Perhaps best left in the hands of pop culture or professional music critics rather than some stodgy old football blog, it still bears mentioning that today would have been Farrokh Bulsara’s 65th birthday. Or course, we knew him better as Freddie Mercury, the original front man for Queen, who died from complications due to HIV/AIDS in 1991. While originally from Zanzibar, Mercury’s family moved to West London in the early 1960s, where he attended school, worked odd jobs, and played in several groups before joining up with Roger Taylor and Brian May in 1970 to form what would become one of Britain’s most exportable bands. Along the way, Mercury wrote what morphed into one of the more popular anthems played in sports stadiums with “We Are the Champions.” The song itself is an odd combination of soft ivory tinkling by Mercury mixed in with the crash of guitar and drums, which complements the transitions made from verses speaking to having sand kicked in one’s face to the brash statement that we still came out on top. While originally thought to be the band’s lyrical snub to music critics of the time, who might have considered Queen’s music lacking in any real contribution being made to the rock genre when compared to the Beatles or the Rolling Stones, Mercury appears to have defined his inspiration in writing the song during an interview with Circus Magazine in 1978.
Certainly, it’s a relationship that could be, but I was thinking about football when I wrote it. I wanted a participation song, something that the fans could latch on to. It was aimed at the masses; I thought we’d see how they took it. It worked a treat. When we performed it at a private concert in London, the fans actually broke into a football chant between numbers. Of course, I’ve given it more theatrical subtlety than an ordinary football chant. You know me.
Football has certainly thought about Mercury over the decades, as the song was included as one of the official theme songs of the 1994 FIFA World Cup played in the United States. It emerged as a Top Ten single in France four years later, despite having been released two decades previously, when Les Bleus hosted and won the 1998 World Cup. Perhaps while stepping on Mercury’s grave in doing so, the song was covered by an animated frog as part of a cellular ring tone campaign to coincide with World Cup 2006 in Germany, returning to the charts in France through this as well as being a Top 100 digital download in the US for the year. In addition to this song and “We Will Rock You,” Mercury’s music also found its way into the 1999 Champions League Final played at the Camp Nou between Manchester United and Bayern Munich, when “Barcelona,” was performed by his collaborator after he had already passed away.
But it is Mercury’s gift to the fans with “We Are the Champions” which can still be brought out any time a title is achieved. Certainly it is much simpler in the way of a football chant than the lyrics of White Stripes’ “Seven Nation Army,” which only lends itself to guttural blurts of the bass line. And while some–including Freddie Mercury himself at the time–consider it a bit of a campy twist on the football chant, it is nonetheless simple and direct, perfectly suited for today’s sporting culture. It is somehow reflective of the football environment now experienced, where managers are sacked in the blink of an eye for poor form despite prior track records of success, players evolve from being club saviours to transfer busts with the jerk of a knee, money evaporates without bills being paid while glories are chased, and attendances at smaller local clubs are reduced in favour of fans traveling to the homes of larger premier sides, where the promises of trophies are more readily available.
No time for losers…’Cause we are the champions of the world.
Taking another view, however, Mercury’s lyrics can just as easily speak to the supporters of clubs in crisis and heard in mumbled form at the pubs from those supporters of Plymouth Argyle, Wrexham, and so many others at the present. In this sense, the song is indeed more subtle that it appears, speaking to “we” as all fans and not just those possible gloryhunters deliriously celebrating the victory of their clubs. Rather than being a two-fingered salute to those who doubted, say, whether Manchester United could win the English Premiership again playing a bit of ugly football as they did last season, it instead offers up a sense of empathy and a charge to keep the faith. For supporters who have seen their clubs relegated, threatened with being wound up, treated as a commercial property only to be bartered and traded rather than a part of the communities from which they began, there will be a better day if they keep on fighting till the end. A story like AFC Wimbledon in 2010/11 can happen, even if the journey there might not be smoothly paved.
I’ve paid my dues time after time. I’ve done my sentence but committed no crime…and I’ve had my share of sand kicked in my face but I’ve come through.
We are the champions, indeed. Thank you, Freddie Mercury.
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