With the last steps on the road to Rio nearly upon us, it’s time for football fans across the world to settle down in front of the radio, the tv, or the projector screen in the pub, to watch one of the greatest sports tournaments humans have yet invented. The best bit about soccer is the camaraderie that goes along with it – getting carried away singing songs and leaping to the air when your team scores. Sadly, as a Welshman, my team never quite makes it. We will one day! And so, I fall back on my dad’s nation – England – to pin any hopes of a world cup victory on. A quintessential facet of the world cup build up is the football song, something that the England team first adopted back in 1966. Whilst many of them are forgettable ditties, not even that appropriate to the occasion that gave rise to them, there are some that use the universal message of sport to instil other things, including socialism. But let’s start at the beginning: World Cup Willie by the skiffle star Lonnie Donegan:
World Cup Willie was the mascot for the tournament, hosted as everyone knows by England. You can hear in this song the unmistakeable sound of post-war British popular music: ukulele, a jazzy beat, and Donegan’s voice itself. When skiffle enjoyed its revival in the 1950s, young people from across Britain formed their own bands using washboards, self-made instruments, and a guitar. This was a song that spoke to an earlier generation, even amidst Beatlemania and the White Heat of Harold Wilson’s Labour government.
England’s next song, ‘Back Home’, is memorable to two generations of fans: those who enjoyed it during the run-up to England’s unsuccessful defence of the World Cup crown in 1970, and those who learned it watching Fantasy Football League in the mid-1990s with Frank Skinner and David Baddiel for which it was the theme tune. Melody Maker – one of the leading music magazines of the period – were less impressed, though. ‘There is absolutely nothing wrote with football’, wrote the journalist Chris Welch in May 1970, ‘but the hysteria built around today’s watered down version of Pell Mell is as distasteful and wearisome as the hysteria that once surrounded pop’. He carried on: ‘Britain’s obsession with bladder chasing has resulted in the staggeringly high chart placing of ‘Back Home’, a piece of witless nationalism’. Hardly a ringing endorsement for the then UK Number 1 (and Irish Number 2, as it happened)!
The greatest England songs, though, date from the 1990s led by ‘All Together Now’, the socialist-inspired song by The Farm released for Italia90, and the nostalgically-hopeful ‘Three Lions’ released for Euro96. As a child of the 1990s, I must confess to having a strong love of both these songs, they speak to the quintessential spirit of supporting England in times of high expectation. The trouble was, England were always the nearly-men. ‘All Together Now’ is a highly effective song – lyrically sound and effective in its use of the ground bass written in the mid-17th century by the German composer Johann Pachelbel. Appropriately for this year’s centenary celebrations, the song describes the meeting of German and British soldiers in no-man’s land during the Christmas Truce of 1914. As is widely known – and, indeed, documented – soldiers met together, exchanged gifts, sang carols, and played games of football. It was an expression of brotherhood and fellowship that cut across the narrow national boundaries that had pushed them into the war in the first place.
‘Three Lions’ speaks to my generation of football fans almost perfectly. I was 10 when the song was released to mark Euro96 and the nostalgic tones inherent in it seemed to capture the mood of the nation in the mid-1990s. None of the football songs that have come after, have quite done that, and only a 20th anniversary release of the song in 2016 (probably with the lyric ‘fifty years of hurt’) will come close to it. Melody Maker gets it right when it declared the song ‘the best footie anthem of all time, and you know it. Buoyant, blissful and brilliant’. Anyone disagree!? Looking back now, and even looking at the song at the time, it clearly provoked special feelings. As one magazine had it at the time: ‘the anthem may well have been instrumental in rousing Terry Venables’ England squad’ and pushed the team to that fateful penalty kick taken by Gareth Southgate. There’s never been a football tournament quite like Euro96, not in recent times any way, and I think that’s entirely related to the potent mixture of nostalgia, optimism, and a sense of simpler times. Historian Alwyn Turner puts it best: ‘That summer the chorus of ‘Football’s coming home’ was heard everywhere, as the record went to number one at the peak of Cool Britannia’. It’s all been a bit downhill ever since. But you know, forty-eight years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming!