A version of this piece originally appeared in the Guardian on June 10, 2010. Read more of the Guardian’s World Cup coverage at guardian.co.uk/worldcup.
The football anthem occupies a genre all its own. It must delicately balance patriotic spirit, jovial sportsmanship, and a lack of delicacy. Artists including New Order, Bob Dylan, Led Zeppelin, and the Beatles have entered the maze and found their way out the other side. Others—such as Madonna, U2, and the Beatles—have notoriously crashed on the rocks, ending promising careers and spending decades wandering along pop music’s abandoned outer banks. The latest big success story is, of course, us. Here’s how we did it.
Perfect lyrics: The lyrics to a great football anthem must beg listeners to sing along, which means they need to be catchy and easy to memorize. But that’s not enough: They also have to be informative and accurate. We took our starting point from the most basic act of football: kicking the ball. We decided to say most of it a few times: “Kicking the, kicking the, kicking the ball.” So far so good—great, even. But where to go from there? Well, what’s the best thing you can do with the ball, when you kick it? Our assumption was “get it away from you.” But we decided not to rely on our own understanding of the game—this is a song that ideally will represent an entire nation, after all!—and so we asked hundreds of footballers, from amateurs to pros to lifetime fans. The picture that began to emerge was quite a surprise: For the most part, they agreed that the best thing you can hope to do when you strike the ball with your foot is to put the ball in the goal. With this more subtle understanding of the game in place, completing the central lyric of our anthem was child’s play: “Kicking the, kicking the, kicking the ball. Kicking it, kicking it into the goal.”
Already we had taken a powerful idea—kicking the ball into the goal—and made it something people will enjoy chanting. The next challenge, then, was to add some texture. We decided it was worth taking the risk of writing a stanza of lyrics to be sung during the bridge. The danger here, of course, is that presenting an entire stanza of lyrics—in any song, but especially in an anthem—is risky as hell. What do you risk? You risk putting off 90 percent of listeners with what songwriters call “word harassment.” This is why people still, to this day, do not listen to Bob Dylan, despite claiming to really like him. The exception in a catalog overflowing with word harassment is Dylan’s 1974 World Cup anthem, for which he penned his most compelling lyrics—”You score one, I score two, looks like I score more than you; you score three, I score more, least I’ll score is surely four”—and let them stand on their own, unadorned, repeated for eight minutes over what sounds like a gong battle.
The good thing about a lengthy lyric is that you’re able to express more complicated ideas and stories, which is exactly what we decided to do with our bridge:
England is the team to beat,
and Rooney has got the heat,
and the shoes that are ‘pon his feet,
well Andy calls them “football boots” but we call them “cleats”
In four short lines, we manage to accomplish quite a bit. First, we throw the home team a compliment: “You are the team to beat, guys.” A sentiment any fan will love. Next, we give a shout-out to what our surveys say is probably the most popular player on the team, Wayne Rooney, a footballer who consistently adheres to the principle that guides our anthem: goal kicking. Then, in the latter couplet, we introduce an interesting cultural juxtaposition: the athletic shoes that football players wear in England are called “football boots” (we know this in the anthem because Andy, our British drummer, is said to call them that), but in America (where Chris and Keith are from), they’re called “cleats.” This is one of those great “look how different we are, yet look how similar” moments, because although Brits and Americans have different names for the footwear worn by players, they all agree that England is the good team that, hopefully, will win.
Solid Web site: The official Web site for our song, goalengland.co.uk, is the perfect digital home for a great football anthem. It has English flags all over the place. It has pictures of the three of us in English football jerseys. It has coupons for heavy discounts on beer at your local pub (you just put in your post code), coupons for free flatscreen TVs (again, post code needed), and great travel-booking software that will arrange your trip to Johannesburg, South Africa, including flights, cars, hotels, and tickets to the matches, for less than what you’re used to paying for a bap.
Of course, back when U2 and the Beatles released their anthems, air travel was expensive, and Web sites were but a dream. Led Zeppelin got around this by drawing a Web site in pencil on the back of a coaster. It had flags, a timetable for trains, and what it lacked in accessibility it made up with plucky ingenuity. Fans responded, lining up for days to view the paper Web site in the pub where it was created.
Good timing: Finally, you must release your anthem during a World Cup year, and during football season. Madonna failed to follow this rule, burying her football anthem at the end of a Christmas record released 18 months after the World Cup. Bob Dylan knew this rule all too well and has ended up letting it control his career, releasing a new album like clockwork every four years immediately prior to the World Cup.
For us, the trick has been finding a healthy middle ground. We don’t want to follow Dylan’s trail into the wilderness any more than we want to give up a good thing. We’ve decided, as a compromise between the two sides, to record new anthems for each of the next five World Cups, and then to hang up our songwriting cleats.