The Beatles. Led Zeppelin. The Police. Oasis. The Arctic Monkeys. For half a century, England has been changing the face of music. And for almost as long, England has been backing World Cup songs that seem to be a reflection of the team: one-note, lacking in creativity, difficult to watch most of the time, and at least half of the team are phoning it in.
1966: Lonnie Donegan, “World Cup Willie”
England World Cup run: Winners! England 4 – 2 W. Germany (after extra time)
Before rock and roll found its way to England, Lonnie Donegan was the Justin Timberlake of skiffle, a kind of upbeat working-class folk music played on guitars, banjos, and washboards by coal miners, milkmen, and Mumford & Sons. By 1966, Donegan’s career was at its low point. And what better way to revive it than with a song to promote the first World Cup mascot, a lion named Willie—and however bad you think this one is, the ball of bad singing is barely in play:
1970: England Squad, “Back Home”
England World Cup run: Quarter-finals, W. Germany 3-2 England (after extra time)
Since there was a song in 1966 and England won the World Cup, one thing was obvious: to win it again, England would need another World Cup song. And so Moore, Charlton, and Hurst shuffled into the recording studio to tunelessly groan their way through “Back Home,” a song written by Bill Martin and Phil Coulter who would go on to write “Saturday Night” for the Bay City Rollers. “We’ll give all we’ve got to give for the folks back home,” sang Hurst, Charlton, and the rest of the team, but it’s unclear how that squares with the reality of blowing a 2-goal lead with less than 30 minutes to play, and taking an early flight back to England.
1982: England Squad, “This Time (We’ll Get It Right)”
England World Cup run: Second group stage, Germany qualified instead.
After failing to make it to the finals in 1974 and 1978 (which was probably a mercy because the last thing the world of music needed was a World Cup song in the heyday of disco), England were back on the biggest stage. Chris Norman had written “My Sharona” for The Knack, and “Heart of Glass” and “The Tide is High” for Blondie. You might think that this kind of songwriting prowess could only yield an anthem that would stand the test of time. But then you’d remember that this is an England World Cup song, and revise your expectations downwards. Kevin Keegan sings his heart out, being the only England squad member with a pre-existing musical career (his Norman-penned “Head Over Heels in Love” rose to #10 in Germany in 1979), while the rest of the squad mumble along like the reluctant and introverted friend you brought to karaoke night.
1986: England Squad, “We’ve Got the Whole World at Our Feet”
England’s World Cup run: Quarter-final, England 1-2 Argentina
Songwriter Tony Hiller saw his biggest success writing for The Brotherhood of Man, who had won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1976. Hiller had also written the Scotland World Cup song in 1986, and FA Cup Final songs for Manchester United (1976), Everton (1985) and Liverpool (1986). In short, Hiller was no stranger to the quirks of writing for non-singers, so how bad could his entry in to the England World Cup Song canon be? With an intro that evokes World War II movie themes, keyboards straight out of an ‘80s sitcom, and the customary atonal zombie-moaning from the players, “We’ve Got the Whole World at Our Feet” is the bloody fingertips scraping through the bottom of the barrel, the darkness before the dawn. The team sings “There’s not a single team that we can’t beat,” and if any team deserved to be beaten, it’s this one.
1990: englandneworder, “World In Motion”
England World Cup run: Semi-final, W. Germany 1 (4) -1 (3) England (after extra time and penalties)
For the first time since World Cup Willie, the Football Association endorsed a song whose main performers were not the England squad. New Order’s “World in Motion” was co-written by British comedian Keith Allen (actor, comedian, father of Lily), and saw a departure from the usual theme of “we’re your team, so we’re going to try hard.” Instead, the lyrics were a string of clichés plucked straight from the sidelines of a middle school soccer game, cleverly woven together into a message of self-belief. England’s great creative hopes, Paul Gascoigne, Chris Waddle and Peter Beardsley, chanted along through the chorus, while John Barnes tackles a solo rap that makes Will Smith look gangsta. It didn’t stop England from losing on penalties to West Germany, but it may have been the high point of the worst World Cup finals in history.
1998: England United, ”(How Does It Feel to Be) On Top of the World?”
England World Cup run: Round of 16 Argentina 2 (4) – 2 (3) England (after extra time and penalties)
The mid-to-late 1990s were a great time to be in England—Oasis and Blur duked it out for the indie music crown, the Spice Girls owned the pop charts, and England had suddenly stopped sucking at sports, as evidenced by Tim Henman’s Wimbledon run and England’s European Championships showing in 1996. So it’s no surprise that the catchiest and most upbeat of the official World Cup songs, “On Top of the World,” came out of this cultural stew. Written by Ian McCulloch of Echo and the Bunnymen, and performed by McCulloch’s band, along with the Spice Girls and a handful of Britpoppers it doesn’t feature the squad “singing” in any capacity, but they appear in the video, so that means you get to see both Neville brothers. And for that we apologize. “Goals are flying in, we’ve made the news,” croons McCulloch, but what ended up making the news was David Beckham’s ejection, two minutes into the second half against a beatable Argentina, and a response back home that included effigies of the Manchester United midfielder being hung from streetlights, or burned. Way to keep it in perspective, England fans.
2002: Ant and Dec, “We’re On The Ball”
England World Cup Run: Quarter-final. England 1-2 Brazil
Despite recording a 5-1 thrashing of Germany on the way to qualifying, it took a (now redeemed) David Beckham free kick against Greece, deep in stoppage time at the end of the final game, to secure a place in Asia. Madcap British variety entertainers, Declan Donnely and Ant McPartlin, who had a brief musical career as “PJ and Duncan,” returned the World Cup song to its former status as a crime against music, if not humanity, just like their big hit, “”Let’s Get Ready to Rhumble. You couldn’t possibly think it’s as bad as it actually is, and the less we talk about this one the better.
2006: Embrace, “World At Your Feet”
England World Cup Run: Quarter-final, England 0 (1) – 0 (3) Portugal (after extra time and penalties)
Embrace might not be so well known on this side of the pond, but the indie-rockers have a sizable following in the UK, and following in the footsteps of New Order and Echo and the Bunnymen, they wrote a song using some old football clichés that don’t have to be about football, especially if you’re determined to read the lyrics that way. It’s melodic, it has echoes of U2 (whose “City of Blinding Light” was used in ESPN’s Anthem commercial for the World Cup) and, most importantly, no England players were used in the recording of the song. England made their familiar exit on penalties, this time to Portugal in the quarter-final as Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard, who you’d bet your first- and second-born on converting, had their shots saved, before Jamie Carragher, who had never taken a penalty as a professional player, confirmed England’s travel plans back to Heathrow.
2010: No song
England World Cup run: Round of 16, England 1-4 Germany
The English FA released a statement saying that the management team wanted to be “fully focused” on the World Cup, and so there was no officially endorsed World Cup song in 2010.
In footballing terms that meant tying with the USMNT and Algeria in the group stage, and horse-whipping the footballing powerhouse that is Slovenia 1-0 in the last group match to qualify second behind the USMNT, before capitulating before (you guessed it) Germany in the round of 16.
2014: Gary Barlow, “Greatest Day”
England World Cup run: TBD
Since being “fully focused” led to England’s worst World Cup run since 1998, this year the FA have come to their senses: Gary Barlow (who wrote the song) is joined by two Spice Girls (Emma Bunton and Melanie Chisholm), Katy B, Pixie Lott, a slew of England players who never won the World Cup, and Geoff Hurst. It’s awful. If the FA wanted to borrow an existing song, they could have done much worse than “The Farm’s “All Together Now which did the rounds back in 2006. “Greatest Day” ignores all of the clichés that make even the worst World Cup songs identifiable for what they are, and sounds like a bad sing-along at the end of a wedding. It’s hard to imagine that any fans will be singing it from the stands in Sao Paolo.
So what will fans be singing instead?
Probably one of the two greatest sing-a-long England football songs ever.
“Three Lions” was written and performed by the Lightning Seeds and comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner for the 1996 European Championships, which England hosted. For most England fans Three Lions is the best football song ever written, because it speaks to the fans’ experience: “All those oh-so-nears wear you down through the years,” and their fondest memories: “I still see that tackle by Moore, and when Lineker scored, Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing.” It’s not about the players, it’s about what the team and the tournament mean to the fans, sung by fans.
Keith Allen can’t stop writing World Cup songs. In 2002 his band, Fat Les, had an unofficial England song which took its name from the English national dish, “Vindaloo.” Infectiously catchy, and with the refrain “We’re England, we’re gonna score one more than you,” Vindaloo was what every England fan wanted to feel could be true, that our Golden Generation could go to Japan and South Korea and play with the kind of attacking flair we all knew the team possessed, and beat anyone. But the reality is that we’d have the same experience of the World Cup Final as the team had: Sitting at home, ordering in bad food, and drinking too much while yelling that it should be us.