World Cup 2018: The extraordinary power of the football song

The Beautiful Game traditionally has a song in its heart. Football and music summon a combined power that heightens the senses, creates tribal identities, flaunts theatricality and wit (and copious cutting put-downs). The football anthem draws heavily from spiritual music, but also co-opts generations of pop tunes. It evokes a feeling of heritage, but it travels much further afield. As the World Cup 2018 kicks off in Russia this week, it raises the sound as well as the spectacle of football to a global pitch.

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“Football and music are completely entrenched in a sense of place and subculture,” says Craig G Pennington, creative fanzine editor, and curator of the new multi-media exhibition The Art Of Football, which launches in Liverpool to tie in with World Cup dates. “Communal singing definitely plays a role in bringing large groups of people together. There’s also a unique cultural and sporting history in a city like Liverpool, which is completely immersed in football and music.”

Elgar composed an 1898 piano piece, He Banged the Leather for Goal, in tribute to Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Billy Malpass

Liverpool has undeniably been instrumental to the football song, most famously in Liverpool FC fans’ adoption of You’ll Never Walk Alone, a bittersweet Rodgers and Hammerstein showtune recorded by Merseybeat band Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963. The song has since been embraced by teams around the world, spanning Holland, Germany, Spain and Japan. Liverpool fans’ game is strong when it comes to creating catchy terrace chants (recent examples including their serenade to “Egyptian King” forward Mo Salah), and they display a winning passion for a collective sing-song, whatever the results (witness fans bellowing along to Dua Lipa’s smash hit One Kiss at the Champions League Final last month).

Football music is historic – Elgar composed an 1898 piano piece, He Banged the Leather for Goal, in tribute to Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Billy Malpass; the Victorian hymn Abide With Me (with its moving themes of mortality and faith) has been a fixture of the FA Cup Final since 1927 – yet, somehow, it stays up to date. “I think things changed in the ‘60s and ‘70s, in the way that youth cultures came together with football and music,” says Pennington. “It meant that there was an off-terrace connection, too, as well as a fashion one.”

All together now

The primal force of communal singing apparently applies to the players as well as the fans; a study recently published in the European Journal of Sport Science suggests that footballers who ardently sing their national anthems are more likely to win matches (“It is what passionate renditions represent that is crucial – the strength of connection with and enthusiasm for the group,” explains lead researcher Matthew Slater).

It’s something that has a long history. According to Professor Steven Mithen, author of The Singing Neanderthals: The Origins of Music, Language, Mind and Body: “Football chants are a very sophisticated activity. They come from a point in our evolutionary past before language, when we used music and chanting and dance to bond as social groups.” For former UK Poet Laureate Andrew Motion, there is also folklore at play in the football song: “Football chanting is a kind of animal, impulsive instinct,” Motion told The Guardian newspaper in 2009. “Chanting is a reminder of a basic pleasure from childhood: that of rhyme and repeating words in a playground. But there’s also a sense that chants can make you powerful, can make you sort of neuter the opposition.”

When it comes to the World Cup, the football songs linger on a positive note: national pride, but also collective unity rather than rival-bashing, comes to the fore

There’s a certain art to the sharp digs of football chants; they actually form the inspiration for Canadian multi-media artist Kenneth Doren’s video installation, Crap Days (2010), which depicts members of the public singing anthems and insults away from the terraces. When it comes to the World Cup, however, the football songs linger on a positive note: national pride, but also collective unity rather than rival-bashing, comes to the fore. “The great aspect of football is its universal nature, and the World Cup is the most vivid expression of that,” says Pennington. “It becomes this amazing international celebration of the possibilities of football.”

One of the factors for this is arguably the way that we watch international tournaments; they feel accessible to audiences beyond ‘hardcore’ fans, and if ‘our’ team gets knocked out, then we’ll usually extend our support to a side that remains. In the book Globalised Football: Nations and Migration (ed Nina Clara Tiesler, Joao Nuno Coelho), a Euro 2004 observation illustrates that the football anthem is a universal expression: “those who left the stadium as winners did not sing their national anthem as they celebrated on Avenida di Liberdade in Lisbon. Instead they did what has become a tradition in football, singing We Are The Champions.”

Globe trotters

The FIFA World Cup has produced at least one official anthem for each tournament since 1962; the inaugural track came from Chilean band The Ramblers, playing the jaunty rock’n’roll groove of El Rock del Mundial. English has generally tended to be the lingua franca of football songs (and arguably the most enduringly cool World Cup hit single remains New Order’s England squad song for Italia ’90, World In Motion) – although there are increasingly multi-lingual exceptions in the digital era.

While the 2002 World Cup (jointly hosted by Japan and South Korea) featured the electro-poppy Anthem by Greek composer Vangelis and pop-rock single Boom by US singer-songwriter Anastacia, it also reflected both of its host nations in another official number, Let’s Get Together, by pop supergroup Voices Of Korea/Japan. The ‘official song’ for Russia 2018, Live It Up, plays to broad territories with English and Spanish lyrics supplied by reggaetón star Nicky Jam with US rapper Will Smith and Kosovar singer Era Istrefi. Uruguayan vocalist Natalia Oreiro also blends Russian lyrics into the mix for her World Cup pop stomper, United By Love.

US R&B hitmaker Jason Derulo’s song for Russia 2018, Colors, pays homage to “the beauty in our cultural differences” – though the massive reach (and heavy branding) of the World Cup also means that the official music sticks to very safe territory. Sometimes, the mainstream just misses a trick – it seems incredible that the 2010 and 2014 official World Cup tracks side-lined the musical riches of their respective host nations, South Africa and Brazil (Shakira was picked twice, instead).

The 2010 tournament did promise a major crossover from Somali-Canadian rapper-singer K’Naan, with Wavin’ Flag (which had previously been a fundraiser track for victims of the Haiti earthquake); it appeared in various global versions, though he’s since returned to relatively low-key releases. When I interviewed K’Naan in 2010, he explained: “I was asked to deliver a football anthem that was different from anything I’d ever done. I didn’t want to go into the studio thinking I’d deliver to order, even though this is the biggest opportunity I’ve ever had. But I knew I could make Wavin’ Flag more upbeat; the only condition was that it retained the line ‘when I get older, I will be stronger’. I wanted people to feel empowered and celebratory.”

Everybody dance now

“Empowered and celebratory” remains the goal, whether it’s Nigerian rappers Olamide and Phyno on their Super Eagles theme (which fades intriguingly into both Western hymn stylings and ululations), Road 2 Russia (Dem Go Hear Am), or Dubai-based singer Waleed Samy’s Arabs In World Cup Song (not strictly official, but still in poppy praise of contenders from North Africa to the Gulf: Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco and Saudi Arabia). Elsewhere, England have played in the World Cup without an official song since 2010, and Belgium recently dropped their official track due to a sexism furore surrounding proposed artist Damso.

Music is key to The Art Of Football, though Pennington isn’t won over by the commercial World Cup songs. Instead, the exhibition includes a Disco Socrates event on 30 June (named for the legendary Brazilian attacking midfielder, rather than the ancient Greek philosopher). “We have Nigeria, France, Egypt and Iran represented in artists and DJs,” explains Pennington. “It’s taking a look at the power that music and football have to effect change and be a force for good.”

He selects the riff from The White Stripes’ Seven Nation Army as a modern classic football anthem; “It’s just been omnipresent at games from Germany to South Africa,” he says. “It’s such a strong, direct, easily accessible melody.” That “live” energy matters; it’s the tunes sung aloud by spectators (watching on screen or at stadiums) that really stand the test of time – the fans know the score.

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