First published in the Western People on Monday.
Once, the World Cup was the gold standard of soccer. But now, in the era of the superclub, how many national teams could keep it kicked out to Real Madrid, or Manchester City, or Bayern Munich? The softening of the ill-feeling against England in international tournaments may not be so much due to “moving on” as a vague feeling of pity for the poor eejits.
So why watch, especially when Ireland aren’t even in it? Because the World cup isn’t just about a game and who plays it best. The World Cup is about nation and identity and pride and who you are and who you want to be.
And anthems. Lots and lots of anthems.
Assessing the national anthems is one of the great hidden pleasures of the World Cup. It’s like watching the pint settle – no-one would buy pints if they couldn’t drink them, but savouring that moment when the pint turns completely black under its collar is one of the exquisite joys of life.
Disappointingly, most anthems are, not to put a tooth in it, cat. This is bad news for the smaller countries, for whom the anthem means so much. While you’re hearing some terrible dirge, salt tears of raw pride are streaming down everybody’s face back home in the competing country that Whereveria has finally taken her place among the nations of the earth.
Spain are the current World Champions, and Spain is one of those countries that has no lyrics to its national anthem. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as lyrics in national anthems aren’t always very good.
On the other hand, there are also anthems that have no end of lyrics. Step forward Greece, whose national anthem has a genuinely staggering 158 verses. Happily, they only sing two of them, or else the Greek anthem would last longer than their actual matches.
The most under-rated of the national anthems, in this neck of the woods certainly, is the Belgian anthem. La Brabançonne is surprisingly interesting and strangely beautiful. A plangent horn is sounded at the start, followed by a martial thrump-thrump-thrump of strings and drums, and then all the band sails in to sound a marvellous salute to king, law and liberty.
La Brabançonne isn’t a widely-known tune here because Belgium doesn’t play rugby and doesn’t get to that many international soccer tournaments. But the Belgians are dark horse bets for this World Cup, so maybe we’ll be hearing a lot of more of it.
An anthem that will not be heard often at the World Cup but that is very familiar to us thanks to Hollywood is the Star-Spangled Banner. This is interesting as an anthem because it’s such a difficult song to sing, with its huge range. Most anthems want to give that notorious fellow, the man in the street, some chance to bawl along in his or own fashion. The man in the street will not be reaching the rocket’s red glare or bombs bursting in air without a step-ladder at the very least.
One of the few sensible decisions taken by the current Russian Government was to use the old Soviet anthem as the anthem of the post-Czarist independent Russia. The USSR was a house of horror for the republics of which it was comprised and the serf nations it terrorised throughout its existence, but the Soviets cannot be faulted in their choice of soundtrack.
The Italian anthem, surprisingly, is a disappointment. The home of opera should have a better anthem than Fratelli d’Italia. What’s wrong with it? It doesn’t flow – it’s full of false starts, unsubtle changes, and bizarre stops, as if to give the singer(s) another lungful of breath. It sounds like a song written by a committee who never met, with the different pieces assembled together like Frankenstein’s monster, sent into the world to make the best of it.
It’s such a pity when you consider some of the best music produced in the western tradition is in Italian opera and could serve any nation as an anthem. You could use the Te Deum from Tosca if you’re a country that likes invading other countries and salting their fields. Alfredo’s first act declaration of love in La Traviata would do very nicely for a shoulders-back, chest-out sort of nation, and there’s the thrilling Di Quella Pira from Il Trovatore – who wouldn’t follow someone into battle with that ringing in their ears?
No such problem for the Germans, who are one of very few nations to have the music of their anthem written by a composer of genuine renown. Franz Joseph Haydn was a contemporary and friend of Mozart and a teacher of Beethoven. When you find yourself being swept away by the German anthem, know that it was written by a master.
And for all that, the greatest national anthem in the world was written by an amateur. La Marseillaise, the glorious national anthem of France, was written by an officer of artillery, Rouget de Lisle, in between battles in 1792. It proved so popular that it was adopted as the national anthem in 1795, and it’s been sung since.
The lyrics of La Marseillaise are surprisingly gory, with references to bloody banners and ferocious cut-throat soldiers. But there is something magical about how the first two lines of the chorus - “aux armes, citoyens! / Formez vos bataillons” - sit on the fanfare of their music that is unmatched in any anthem, anywhere.
Three years after the French adopted La Marseillaise as their national anthem, Napoleon sent an army here, under the command of General Humbert, to see what they could do to promote liberty, equality and fraternity in Ireland. It is quite something to think of La Marseillaise ringing out as that army marched down Bohernasup and into Ballina over two hundred years ago and what the natives must have made of it all. Vive la Republique!