There was a time, not all that long ago, when England fans could gather together underneath a big screen to watch their team at a major tournament and not go home drenched, head to toe, in beer.
That all changed in Croydon, just south of London, four years ago. All traditions have to start somewhere, and this one started in the summer of 2018, when Gareth Southgate’s England was busy reaching the semifinals of the World Cup. Hundreds of fans were gathering at a place called Boxpark to watch the games, and whenever they saw their team score, or win, they celebrated by throwing their drinks in the air, as frothily as possible.
All of a sudden, that was how England’s successes were celebrated. Every time Southgate’s team scored, the footage would emerge and immediately go viral. A goal would go in, and the $7 drinks would fly. There is a good chance, if you are sufficiently online, that you have seen this ritual performed during this World Cup, too, and not just from that single venue. The idea has been copied and adopted. It is, in effect, a learned behavior. All that footage taught us that this is how goal celebrations are supposed to look, so we have adjusted our reality accordingly.
Something similar has happened with the way players celebrate goals on the field at this World Cup. Throughout the group stage, it seemed that almost every goal was greeted with the same sight: not just all of the players on the field rushing to congratulate the scorer, but all of the substitutes, clad in their bibs, too, pouring off the bench in jubilation.
There was a time when that sort of celebration was the preserve of only the most dramatic goals: the late and the last-gasp, the game-turning and the season-defining. Now, it is just as likely to be the reaction to the second of three goals in a routine win. That is not a criticism, necessarily — it is, if anything, a value-neutral development — but it is an object lesson in how what we see affects what we do, how an impulse for virality infects our lives, the power inherent in the sense that even elite athletes, players at a World Cup, have a very precise role to play in making sure that everything looks just as it ought to look, just as they have seen it.