It’s only a game… But could the Football Euro 2016 sway Brexit Voters?


“Sport has the power to change the world…it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does.” Nelson Mandela.

Football is Britain’s number one spectator sport.  To some, it is just a game, whilst for others football means so much more.  A staggering one in four British football fans consider the ‘beautiful game’ to be one of the most important things in their lives 1.  Whatever our disposition, love it or hate it, the figures suggest that over 20 million of the British public (40% of the adult population) 2 will tune in to watch their nation compete in the upcoming Euro 2016 tournament.

In a testament to our nations’ love of football, previous research has found major football events to send shockwaves through the general public.  Hospitals will be braced for increased heart attack admissions should a fixture end in a nail biting penalty shoot out 3.  In the event of victory, we can expect happiness, increased public spending and improved workplace productivity to sweep the nation 4, 5.  And if we witness an early knock out, the following days will be overshadowed by negative emotion and less socialising 4.

Whatever the outcome of Euro 2016, the tournament will undoubtedly impact the mind sets of a substantial proportion of the British public.  Much of this impact will be short-lived and pass soon after the tournament has finished.  But what happens when an important political decision sits slap bang in the middle?  The upcoming EU referendum is due to take place only 2 days after England, Northern Ireland, and Wales discover whether they have triumphed into the knock out stages or suffered a premature exit.

Key dates

  • Saturday, June 11: Wales v Slovakia; England v Russia
  • Sunday, June 12: Poland v Northern Ireland
  • Thursday, June 16: England v Wales; Ukraine v Northern Ireland
  • Monday, June 20: Russia v Wales; Slovakia v England
  • Tuesday, June 21: Northern Ireland v Germany
  • Thursday, June 23: Brexit Referendum Day
  • Saturday, June 25 onwards: Knock out stages of Euro 2016

Current Brexit polls suggest that the ‘In’ vs. ‘Out’ camps couldn’t be much closer, at 51% and 49% respectively 6.  Figures also indicate that up to a third of us are still yet to decide 7.  With the referendum hanging in the balance, events in the days prior to the vote could prove critical.  But could such a massive political decision really be influenced by something as relatively insignificant as a game of football?

History suggests that it wouldn’t be the first time a football tournament has influenced a major political decision.  In the 1970 UK general election, Prime Minister Harold Wilson suffered a surprise exit from office despite widespread expectation he would retain power.  To this day, many attribute this unexpected election result to the football World Cup, where just four days before the vote, England suffered an agonising quarter-final defeat to West Germany 8, 9.  It is thought that the mood of fans across the country dropped in the days following this defeat, leading to a desire for something to change.  In this case, this desire was to be satisfied by voting in a new government 10.

The potential effect of the upcoming Euro 2016 has so far divided opinion.  A report published by the BBC suggests that success in Euro 2016 will lead to a ‘feel good’ factor about being a part of Europe, encouraging the ‘In’ vote 9.  Whereas another reporter suggests that the tournament may increase national pride in favour of the ‘Out’ vote 8.

To help answer the question of whether Euro 2016 will favour the ‘In’ or ‘Out’ vote, it is worth considering an eminent theory in psychology known as social identity theory 10.  Social identity theory explains how a person’s pride and self identity is influenced by the social group they relate to.  There are three key stages in this theory, which together may influence voters:

  1. Social categorisation
  2. Social identification
  3. Social comparison

Stage 1 (social categorisation) describes the never-ending categories or ‘labels’ we place on different social groups (e.g., youth, elderly, students, hair dressers, teachers, Christians, Muslims, males, females, Arsenal fans, Leicester fans etc.).  We often make day-to-day judgements about ourselves and others based on the different social groups we identify with.  However, through the excitement of a major sporting event like Euro 2016, we may temporarily forget about many of the smaller categories we fall into, and instead identify with a single, much larger social category, such as being ‘English’, ‘Welsh’, ‘French’, ‘German’ etc.

During Stage 2 (social identification), we take on the identity of the group with whom we feel a sense of belonging.  For example, if during Euro 2016 you have categorised yourself as English, Welsh or Northern Irish, you will be likely to feel more emotionally attached and invested in your country during this period of time.

Stage 3 (social comparison) is perhaps the most interesting and relevant stage when considering the impact of Euro 2016 on voters.  In this final stage, once we have identified with a particular group, we then compare our group with others.  To protect our self-esteem, we have a natural tendency to enhance the status of the group to which we belong (e.g., ‘England is the strongest country in the EU!’), whilst finding negative aspects relating to the groups in which we don’t belong (e.g., the other EU countries).  In some circumstances, these perceptions of ‘us’ and ‘them’ can lead to discrimination and prejudice views against the other groups.

Regardless of British success or failure in Euro 2016, social identity theory suggests that more of the general public will identify with their country and have stronger feelings of ‘us’ and ‘them’ between Britain and the rest of the EU.  With the referendum taking place in the middle of the tournament, there is a real possibility more of the ‘undecided’ voters will turn to the ‘Out’ vote.

We will have to wait and see whether Euro 2016 ends up being much more than just a game…


About the Author: Dr Sam Cooley is a Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham (UK).  His expertise is in the field of Sport and Exercise Psychology.  Click here to get in touch.  If you’ve liked what you’ve read, please share this post with others!


  1. The Mental Health Foundation.
  2. Estimates are based on the World Cup 2014 viewing figures.
  3. Carroll, D., Ebrahim, S., Tilling, K., MacLeod, J., & Smith, G. D. (2002). Admissions for myocardial infarction and World Cup football: database survey. BMJ, 325, 1439-42. ISSN 1468-5833.
  4. Jones, M. V., Coffee, P., Sheffield, D., Yangüez, M., & Barker, J. B. (2012). Just a game? Changes in English and Spanish soccer fans’ emotions in the 2010 World Cup. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 13, 162-169.
  5. The impact of sport on the workplace (2006). A report by Hudson.
  6. The Telegraph EU referendum poll tracker and odds.
  7. The Financial Times Brexit poll tracker.
  8. Zeffman, H. (2016). Will Euro 2016 have an impact on the EU referendum result? New Statesman.
  9. Moss, P. (2016). EU referendum: How football can influence voters. BBC.
  10. Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of intergroup conflict. The social psychology of intergroup relations, 33, 74.

*Photo by thaikrit and zdiviv complimentary of 

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