The impact of substance use in football culture

Football and alcohol share a long and intertwined history within the fabric of British culture. For many people, going to the football on the weekend or heading to the pub to watch their team is a major part of their lives. But this relationship between alcohol and football has a troubled past with violence, anti-social behaviour and addiction among both players and fans, all highlighting the extent of the issues.

But why are alcohol and drugs so synonymous with football? And what steps can be taken to mitigate the potential damage?

To answer these questions, we need to look at the history of football in the UK.

Close up of Adidas football

Historical roots: Alcohol, camaraderie and football

British football’s relationship with alcohol dates back many decades. In the early days, football was a working man’s sport, a respite from the daily grind and an opportunity to foster community spirit. Everybody supported their local team, and fans would flock to local pubs before and after games, cementing the bond between the sport and the drink. This was not just about getting drunk; it was about camaraderie, unity and shared moments of jubilation or despair.

However, this drinking culture wasn’t restricted to fans alone. In previous decades, it was common for players to drink regularly in the same pubs as their fans. This reinforced the bonds between the team and the supporters and the drinking culture surrounding football.

The fallout: Alcohol, cocaine and football violence

However, the joyous celebrations and communal spirit sometimes take a darker turn when exacerbated by substance abuse.

In the 1970s and 1980s, English football witnessed a surge in hooliganism – violent, unruly behaviour from groups of fans. Notorious hooligan firms associated with clubs nationwide would engage in pre-arranged clashes with rival groups at home and abroad. An infamous example is the 1985 Heysel Stadium disaster, where a confrontation between Liverpool and Juventus fans, exacerbated by alcohol, resulted in the deaths of 39 supporters.

Once seen as family-friendly venues, football stadiums increasingly became hotbeds for anti-social behaviour, a significant portion of which was alcohol-driven. Outside the stadiums, town centres and transport hubs would frequently be the backdrop to violent confrontations between rival fans. Pubs, often the starting points for these skirmishes, would bear the brunt of the damage, with many being vandalised during these clashes.

Recently, there has been a growing concern among authorities about cocaine’s influence as the drug’s stimulant effects contribute to heightened aggression among certain fans. The violent scenes at the final of Euro 2020 between England and Italy were linked to the open use of cocaine among some England fans.

England football fans

Football’s response: Regulatory measures and legal penalties

In a bid to combat these issues, several measures have been implemented over the years, with stadium alcohol bans among the most prominent. The Football (Offences) Act 1991 made it an offence to be drunk at a football match, while the Sporting Events (Control of Alcohol, etc.) Act 1985 prohibits the possession of alcohol in view of the pitch. Many clubs have also introduced robust surveillance measures and work with local law enforcement to identify and ban troublesome supporters.

The trap of addiction: Players caught in the snare

While the raucous scenes on the terraces grab the headlines, the struggles of footballers with substance abuse and addiction present an equally concerning issue. Post-match pints were the norm for a long time, and team bonding often took place in the pub rather than the training ground.

One of the most emblematic tales of a player’s battle with addiction is that of Paul Gascoigne, affectionately known as ‘Gazza’. A midfield maestro with immense talent, Gascoigne’s career was frequently overshadowed by his battles with alcohol, drugs and mental health issues. While these battles were often overlooked during the heavy-drinking decades of the 80s and early 90s, Gazza’s distressing public appearances following his retirement are a stark reminder of the damage caused by substance abuse and addiction.

Former Arsenal captain Tony Adams turned his fight with alcohol addiction into a broader mission to help fellow professionals. After admitting his addiction in the 1990s, Adams founded the ‘Sporting Chance Clinic’, an institution that aids sportspeople in overcoming various forms of addiction. His candid autobiography, “Addicted”, detailed his journey, shedding light on the often-hidden vulnerabilities of elite athletes.

Another Arsenal legend, Paul Merson, has also had a long and public battle with addiction. Known for his deft touch and vision on the pitch off the pitch, the “Magic Man” struggled with addictions to gambling, alcohol and drugs, notably cocaine. His autobiography, “Rock Bottom”, charts his tumultuous journey, providing a raw look into the life of a player battling numerous demons.

The evolution of drinking culture: Wenger’s revolution and sports science

At the turn of the Millennium, a new era in British football began, marked by the appointment of foreign managers with different perspectives and methodologies. One of the most transformative figures in this respect was Arsène Wenger, who took over Arsenal in 1996 when players like Adams and Merson were still at the club.

Wenger was astounded by the entrenched drinking culture at Arsenal and quickly moved to address it. He introduced strict dietary regimes and emphasised hydration, nutrition and recovery. Pasta, lean meats and fresh vegetables replaced the traditional English fare and alcohol consumption was severely limited. These changes weren’t just dietary; they were holistic, focusing on a player’s complete well-being and fitness.

The burgeoning field of sports science underpinned Wenger’s approach. As our understanding of the human body grew, it became abundantly clear that alcohol had detrimental effects on performance. It impeded recovery, hampered stamina and reduced cognitive function, all critical attributes for elite athletes.

Wenger’s methods were seen as revolutionary at the time, but their success in terms of player fitness and team performance made them the gold standard across British football. As more foreign coaches arrived, bringing their unique insights and approaches, the shift away from alcohol became even more pronounced.

No alcohol sign

Finding an edge: Performance-enhancing drugs in football

Football, like all elite sports, thrives on the pursuit of excellence. Athletes consistently seek to outdo their rivals and achieve peak performance, and regrettably, some occasionally resort to illicit means to gain an edge. The spectre of performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) such as steroids is rare in football, but several players have tested positive for banned substances.

In response to the growing concerns, football governing bodies have tightened their regulations and increased testing. Anti-doping measures are more stringent than ever, with random drug tests being the norm, both in and out of competition.

However, Paul Pogba’s recent ban for the use of PEDs has sent shockwaves through the footballing community. As a player of international renown, Pogba’s suspension underscored the pervasive nature of this issue. While Pogba is currently appealing the ban, it shows that even the sport’s brightest stars aren’t immune to the allure or the pressure of performance enhancers.

Final thoughts

When devising a strategy to deal with substance abuse in football, it is crucial to recognise that football reflects society. However, as football holds a magnifying lens to society’s issues, it also has the power to be a beacon of change. The platform that football commands can be harnessed to educate, raise awareness and pioneer initiatives that benefit the sport and ripple positively throughout communities and across generations.

Recently, the Everton and former England player Dele Alli opened up about his addiction to sleeping pills, which club doctors gave him to help him rest after games. Dele explained that his addiction grew as a result of using the pills to escape from painful memories linked to the physical and sexual trauma he experienced as a child.

Dele’s brave admission highlighted the use of substances in professional football, and questions are now being asked about whether players are given enough support when taking them. Fostering environments where fans and players like Dele can discuss their challenges openly and seek help without stigma makes it possible to strike a healthier relationship between football and substance use.

If you have been affected by anything you read in this article, contact UKAT today. We provide comprehensive treatment and support for drug, alcohol and behavioural addiction and can help you get started on the road to recovery. Don’t suffer alone.

(Click here to see references)