World Cup Songs: The Good, the Bad, the Bizarre

By Eleanor Barkhorn
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The first World Cup match is still a week away, but fans already know what music the players will be listening to as they prepare to take the field: Listen Up! The Official 2010 FIFA World Cup Album went on sale this Monday, featuring the two theme songs for this year's tournament. R. Kelly's "Sign of a Victory" and Shakira's "Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)". The songs are just the latest in a long string of World Cup themes stretching back to the 1978 tournament, the first year an official theme was named.

Here are some of the highlights from three decades of World Cup songs—the good, the bad, and the bizarre:

The good:
The best song in the history of World Cup themes—by far—is Ricky Martin's "La Copa de la Vida," from 1998. It came out a full year before "Livin' La Vida Loca," so we were catching him on his ascent to international stardom, rather than at his peak—or on his way down (which can't be said for either of this year's theme singers. R. Kelly hasn't had a hit single in half a decade. Shakira's still popular, but it's been years since her "Hips Don't Lie" glory days).

But beyond the fact that it was sung by an artist we weren't sick of yet, "La Copa de la Vida" fits two key criteria for an international soccer tournament theme song. It nods at the multiculturalism of the competition in a way that's natural, not forced: Martin sings in his native Spanish in the verses, with some English ("go, go, go") and French ("allez, allez, allez") in the chorus. Kelly and Shakira, on the other hand, force Lion King-esque "African" beats into their otherwise Western-sounding songs, creating music that just feels uncomfortable.

Most importantly, "La Copa de la Vida" is exciting to listen to. It pumps you up. When you hear it, you actually do want to "go, go, go/allez, allez, allez"—sadly not true of either "Sign of a Victory" or "Waka Waka."

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Queen's "We Are the Champions" from 1994 was also a good pick, theoretically (catchy song, inspirational lyrics), but it was named the theme almost two decades after it was first recorded, and most soccer fans had heard it many, many times before.

The bad:
"Boom" by Anastacia, the theme for the 2002 competition, didn't even try to go global—the song is entirely in English and makes no attempt to acknowledge that year's dual host countries, South Korea and Japan. That omission could be forgiven if the song were any good, or any fun to listen to, but it's harsh and clunky and loud without any exicement or energy to balance it out. Besides, the corner on the market for songs with "Boom" in the title has already been taken by the Outhere Brothers and the Venga Boys, right?

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The bizarre:
"Time of Our Lives," Toni Braxton's collaboration with Il Divo for the 2006 games in Germany, isn't so much bad as it is strange. Yes, it fits in with the trend of picking songs by past-their-prime artists (Braxton's had a tough road since "You're Making Me High"), but what makes it odd is the fact that it has very little to do with soccer. It makes a perfunctory reference to the tournament itself ("We'll find the glory in the game/All that we are, for all that we are/For the time of our lives") but otherwise sounds more like a wedding song than a sports anthem:

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In the end, it's the unofficial, non-FIFA-selected songs that end up being the soundtrack to the games, like the remix of Elvis's "A Little Less Conversation" that appeared in a Nike ad during the 2002 tournament. So even if R. Kelly and Shakira can't match the energy of Ricky Martin, fans and players will find something to pump themselves up this year.

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