For many people, major sports tournaments are the only occasion that national anthems are heard. These peculiar tunes have become a genre of their own, transcending the mere hymns that many of them were in first place, and they range from the gloriously uplifting to mournful dirges. The selection of words has, in many countries, brought about national debate that has been all-encompassing. In the case of Spain, it was decided that it would probably be for the best just to not bother having any for the sake of national unity.

Still, one of the distinguishing moments of excitement of any World Cup is to see the two teams line up and have a bash at singing the national anthem. Who belts it out at top volume, utterly out of tune but blissfully unaware of their atonality? Who is standing there silently with the look of a dead man walking? Who doesn’t know the words? Coaches could do worse that scan their opposition for signs of the mental state of their opposition and call their players back in. You can almost imagine Fabio Capello in the middle of a huddle of England players, explaining that they should push the ball wide early on because the opposing full-backs stood like rabbits caught in the glare of a car’s headlamps throughout the duration of, “O Greenland, Land Of Ice & Mellow Snowfulness”. Anyway, today we’re going to be having a look at Group A & Group B.

Group A: South Africa, France, Mexico & Uruguay

South Africa: “The National Anthem Of South Africa”Unsurprisingly, the national anthem of South Africa changed in 1997, three years after the end of apartheid government in the country. The South African national anthem has become one of the most instantly recognisable in the world, and is distinctive for being the only national anthem that doesn’t finish in the key in which it started (“neo-modal”, it says here). As part of the process of national reconciliation that was needed to stop post-apartheid South Africa from dissolving into civil war, the National Anthem Of South Africa has words in Xhosa, Sesotho, Afrikaans and English. The final stanza, “Sounds the call to come together, And united we shall stand, Let us live and strive for freedom, In South Africa our land”, is a clear reference to this as well.

France: “La Marseillaise” – It almost feels like a shame to get “La Marseillaise” out of the way so quickly, because it is one of the most easily identifiable (and, let’s face it, one of the best) national anthems that there is. A revolutionary song that was written at the time of the French revolution, in 1792, it was adopted as the country’s national anthem in 1795, but it was subsequently banned by Napoleon (and others) and was finally, finally made permanent in 1879. With its bloody references to soldiers coming “To slit the throats of our sons and wives” and no reference to any sort of deities, La Marseillaise became something of a socialist anthem in the early years of the twentieth century and was even used as a semi-official anthem at the time of the Russian revolution.

Mexico: “Himno Nacional Mexicano” – Officially adopted in 1943, the “Mexican National Anthem” was actually written ninety years earlier, in the immediate aftermath of a ruinous military defeat at the hands of the United States. The Mexican government takes it very seriously. They have been known to fine people that get the words wrong when singing it publically and it has even been used by the police, who have stopped people that they believe to be carrying false passports within the country and demanded that they sing it to prove their Mexicanness. Lyrically, it’s another military song – “Mexicans, at the cry of war, make ready the steel and the bridle, and the earth trembles at its centre at the resounding roar of the cannon” – and, as with many of the other national anthems that you will hear at the World Cup finals, the version played before matches is a trimmed down version, to comply with a FIFA ruling that all national anthems played before the start of matches should be no more than one minute and thirty seconds long.

Uruguay: “Himno Nacional Uruguayo” – Some of you may be slightly irritated by FIFA’s one minute and thirty seconds rule on national anthems, but your opinions may be swayed by the Uruguayan one, which is the longest in the world, clocking in at over 100 bars of music and over five minutes long. Another song that was written in the middle of the nineteenth century, yet wasn’t adopted until almost the middle of the twentieth century, the Uruguay National Anthem contains the word “fulfil” perhaps more than any other song ever written. “It’s the vows that our souls pronounce and which heroically we will fulfill. Its the vows that our souls pronounce and which heroically we will fulfill. We will fulfill”. Curiously, yet far from unusually, the Uruguay National Anthem wasn’t written by a native of the country – it was composed by Francisco José Debali, a Hungarian who emigrated to Uruguay and it has been strongly rumoured (though never conclusively proved) that he also wrote the music for the national anthem of their local rivals, Paraguay.

Group B – Argentina, Nigeria, South Korea, Greece

Argentina: Himno Nacional Argentino – Argentina is another country that takes its national anthem very seriously. It was adopted in the 11th of May 1813, three years after the May Revolution, which started the Argentine War of Independence, and we know this specifically because the 11th of May remains “Anthem Day” in the country to this day. The original version of the song made several colourful references to the Spanish that were exorcised by then President Roca in 1900 and even now, all national radio and television stations have to play it at noon and midnight on national holidays. This is another truncated version that you will hear this summer, with the original version clocking in at almost four minutes long.

Nigeria: “Arise, O Compatriots, Nigeria’s Call Obey” – It may have a long name, but Nigeria keeps it short, with a national anthem that clocks in at just fifty seconds long. It was adopted in 1978, replacing “Nigeria We Hail Thee”, which had been used since the country gained its independence from Britain in 1960. “Nigeria We Hail Thee” is still used as a protest song against the government in the country. The words were selected by combining the words from five winning entries in a national competition and the music was composed by the Director of Music of the Nigerian Police Band. It is usually followed at home by a spoken pledge of allegiance to the country.

South Korea: “Aegukga”(“The Patriotic Song”) – The national anthem of the southern part of the Korean peninsular is spelt the same as that of the northern part, although is romanised (ie, translated from the Korean alphabet into the Roman alphabet) differently. It was written at the end of the nineteenth century and the words were originally sung to the tune of “Auld Lang Syne”, before this was replaced in 1935. The song was formally adopted in 1948. Because Ahn Eak-tae, the piece’s composer, only died in 1965, it is still subject to copyright law and two football clubs were sued as recently as 2003 for using it without permission. The copyright holders only gave up their rights over the song to the Korean government in 2005.

Greece: Ymnos eis tin Eleftherian” (“Hymn To Liberty”) – Based on legends of a revolution against the Ottoman empire in 1821, “Hymn To Liberty” is a national anthem that truncates the 158 stanza hymn of the same name. Its use at home is fairly benign, but the song is surrounded by controversy over its use on the divided island of Cyprus. Cyprus rather forgot to get itself a national anthem when it gained independence from Britain in 1960, and the song came to be used as the country’s national anthem (at least on the Greek side of the divide – the Turkish side uses the Turkish national anthem. As part of a plan to diffuse tensions as the country joined the European Union, a new, wordless anthem was written but this was rejected by voters on the island.