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 official drum’n’bass remix of, “Giant Hymn of The Tongan”.

For the final time, we prised the now-bloodied pieces of gauze out of Dotmund’s ears so as he could better offer his thoughts on the national anthems of Groups G and H.

Group G: Brazil, North Korea, Côte d’Ivoire, Portugal.

Brazil: “Hino Nacional Brasileiro” (Brazilian National Anthem) Given Brazil’s huge success in the World Cup, it is perhaps surprising that the Brazilian anthem seems to be less well-known than those of Italy, France or Germany.  This is more surprising still considering its outrageous brilliance.  Upbeat, interesting and exotic, it represents everything positive about Brazil it would want to project.  The melody has existed since 1822, but it went through 3 sets of lyrics in its first century until the current set were finalised by the President in 1922.  These lyrics consist of two choruses, and a number of strict regulations as to their use.  In purely instrumental performances – such as those heard at sporting events – only the first is used, but when the anthem is to be sung in performance, the law stipulates both must be played.

In terms of its content, it’s fairly typical in themes: geography, social justice and liberty.  However, props must go to the author, who managed to get the words “star-spangled banner” into the second chorus.  I’ve been working hard to get “God Save the Queen” into La Marseillaise, but it just won’t seem to take.  Brazil’s is my favourite national anthem, if such a thing is possible to have.

North Korea: “Aegukka” (The Patriotic Song) If we’re honest, North Korea is a strange country, so it’s a little surprising that their national anthem is so normal.  Not surprising, however, is the date of its official adoption: 1947, around the time of the division of Korea.  Before that time, the North’s anthem was shared with that of the South.  Such a thing was never likely to appeal to Kim Il-Sung, of course.  It is something of a tribute to this oft-maligned political system that the lyrics of Aegukka manage to steer clear of any of the following: war, imperialism, weapons of mass destruction, the evils of capitalism or Josef Stalin.  Musically, too, it’s fairly standard anthemic fare.  Students of irony will nevertheless be pleased to note that the national anthem of the world’s most insular and secretive nation features the line “The firm will, bonded with truth, Will go forth to all the world.”

Côte d’Ivoire: “L’Abidjanaise” (Song of Abidjan) In much the same way as my short-lived campaign to get Oh Winchester You’re So Fine adopted as the British national anthem, the Côte d’Ivoire’s anthem title is concerned with Abidjan rather than the country as a whole.  This is even more impressive considering that, since the anthem was adopted in 1960, Côte d’Ivoire changed its capital to Yamoussoukro.  They are not alone in this unusual choice of title, as both France’s La Marseillaise (Marseille) and Belgium’s La Brabançone (Brabant) refer to things other than the country as a whole.  Like both of them, however, the lyrics of L’Abidjanaise themselves are not as place-centric, and as usual outline over four verses how great Côte d’Ivoire is.  You can’t ask for more from a national anthem, really.  Apart from perhaps a little bit more cowbell.

Portugal: “A Portuguesa” (The Portuguese Hymn) Portugal and Great Britain hold the longest-standing treaty agreement in the world- The Treaty of Windsor dates back to 1386 –  so it is perhaps ironic that it was a nationalistic fervour against the British government that gave birth to the current Portuguese national anthem.  In 1890, the British government – demonstrating little-to-no capacity for irony themselves – issued an ultimatum to Portugal to remove their military presence from their colonies in Africa, in order to facilitate the building of a British railway from Egypt to the Cape.  Portugal aceeded to the demands, the country’s republican movement were stoked up into a frenzy and A Portuguesa was hastily written and adopted as its official marching song.  Twenty years later, the republican movement prevailed,  and A Portuguesa became the official national anthem of Portugal a year later in 1911.  Predictably, it’s a fairly strident affair, not least in the chorus:

To arms, to arms!
Over the land, over the sea,
To arms, to arms!
To fight for our Fatherland!
Against the cannons, march, march!

In the original version, that final line read “Against the British, march, march!”.   And I’m sure we can all sympathise with that.

Group H – Spain, Switzerland, Honduras, Chile

Spain: “Marcha Real” (The Royal March) What is the one thing everyone knows about the Spanish national anthem?  It has no lyrics.  The tune is reasonably old amongst the 32 anthems for this summer’s competition, dating back to the mid-18th Century.  The full version of the tune should, protocol has it, only be played for the King of Spain, so a truncated version is used for sporting events.  There have been various attempts at fitting lyrics to the melody down the years, of course, but none of them has stuck – unsurprisingly enough when you consider one of the last concerted efforts took place under the reign of the less-than-lovely General Franco.

The very latest chapter in the story came after the Spanish sports minister witnessed some spirited You’ll Never Walk Alone action at Anfield in 2007 and decided that a good sing-up would be just the thing for Spain, especially as at the time Madrid was bidding to host the 2016 Olympics.  The resulting 2008 lyrics – specially designed not to alienate or infuriate any of the country’s autonomous communities – were considered overly-patriotic and generally dreadful.  The project was shelved within just 5 days of their publication:

Long live Spain!
Let’s all sing together,
with different voices,
and only one heart.

Long live Spain!
From the green valleys,
to the immense sea,
a hymn of brotherhood.

They forgot to mention the rain, which falls mainly on the plain.

Switzerland: “Swiss Psalm” Switzerland has a lot of cheese, a lot of gold and a lot of official languages – four, to be precise: German, French, Italian and Romansch – which makes choosing a national anthem something of a challenge.  To that end, they didn’t have one for a long time.  The Schweizerpsalm (or Cantique suisse, or Salmo svizzero, or Psalm svizzer) was written in 1844 and used as the national song on an unofficial basis for years throughout the middle of the last Century.  Switzerland is also a country legendary for its social democracy, of course, so actually adopting officially it was something of a sticking point.  The populace all wanted to have their say about what a Swiss anthem should say for them.  Accordingly, before the multipurpose Swiss Psalm was adopted in 1981, each of the official languages had their own anthem – the Romansch variant, E clomas, tger paeis, was set to the melody of God Save The Queen.

As the modern anthem’s title suggests, the theme and content of the lyrics are of a religious leaning, pointing out that God is surely Swiss.  The opening line, however, “When the morning skies grow red”, possibly points to the fact that Switzerland is also home to a lot of nervous shepherds.

Honduras: “Himno Nacional de Honduras” (National Anthem of Honduras) Adopted in 1915, the Himno Nacional de Honduras gives a potted history of the country over seven verses and a chorus.  It, like a number of similar uninspiringly-named anthems, has an alternative title – the much more poetic “Your flag is a splendor of sky” – derived from the song’s opening line.  In fact, the whole chorus dedicates itself to describing the Honduran national flag in some detail, which is a bold move on the part of the author.  However, he makes up for this rather dry beginning by managing to shoehorn in the line “Indignantly a lion roared” in verse 4.  This should be the aim for any national anthem lyricist.  Spain, take note.

Chile: “Himno Nacional de Chile” (National Anthem of Chile) South America, I would like to contend, has the most musically stimulating national anthems of any continent on Earth.  Chile’s merely furthers this tradition.  Its composer, however, was not of South American stock at all.  Ramón Carnicer was a Spaniard who had been exiled to England for his liberal ideas.  Bearing this in mind, he was perhaps an even odder choice for the job: the original lyrics to Chile’s national anthem were formed from an anti-Spainish poem.  His work was completed in 1827, but its current lyrics were not written until 20 years afterward.  The Chilean government asked Eusebio Lillo, a poet, to replace the original anti-Spain sentiments – although the chorus of the first anthem was retained.

The song is made up of six verses, with generally only the first and the chorus performed.  However, Augusto Pinochet (Head of the military government from 1973-1990) was very fond of the third verse, which is fulsome in its praise for the Chilean army.  As is the way with military dictatorships, he made everyone else be fond of it too by law, officially incorporating it into the standard sung text.  Since his deposition, verse three is never sung apart from at solely military events – and even then only as part of the full song.  This is because General Pinochet was a very bad man and Himno Nacional de Chile is a very good anthem.  Why should one spoil the other?