Sports Nut

We Are the World Cup

Why are the Spice Girls and Ricky Martin singing about soccer?

Ant and Dec are on the ball
Ant and Dec are on the ball

Next month’s World Cup is certain to produce two things: beautiful soccer and hideous music. In the days leading up to the quadrennial tournament, nations will unveil new Euro-pop anthems, chosen by stodgy apparatchiks at soccer federations to unite their countries behind their teams. Last month, England released a choice excerpt from its anthem, “We’re on the Ball.” Sung by Ant and Dec, the dorky hosts of a Star Search-style show called Pop Idol, it cycles through a list of player names and sounds like a sad knockoff of the sad band Chumbawamba.

It’s hard to imagine a more tiresome, headache-inducing piece of music. But, in fact, “We’re on the Ball” has competition from several unofficial British anthems. An ex-manger of the English squad, Terry Venables, will release a Sinatra-inspired tribute to the team. The third-rate British comic team of Bell and Spurling produced a single paying obeisance to England’s Swedish manager Sven Goran Eriksson, the synthesizer-heavy “Sven’s Song.” (Sample lyrics: “He’s a lovely geezer but don’t forget that he’s fromSweden.”) And if that’s not enough to turn you off World Cup pop, then consider past contributions from the Spice Girls (1998), Ricky Martin (1998), Daryl Hall (1994), and Udo Jürgens, the Teutonic Barry Manilow (1978).

Amid the dreck there’s actually a tradition of worthy British World Cup pop. It begins with England’s official tune for the 1990 cup, the new wave band New Order’s “World in Motion.” Where previous anthems featured players belting out vaguely martial tunes—usually a cross between The Bridge on the River Kwai’s “Col. Bogey March” and the “Super Bowl Shuffle”—New Order handled most of the vocals themselves.

Moreover, their song represented the new face of English soccer. Even though England invented the “beautiful game,” in the postwar erait played it in an entirely unbeautiful way—full of pushing, tackling, and Hail Mary passes. Finally, in the ‘80s, the team began to break from the mold, experimenting with a more elegant, Continental style. New Order captured the new spirit. They even mixed genres, including a rap from Liverpool’s black winger John Barnes, essentially the Jackie Robinson of English soccer. And New Order’s lyrics celebrated individual artistry—”make your own play, express yourself in every way”—the antithesis of England’s traditional gritty, stiff-upper-lip style of soccer.

The other great English cup song comes from the shock artist Damien Hirst, of “Sensation” fame. Actually, it’s not so much a great song as a great prank. Along with Alex James, the bassist from the band Blur, and the actor Keith Allen, Hirst recorded “Vindaloo” for the 1998 Cup. The lyrics were perfectly horrible: “Vin-da-loo, Vin-da-loo/ We’re gonna score one more than you.” But that wasn’t the point. Hirst, et al. pitched their band, which they called Fat Les, as a tribute to “the stereotypical English Football Fan. Fat, loud, smelly, rude.” The goal was to have all the racist Fat Leses singing homage to Indian curry. “Vindaloo” bested the asepticSpice Girls’ anthem as the best-selling new World Cup song of 1998.

But no amount of World Cup pop can match the organic genius of the anthems composed by the fans, who sing on the terraces to cheer on their teams. When England plays Germany, its fans sing a special rendition of “Camptown Races”: “Two World Wars, One World Cup, Doo-dah, Doo-dah.” And to the once-venerable tune of “Rule Britannia,” they sing:

Where was the goalie?
The ball was in the net.
He’s hanging around the crossbar
With his dick around his neck.