The marriage of music and soccer hasn’t always yielded very appealing offspring. World Cup songs and official team songs have made for some awfully grating musical offerings that are generally remembered as novelties and best confined to history’s discount bins. But soccer, being the universal and resilient force of nature that it is, has found its way into the musical landscape in other ways and has turned up in some unexpected places over the years.
The songs listed below represent the rare moments when serious songwriters have turned to the beautiful game for inspiration, and slipped soccer references into their work in one way or another.
Few bands inspire as much analysis and debate as The Beatles, and considering that the Fab Four hail from one of the world’s most soccer-crazed cities, it comes as no surprise that there has been plenty of speculation about where their loyalties lie when it comes to the game. The city of Liverpool is divided into two camps—the red of Liverpool and the blue of Everton—and the band members have offered no definitive evidence of which side they belong to.
On “Dig It,” an obscure cut from Let It Be that clocks in at all of 51 seconds, The Beatles find time to squeeze in the one soccer reference in their catalog. Matt Busby’s name is invoked without any context. Busby—most closely associated with Manchester United, who he managed for 24 years—was a Liverpool player in the 1930s and some see the namedrop as an indication that the Beatles were/are reds. A bit of a stretch? Probably, but it’s an obscure soccer reference from the biggest band in the history of the world so it would seem a good way to start this list.
Pink Floyd have made a couple of references to soccer, or “football” as they rightly call it, over the course of their career. The song “Money” contains the lines, “New car, caviar, four-star daydream / Think I’ll buy me a football team,” but perhaps the most memorable nod they make to the beautiful game comes in the form of a field recording mixed into the song “Fearless.” At the beginning and end of the track we hear a snippet of a crowd singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which Liverpool fans know as their club’s rousing anthem. The recording is clearly of a soccer crowd, most likely at Anfield, and it’s a reference that can’t fail to evoke a sea of red flags and scarves in the mind of any fan of English soccer.
Billy Bragg is one of England’s most gifted songwriters, a champion of its working class, and a social commentator who draws on the spirit of Woody Guthrie and The Clash in equal measure. Given his prolific output and his “voice of the people” status it would seem inevitable that soccer, the true opiate of his people, would find its way into his songs. There’s plenty to choose from in his catalog, but “Sexuality,” a cheeky tale of romantic conquest, includes the line, ”I had an uncle who once played for Red Star Belgrade,” which, in the world of obscure soccer-related lyrics, is about as good as it gets.
In “Down all the Days,” Shane McGowan pays tribute to the Irish writer Christy Brown, whose life was immortalized by Daniel Day Lewis’s unforgettable performance in Jim Sheridan’s film My Left Foot. McGowan offers the cryptic line, “I have often had to depend upon the kindness of strangers / but I’ve never been asked and I never replied / if I supported the Glasgow Rangers.” Regardless of McGowan’s exact intention with the line, the key factor here is the sectarian symbolism. Glasgow’s two soccer teams—the traditionally Catholic Celtic and the Protestant Rangers—have come to symbolize the sectarianism of the region, and Christy Brown, culturally speaking, would have fallen into the Celtic camp. It’s worth noting also that Shane McGowan is a lifelong Celtic fan and his allegiance to the club is as much about politics as it is about soccer.
It is no surprise that most of the songs on this list come from the UK. Soccer in that part of the world, after all, is part of the fabric of everyday life and references to it in British music seem relatively natural. In North America on the other hand, soccer is somewhat of a novelty—something followed by hipsters, or as John Oliver recently put it, “something you pick your 10-year-old daughter up from.” It is simply not part of mainstream popular culture in the U.S., so any reference to it in American popular music seems destined to be a quirky namedrop, a token tribute squeezed into a clever turn of phrase. And that is just what Jay-Z gives us in the final track of 2007’s American Gangster when he simply bids us “Freddy Adu,” and provides soccer with its fleeting moment in hip-hop’s spotlight.
Los Campesinos are a Welsh indie power-pop band tailor-made for this list. Their songs, particularly those on their latest album (2013’s No Blues), are literally riddled with soccer references. “Glue me” contains two of the cleverest and most obscure ones you are ever likely to hear in a song. “All the dignity of a missed Panenka penalty” (referring to a specific style of penalty first pioneered by the Czech Antonin Panenka in 1979, which is particularly embarrassing if not pulled off correctly) and “we connected like a Yeboah volley” (referring to two especially well-struck volleys that resulted in goals for Ghanaian forward Tony Yeboah in 1995) elevate this song to a league of its own—the pop song with soccer references so obscure that they require detailed historical footnotes.
“He had the woolly scarf of Shaktar Donetsk / nay, the banner of freedom wrung around his neck / inherited from his father, one of the Ukraine exiles of Yugoslavia” is the way Joe Strummer describes his subject in this, the story of a Macedonian refugee who suffocated in a smuggler’s truck en route to the promise of a better life in England. That he was wearing a scarf of the famous Ukrainian soccer team, serves as a symbol both of what would have made him an outsider in his intended destination as well as what would have made him the same as everyone else—a boy who loved the team that his father loved. It’s one line and one image but it hints at a layered back story, and points to soccer as a universal language capable of crossing borders in even the most tragic ways.
The soccer reference in this song is slight and tangential, a passing mention, but it evokes an essential part of the atmosphere that is conjured. The Clientele find a dreamy romance in the mundane world of English suburbia, and nowhere more so than on their early recordings. “Saturday” is a gorgeous song, typical of the band’s early years, and the line, “It’s Saturday, the evening’s come / the football crowds have all gone home” paints a hazy picture of quiet streets that were spilling over with people and noise just a few hours earlier. It’s not really about soccer, it’s just a snapshot of a part of the world where soccer is always present, always part of life, whether embraced or simply endured.
When it comes to wistful, catchy indie-pop from the UK, Belle & Sebastian have been mining the territory for longer than most of their peers and have a body of work that covers enough everyday subjects that soccer was bound to sneak in sooner or later. “Another Sunny Day,” from 2006’s The Life Pursuit, evokes the joy of that rarest of things, a sunny day in Scotland, while also paying tribute to one of the archetypal cornerstones of even the most casually arranged games of soccer—disdain for the referee.
How does an instrumental band with no vocalist make a soccer reference in a song? By composing a score for a silent film about Zinedine Zidane. In “Zidane,” Mogwai essentially do for soccer what Explosions in the Sky did for American Football in “Friday Night Lights.” The film follows the iconic player exclusively throughout the 90 minutes of a game in which he was sent off. The dynamics of the music follow beautifully the swells, lulls, and explosions of energy and emotion that exist in a game of soccer, and “Half-Time” captures the respite and tension of the interval where, in the case of Zidane, dressing room chatter and instructions are tuned out and enveloped by a brooding internal storm.