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, “Turks and Caicos, Sweet Home of the Parrot”. Today we sent noted musicologist and patriot Dotmund to cast his ear over the funky fresh sounds of Groups C and D.
Group C: England, United States of America, Algeria, Slovenia.
England: “God Save the Queen” – Thanks to the unusual way in which the United Kingdom goes about the business of nationality, England don’t have their own national anthem. Land of Hope and Glory or Jerusalem are occasionally used in the sporting arena, but – as is the case with football – the most common anthem used is that of the United Kingdom. In many ways, it’s an ironic position to be in, as God Save the Queen – first definitively published in 1744 and made popular in London theatres at the height of the following year’s Jacobite Rising – features a number of verses added over the years to make it perfectly plain that in the view of the author, Scottish people are all savages and that England is the bestest ever. According to the official website of the Royal Family, however, there are two official verses to the song, only one of which is typically performed. Such is the flamboyant patriotism of the island race that it is hugely rare to find a Briton who knows the words to any other verse. Unless, of course, they are particularly opposed to the Jacobite cause.
United States of America: “The Star-Spangled Banner” – Such is the cultural ubiquity of the USA, The Star-Spangled Banner must surely be one of the most recognisable national anthems on the planet. Whilst not a particularly popular ditty (see aforementioned cultural ubiquity and George W. Bush for details), The Star-Spangled Banner is a song with a fairly heroic background. The lyrics are from a poem called “The Defence of Fort McHenry” by Francis Scott Key, written in 1814. To Key’s credit, this has left the US with a rare thing – a national anthem which manages to be patriotic without wishing any foul scorn towards any specific foe. Nevertheless, it also stands out from the crowd for managing to include a line about both rockets and bombs, assisting cynical people everywhere to grumble on for years to come. The accompanying music, by John Stafford Smith, is based on an old British drinking song. For such a well-known anthem, it is perhaps also surprising that its official adoption as the national song of the USA was not until 3rd March 1931. Before that, the United States had used My Country, ‘Tis of Thee, a 13-verse song which is still widely performed at official and patriotic functions and utilises the melody of God Save the Queen.
Algeria: “Kassaman (The Pledge)” – Written in 1956 – the year of the country’s independence from France – and adopted in 1963, the Algerian national anthem starts with two of the more outstanding lines from the annals of national verse: “We swear by the lightning that destroys, By the streams of generous blood being shed”. Leaving everybody in no doubt as to the lengths of Algerian patriotism whilst piling on images of death and destruction is a bold opening gambit which really makes Kassaman stand out from the pack. The main focus of the song, predictably, is Algeria’s old colonial master. By the time verse three arrives (with verse two having already taken in “So we have taken the noise of gunpowder as our rhythm, And the sound of machine guns as our melody”), no French person with a passable understanding of Arabic will be in much doubt that Algeria means business. Whatever your feelings on such floridly pugnacious national anthems, however, it’s hard to deny that the tune is a real delight, its jauntiness perhaps a little at odds with the forthright lyrics.
Slovenia: “Zdravica (A Toast)” – Slovenia, whose independence from Yugoslavia was only recognised 18 years ago, are one of a number of Balkan countries who had more pressing concerns on their mind than what their national anthem should be. Nevertheless, Zdravica – or rather, the 7th stanza of the poem Zdravica, written in 1844 by Slovenia’s most highly-treasured writer France Preseren – was in fact adopted as the Slovene national anthem over two years prior to the country’s secession. Perhaps predictably, given the torrid recent history of the region, Zdravica stands out from the rest of the anthems in Group C by dint of its preoccupation with peace and harmony. The first line “God’s blessing on all nations” sets up a lovely juxtaposition for anyone in Polokwane on Sunday 13th June who speaks both Slovene and Arabic, as Slovenia line up for their opening match of the tournament against Algeria.
Group D – Germany, Australia, Serbia, Ghana
Germany: “Das Lied der Deutschen (The Song of the Germans)“– Let’s get this sorted out. The German national anthem – written by August Heinrich Hoffmann in 1841 to accompany music by Joseph Haydn written 44 years previously – is not, and has never been, called “Deutschland Über Alles”. Yes, the first line of the first verse of the song does use those three famous words. Adopted as the German’s official anthem during the Weimar Republic in 1922, since 1952 (for West Germany) and 1990 (as the unified Germany) only the third verse has been used. For the record, the first line of this verse is “Unity and justice and freedom for the German Fatherland!”. Brotherly love and fairness for all are the order of the day, so you can tell any tabloid reading ninnies of your acquaintance that it’s probably safe now to take their tin hat off.
Australia: “Advance Australia Fair” – Written by a Scot, Peter Dodds McCormick, in 1878, Advance Australia Fair was adopted as the national anthem of Australia in 1984. In a pleasing and typically democratic move on the part of the Australian government, the song was chosen by a public referendum in 1977. A bit like Eurovision: Your Country Needs You but with better-crafted songs. Advance Australia Fair won through in what must have been a scintillating contest with God Save the Queen, Song of Australia and (I swear I’m not making this up) Waltzing Matilda. Perhaps predictably, God Save the Queen did not fair particularly well, polling 18.78% of the vote – some 10% less than even Waltzing Matilda. However, democracy is something of an ass at times, and Advance Australia Fair has not proved a universally popular choice, judging alone by the Wikipedia account of the controversy surrounding the use of the word “girt”. I can’t help but feel that a lot of these problems could have been easily avoided had the Aussie government just consulted with Rolf Harris.
Serbia: “Boze Pravde” (God of Justice) – Like Slovenia in Group C, Serbia’s national anthem has been in something of a state of flux in recent times thanks to regional instability. Boze Pravde, a song written by Jovan Dordevic and Davorin Jenko in 1872 was the national anthem of the Kingdom of Serbia (a country also containing the modern-day state of FYR Macedonia) until it was dissolved in 1918 following the end of the Great War. Serbia became an independent republic four days before start of the last World Cup in 2006 (at which they participated as Serbia and Montenegro), Boze Pravde being officially re-adopted as the national anthem last year. Similar to the Slovenian anthem, it is an anthem which is lyrically more preoccupied by peace than it is with war, although it warms to the subject of the latter as the verses unfold (“God of armies! be our leader”). Considering the considerable turbulence Serbia has been through in order to acquire this anthem, it is fairly middle-of-the-road national fare in both lyrical content and tune, I’m afraid.
Ghana: “God Bless Our Homeland Ghana” – Blessed with a delightfully straightforward title, Ghana’s national anthem was adopted upon independence from the UK in 1957. However, the lyrics – originally written by the composer of the tune, Philip Gbeho – were disregarded following a coup in 1966 and replaced by those written by a student, Michael Kwame Gbordzoe, as part of a national competition. Why more countries can’t have a similar competition, I simply do not know. Possibly it’s on account of what happened next, as Gbordzoe – now Dr. Gbordzoe, a scientist living in Germany – went public in 2007 complaining that the Ghanaian government had never officially recognised his work. With the official records still crediting the anthem to Gbeho alone, Gbordzoe has produced scans of his original handwritten lyrics as well as texts of his poems written whilst in secondary school in order to help his case. Ghana’s anthem is truly a landmark case in this, the age of the litigious society. In terms of its actual content, it’s pretty standard stuff, dealing with patriotism, equality and liberty to an upbeat parpy soundtrack.