi-final.

World Cup poster-boy Neymar wipes away a tear after injury rules him out of the semi-final.

"These days I would prefer a player who was comfortable in his own skin and was being himself," says Bates. "He's not making an effort to be anyone else. There’s a great quote that says, 'In a world where you can be anything, choose to be yourself and be it well'. For me, that means that I am not trying to be prescriptive and telling a player how to be. Instead they are being themselves. They feel they can be emotional in public.

"But my job is to recognise how much is too much emotion, and to recognise which players need to be a little more aroused emotionally.  Some players can be under-aroused emotionally, some players can be over-aroused. The optimal functioning of a player takes place smack bang in the middle. And it’s a fine tipping point between being under-aroused and over-aroused.

"My ideal would be a player that finds his own zone and is comfortable in his own skin. He’s not trying to be anything that he’s not and in that lies great comfort and satisfaction, on and off the field."

A question of image

There is, of course, another cynical view. Certainly Gazza's tears at Italia 90 turned him into a national hero. Elsewhere, other players have found that moments of teary-eyed emotion can help to smooth over the cracks in an otherwise shaky public image (though maybe not John Terry). The suspicion is that some players might even be displaying emotional extremes to further their popularity. In other words, hamming it up for good PR.

"I’m sure that there are people that try to get players to do those things," says Bates. "But if a player is listening to that advice and is being something that he's not, then there’s a problem.

"Yes, it probably does happen in the world of media and entertainment; of PR advice and personal agendas where players have clothing ranges and all that business, but for me, that’s the sideshow. That’s not what we’re here for, and if the focus is the sideshow and not the team, there’s a problem. Then we have to realign." 

The good news, then, is that emotional honesty is a character strand our footballers can now embrace, without embarrassment. The bad is that there's fine line between self-destructive sensitivity and heroic integrity. It's also a state of mind open to serious exploitation. At this rate even FIFA themselves will have reached for the Kleenex by the time Russia 2018 comes around. But only as a brand partner.