A History of World Cup Anthems, From Officially-Sanctioned Garbage to Grassroots Hits

Now that droning vuvuzelas have been officially banned from the World Cup this year, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more of the musical phenomenon that is the football song. 

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Now that droning vuvuzelas have been officially banned from the World Cup this year, you’ll probably be hearing a lot more of the musical phenomenon that is the football song. (Disclaimer: we’re talking about the World Cup and these two writers grew up in England, so the soccer vs. football argument ends here. It’s football.*)

*Editor's note:

Every two years, around the time the World Cup and Euro tournaments, football songs waft out of the radio in increasing frequency, comforting reminders of decades of elusive victory. The whole point of a football song to serve as a collective call to arms, a sports national anthem meant to propel a nation into glory. It must — absolutely must — make you believe that winning the World Cup is possible. Songs of the definitive English football anthem canon are terrace-friendly sing-alongs, feature bits of classic commentary, and are full of hope; we won it in 1966 and we can do it again, so the song goes.

Because we spent our formative years in England watching victory slip from our hands time and time again, we’ll be tackling this from an Anglocentric* angle. Although we may not be the best at football, England will always win when it comes to football songs. Fifa’s “official” World Cup song is always predictably terrible, so certain countries will take it upon themselves to craft their own version. Yes, Brazil is the birthplace of Samba — the theme this year, “All In One Rhythm”, is explicitly musical — so this year’s ode to Brazilian dance music from the two people you’re least likely to see at a football match, Pitbull and J.Lo, makes sense. But it couldn’t be further from the lager-doused, chant-friendly England songs we know and love.  Of course, there are hundreds and hundreds of football songs, professional and amateur, making their rounds of YouTube, but here’s a crash course before the games begin. EN-GER-LAND!

*Editor's note:

The Best Football Songs

England’s official 2014 World Cup song is in a state of chaos right now. It was meant to be a reworking of the incredibly dull Take That song “Greatest Day,” featuring former football players David Seaman, Sir Geoff Hurst and Gary Lineker — seen in video pounding along on a piano alongside Gary Barlow — and musicians like Pixie Lott and two-fifths of the Spice Girls. It has since been dropped from iTunes and won’t be released as a single, according to the U.K.’s Channel 4. At least they’ll have these to choose from:

Fat Les, ‘Vindaloo’, 1998

It was meant to be a parody, both of the football song concept and of Richard Ashcroft’s wistful strolling in the video for The Verve’s ‘Bittersweet Symphony.’ It ended up becoming the official theme song for the 1998 World Cup, completely overshadowing the Fifa-approved track by the nightmare combination of the Spice Girls and Echo and the Bunnymen. ‘Vindaloo’ is now a beloved and integral part of any international football tournament involving the England team, and a perfect mass singalong song. The “band” Fat Les contained an especially nineties group of people: Keith Allen (Lily and Alfie’s dad), Blur bassist Alex James, and Damien Hirst.

Baddiel & Skinner & The Lightning Seeds, ‘Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’

“Three Lions” was created for the 1996 European Championships, which were hosted in England 30 years after its national football team won its only World Cup, which still regarded by most citizens as the country’s biggest achievement. Comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, avowed football fanatics, came up with a very chantable ditty alongside Ian Broudie of The Lightning Seeds, a well-regarded Britpop group that never really made it across the pond. “Three Lions” refers to the England football crest and the lyrics are a plethora of references to the country’s brief glories and many failures on the field. “I know that was then, but it could be again,” the group sings wistfully, before devolving into their “football’s coming home” refrain, referring to England’s status as the inventor of the sport. The song was belted out by crowds at every subsequent England game, and a World Cup ‘98 edition was released two years later, with some slight lyrical tweaks (“30 years of hurt” became “all those years of hurt”). Still basically applies to this day.

New Order, ‘World In Motion’

For ‘World in Motion,’ England’s official song for the 1990 World Cup, New Order became England New Order and got their only number one hit. While not as sentimental as 'Three Lions,' it’s a fantastic song in its own right, and is best-known for the rap by England player John Barnes, who still to this day performs the song when requested, even when he's on holiday in Dubai. The video also features an appearance by Keith Allen, who, like Ray Winstone, has a habit of popping up around tournament time.

Unofficial Anthems of 2014

5 Seconds Of Summer, feat. Scott Mills, ‘Hearts Upon Our Sleeve’

The Australian boy band and hugely popular BBC Radio 1 DJ Scott Mills teamed up with the sole purpose of making a better football song than Pitbull and J.Lo. ‘Hearts Upon Our Sleeve’, which they call a “generic football anthem” is meant to apply to every country in the World Cup, shedding any England connotations, but still retaining the crucial bits of commentary and "woahs". They were indeed successful in their goal: it is a much better song.

Vaudeville Smash, ‘Zinedine Zidane’

This is an eclectic collection of things that you do not associate with football anthems. Australian poet Les Murray kinda-sorta raps a bunch of famous footballers’ names over a jumpy electronic track by Aussie band Vaudeville Smash. But the chorus is all about famous French footballer Zinedine Zidane, who you at least know for head-butting a player in the 2006 World Cup final. So this isn’t an effort to rev up Australian fans ahead of the tournament. Neither, really, the French — Zidane retired eight years ago. It’s just a celebration of talent, I guess?

Alexi Lalas, 'Red, White & Blue'

This entry, from honky-tonk band “The Soccer Gods,” celebrates the birth of U.S. soccer fandom in 1994 (when we hosted the World Cup) and is centered around the team’s stout red-headed defender Alexi Lalas, who went on to be one of the early Major League Soccer stars and is now an ESPN analyst. America’s storied soccer history is explored--“in ‘98 we lost to Iran, I nearly drove my truck off the Hoo-ver dam,” our singer laments--and everyone here seems convinced we’re gonna win it all this year. Spoiler alert: no we won’t. Lalas only appears remotely, but he should still be very ashamed of himself.

Horrendous Official World Cup Songs

Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez and Cláudia Leitte, ‘We Are One (Ole Ola)’, 2014

For some unknowable reason, Pitbull has wormed himself into a semi-official status as “official sports anthem singer,” after his half-baked NBA Playoffs version of “Timber” where he just peppered in a shout of “Playoffs” every so often. This garbage is the official anthem of the 2014  World Cup, so it’s just a bunch of nonsense about flags and national pride. Guys, anthems that aren’t about country-specific fandom are never going to be a hit. Why would anyone sing a song about how we’re all united as fans?

Shakira- ‘Waka Waka (This Time For Africa),’ South Africa 2010

Shakira did the exact same thing for the 2010 World Cup, which was held in South Africa. Yes, Shakira is an internationally-known star so the idea must be that she can sell records, but her lack of connection to the host country or football in general (Columbia wasn’t even in that World Cup) makes her seem like a hired gun more than anything. Especially since the title of the song is “This Time For Africa.”

Ricky Martin, ‘La Copa de la Vida’, France 1998

“The Cup of Life,” written for the 1998 World Cup in France (seriously, it seems just being from a non-American country is enough to qualify you for World Cup Anthem status) is itself not a particularly memorable song, but this curio is important in the timeline of Ricky Martin’s career. It bridged the gap between his Latin pop career and mainstream crossover success; his performance of “La Copa de la Vida” at the Grammys earned him a surprise standing ovation and his explosion to global fame soon followed.

Embrace, ‘World At Your Feet’ (2006 World Cup)

This stunningly boring non-song was chosen as England’s official song for the 2006 World Cup. As “Three Lions” proved, to make a good sports anthem, you need something people can chant. Instead there’s a bunch of half-hearted slogans like “It’s calling you now” and “This could be the o-o-one” and “You know it’s gonna be our time.” At one point the band watches video of a football game on a laptop, while pointing a video camera at the screen? 2006 was weird, and this entry was completely rejected by fans.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.