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2 July 2021

The best football songs

Ahead of England’s quarter-final tomorrow, get in the mood with some classic football anthems.

By Emily Bootle

There are two things permitted into the metaphorical nightclub of conversation in summer 2021. Coronavirus is definitely not on the list – sorry mate, I don’t make the rules. You’re just bringing the whole vibe down. Love Island, wow, you look gorgeous. You can have free entry. And free drinks all night.

The second and final topic on the list of acceptable conversations is, of course, football. And we’re here to help. Here are some of the best football songs to get you in the mood for England’s quarter-final against Ukraine tomorrow, as the Euro championships provide us with the most excitement we’ve had since 2019. (Luckily, Love Island doesn’t air on Saturdays – the usual rivalry will recommence next week.)

“Vindaloo” – Fat Les

This is the quintessential football song: it’s patriotic (it references cheddar cheese, vindaloo curry, obviously, and “the kettle”); technical (“Knit one, pearl one/Drop one, curl one”); and beautifully juvenile (“We’re gonna score one more than you”). This is because when “Vindaloo” was released in 1998 by Fat Les – comprising Alex James of Blur, Damien Hirst and Keith Allen – it was as a parody of football chants. They nailed it so perfectly that it became an unironic call to arms. Is there a melody that unites the people of this country more reliably than “Ing-er-land”, shouted untunefully as a pint is sloshed down the inside of one’s sleeve? Didn’t think so.

“World in Motion” – New Order

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In this unprecedented mash-up of post-punk electronica and the England football team, New Order separated themselves fully from the gloomier days of Joy Division. Written for the England team’s World Cup campaign of 1990, “World in Motion” has all the romance and hopefulness of a coming-of-age movie’s rolling credits. This track elevates football chants to another level: from “Love’s got the world in motion”, a refrain previously more at home at a rave than Wembley stadium, to the spacey synths and punchy house riffs, we’re somehow transported away from the muddy turf to a more spiritual realm. As for John Barnes’s vaguely awkward rapped verse – well, it’s canon. Here football becomes more than the sum of its parts as it’s swept up in new-age optimism – unless, of course, it was new-age optimism that was swept up in football. 

“Seven Nation Army” – The White Stripes

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“Seven Nation Army” was not written for football, but it should have been. It has been adopted into football culture – and, in fact, crowd culture more generally – because it has the most shoutable riff of all time. The legend goes that the chant began in a bar in Milan in 2003 when Club Brugge fans enjoying a drink before their team’s tie against AC Milan started singing along to it. It’s now so ingrained that listening to the original almost sounds wrong. The riff needs 20,000 people behind it to really come into its own, preferably overdubbed with an appropriately syllabled name, such as Javier Mascherano – or “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”.

The Match of the Day theme tune

The theme tune to the BBC’s Match of the Day has been the same since 1970 – and there is something comfortingly nostalgic about it. It is also possibly the most irritating piece of music ever written, perhaps coming a close second to The Archers theme, depending on your mood. Composer Barry Stoller was quoted in 2014 as saying it has a “gladiator feel” – which is one way of looking at it.

“Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” – Shakira

This is one of the catchiest football songs, but it’s also one of the most contentious. Colombian pop star Shakira was chosen to sing this, the official song of the 2010 World Cup – but the tournament was hosted by South Africa, and Fifa was criticised for not choosing a native artist. Despite this, “Waka Waka” does have an Afro-fusion feel, largely injected by Freshlyground, the South African band who feature on the song. It represents a new era for football soundtracks: with its refrain of “When you fall, get up”, it is more sincere, and less rowdy, than the 1990s chants (“Waka waka” itself means “do it” in Fang, a Cameroonian language). The video now has nearly three billion views on YouTube – the song is undoubtedly an uplifting classic.

“Tubthumping” – Chumbawumba

Who among us hears Chumbawumba’s rousing cries of “I get knocked down, but I get up again” and doesn’t think of a particularly inspiring school assembly? This 1997 track, a cheesy smorgasbord of late Britpop, early indie and general Good Vibes, Man, was not designed to be a football song – instead, according to Chumbawumba guitarist Boff Whalley, it was about the “resilience of ordinary people”. And so while their 1998 single “Top of the World (Ole Ole Ole)” was associated with that year’s World Cup, it was “Tubthumping” that became an unofficial chant for football fans – and hungover teachers on a deadline – everywhere.

“Together Stronger (C’mon Wales)” – Manic Street Preachers

If you think this sounds a little bit like Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”, it’s because it was originally intended to be a reworking of it. But, when licensing permissions got in the way, Manic Street Preachers deviated slightly more from the original tune to write a rousing chorus and thumping riff of their own. Deployed for the 2016 Euros, the Welsh team’s first major tournament for nearly 60 years, the song’s cries of “C’mon Wales” must have had an effect: Wales made it to the semi-finals, thwarted only by the skill of the Portuguese team, who went on to win the tournament.

“Steve McLaren’s song about how he picks the QPR team” – Athletico Mince

“If we lose the ball, we try to get it back/If we win the ball, we try to mount an attack.” No words can do this Bob Mortimer masterpiece justice: see for yourself.

“The Cup of Life” – Ricky Martin

Two questions arise when watching the video for this, the official World Cup song of 1998. The first is whether it matters that all Ricky Martin songs sound the same, and the answer is no. The second is where can I buy a pair of his trousers, the answer to which I am still searching for. This is an in-your-face party track of screaming trumpets and Latin grooves. There’s probably not much point in dwelling on the lyrics, which are definitely more Jordan Henderson than Alfred Tennyson – but the main takeaway here is that this song is like “Livin’ la Vida Loca” on steroids, and I challenge you to listen until the end without starting to enjoy it.

“Three Lions” – David Baddiel, Frank Skinner and the Lightning Seeds

In May 1996, three decades after their World Cup win, England hosted the Euros. “Three Lions” – perhaps the most rousing and uplifting of all football songs – is living proof that nostalgia for 1966 will never really go away; that for the English, that was the year when everything was how it should be. In 2021, three decades later still, there is not much we can do but bleat “Football’s coming home”, over and over again, desperately trying to summon our prodigal son. Given that England have won the sum total of one World Cup and zero Euro championships, I imagine that, if asked, football would feel that its experience was altogether more diasporic – but this song invokes optimism like no other. Those three little words remain, in all our heads like a naughty little whisper… “it’s coming home”.