Offside, 30 March

England's World Cup song should embrace the national pastimes of miserabilism and self-deprecation.

Duleep Allirajah

Topics Politics

Why does the selection of England’s official World Cup song provoke so much debate?

The chances are that it will be rubbish because football and pop music don’t usually mix. Most official England anthems are toe-curlingly dreadful while the pre-match piped music at football matches isn’t much better. If you’ve ever been to a showpiece final at Wembley or Cardiff you will have found yourself inexplicably singing along to a succession of dismal stadium rock anthems.

Admit it. In the orgasmic throes of victory, all of us are liable to shed our music-related inhibitions. Suddenly we’re up on feet, clapping, waving giant foam hands, and singing along to ‘We Will Rock You’ or ‘Rocking All Over The World’. Like bottles, knives and flares, coolness is something you can’t take through the turnstiles.

This week the FA announced that England’s official song is called ‘World At Your Feet’ and will be performed by Huddersfield guitar band Embrace. Is it going to become a terrace favourite or, more likely, is it going to bomb like Ant and Dec’s forgettable ‘We’re On The Ball’ or the risible ‘(How Does It Feel To Be) On Top Of The World’ by the Spice Girls and Ian McCullough. The Football Association’s marketing chief Tom Harold is certainly talking a good game. ‘We’d like to think we’ve pulled off something of a coup by bagging such a great band’, declared Harold. ‘We’re confident that Embrace’s song will capture the imagination of the fans and players alike’.

‘The band can’t wait to get into the studio – we think we’ve got a really good song, and hopefully it will repeat the success of previous songs, such as New Order’s World in Motion,’ enthused Embrace frotman Danny McNamara. Er, exactly what previous songs might that be? Apart from ‘World in Motion’ and the Euro 96 anthem ‘Three Lions’, England’s official songs have been uniformly awful.

Before New Order kick-started the trend for proper pop acts to record World Cup songs, the staple tournament anthem was usually sung by the footballers themselves. The 1970 theme ‘Back Home’ was a big hit but the attempt to reprise the formula with ‘This Time (We’ll Get It Right)’ in 1982 flopped. As soon as you heard England’s finest bellowing ‘We’re on our way, we are Ron’s twenty-two. Hear the roar of the red, white and blue’, it was painfully evident that the old-fashioned footballer’s choir had had its day’.

EMI promotions manager Melanie Johnson thinks that Embrace will succeed because ‘their music has an uplifting, anthemic feel which will capture the spirit of the occasion’. The problem is that uplifting and anthemic usually means cheesy and vacuous as well. Listen to most contemporary terrace chants and you’ll find they’re based on a handful of pop songs such as ‘Sailing’, ‘Go West’, ‘Winter Wonderland’, and DJ Otzi’s ‘Hey Baby’. Catchy as these tunes are, few would feature in any Top 50 greatest pop songs lists.

Great pop songs, with their recurrent motifs of alienation, self-loathing, failed relationships and drug abuse, rarely translate into football anthems. ‘World in Motion’, which was recently voted the best World Cup song in a poll conducted by Littlewoods Pools, is one of few exceptions that prove the rule. Despite the John Barnes rap, the song improbably achieved chart success while maintaining street cred.

But New Order’s classic track was more a luvved-up dancefloor hit rather than a singalong terrace anthem. ‘Three Lions’ is the only England song that was chanted on the terraces while managing to stay on the right side of naff. But, while the ‘football’s coming home’ chorus might have caught on amongst football fans, the lyrics themselves were far from uplifting. Gone was the swaggering self-confidence of ‘This Time’, which spoke of ‘marching on towards victory’. Instead here was a song about perennial failure. ‘Three Lions’ succeeded because the countercultural themes of personal failure and self-hatred had converged with our diminished national sporting self-image – the imperial myth of British sporting invincibility having given way to ‘thirty years of hurt’.

So, maybe those counter-cultural themes of self-destruction and failure aren’t so out of place in a modern football anthem after all. Instead of an upbeat happy-clappy footstomper brimful of vacuous platitudes about strength, courage, and desire, perhaps what we need is another miserablist aria that celebrates our very British tradition of heroic failure. ‘So many jokes, so many sneers, but all those oh-so-nears wear you down through the years’, sang Ian Broudie on Three Lions.

It’s a slightly more eloquent way of saying ‘We’re shit and we know we are’ so why not make that our World Cup theme? Get some sulky indie outfit to perform the song, sign up Morrissey to pen some suitably self-deprecating verses about metatarsal injuries and lost penalty shoot-outs, and enlist Tiger Tim Henman to deliver an underachievement rap. It’s a winning formula.

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Topics Politics


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