Neurobiology Behind ‘Greatest Upset in World Cup History’


Football-or Soccer as it’s known in the US-is a team game, and a fan game. It is a sport that requires incredible skill and athleticism, yet the emotional tone of the team and it’s fans deeply influences performance. Every 4 years, people from every corner of the planet, descend on venues in a host country, where The World Cup showcases just how much this sport matters. These football fans-often clad in their region’s indigenous garb-exemplify that this sport is a matter of heart.

Although Spain was touted to win hands down, Russia’s team-embedded in a sea of fans on their home ground-won the match in an overtime penalty kick show-down. How did this ‘greatest upset in World Cup history’ happen?! The social engagement nervous systems of Russia’s fans and players in cohesive attunement were literally at the heart of this matter.

I LOVE football! I started playing when I was 10 and even helped to form a female high school league, riding the wave of title 9, before there was hardly any school soccer for males, let alone females. So every year, I religiously watch The World Cup, everyone who loves the sport does the same.

Since I’m an emo psychotherapist, I totally pick teams based on my feelings. This year I am behind the teams with whom I feel a connection-and Spain was one them-It’s always one of them. I love Spain and I love their passion and precision in playing the game. I’ve even braved ‘soccer hooligans’ to take my son to a Barcelona match when we went to Spain for our yearly Christmas trip abroad. I woke up this morning fully prepared to watch Spain dominate Russia…. Damn was I in for a surprise!

Today’s match was a neurological phenomenon. Spain is just a better team than Russia-they play with their minds, bodies, and hearts. However, Russia had more heart in the game-LITERALLY!

They had thousands of more fans synced up with them, and team spirit is a real biological thing.

I study and practice interpersonal neurobiology for a living. I help individuals and groups by employing my nervous system to engage theirs in a manner that optimizes their health and performance in life. It is the science of emotional bond that makes that work. Every week I get to witness the social engagement nervous system facilitate psychotherapeutic growth and healing, so I was blown away to watch the power of this system at work in today’s match on such a grand scale.

As mammals and pack animals, our species is wired to survive through affiliation and bond. Our nervous systems have evolved hierarchically so that social cohesion and cooperation is the most powerful system, with sympathetic and parasympathetic autonomic nervous system activity following in that order. Russia’s win was the quintessential demonstration of social cohesion championing over the systems that regulate sensory-motor functions and competition.

Russia had the heart-driven power of thousands of nervous systems to ground, support, and mobilize them into a victory. The human heart can generate a toroidal field up to 25 feet in diameter around the body. Just imagine the interlocking 3D web of electromagnetic energy in that Moscow stadium! No doubt that Spain played with all of their heart. They were simply out-numbered.

“NOW this is the law of the jungle, as old and as true as the sky, And the wolf that shall keep it may prosper, but the wolf that shall break it must die. As the creeper that girdles the tree trunk, the law runneth forward and back; For the strength of the pack is the wolf, and the strength of the wolf is the pack.” Rudyard Kipling, The Jungle Book