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There are few things more embarrassing than a national anthem. Over these last World Cup weeks, we’ve had to endure each of the thirty-two competing nations’ hymns several times. The 19th-century melodies, the glowing rhetoric of the texts, the rousing brass band arrangements: it’s not only that all this is so terribly quaint and dated. These kitschy pre-kick-off minutes of contrived reverence come across as pure parody because everyone knows that global capitalism is the real engine of these games, and that the dated rituals of nationalism merely provide the packaging. Is the barrier around the soccer field itself lined with flags of the nations? No. The national sides fight it out literally against a backdrop advertising the international corporations that make the whole spectacle possible: Visa; Coke; KIA; Budweiser; United Emirates Airlines.
The soccer stars themselves flit about the international markets in search of maximum profit, deserting their clubs and countries for the highest sums. On the World Cup pitch their feet go to the highest bidders: Adidas and Nike, who use eye-cathcing design features such as day-glo heels to make it obvious to world-wide television audience what their particular heroes are wearing. A sprinting breakaway goal gives new meaning to the phrase “traveling show salesmen.”
Nationalism in the age of globalization is even more flimsy than it was in its heyday during the 19th century. Barriers go up against immigration around Fortress Europe and along the Rio Grande, yet the athletes and billionaires select their nationality almost at will. Just as the American Revolutionary Army needed the aid of the Hessians, so the American soccer team still needs foreign regiments. US Goalkeeper Tim Howard could have played for Hungary. US Midfielder Benny Feilhaber seems to be basically a Brazilian; his grandparents family escaped Hitler for South American in the 1930s. He got an Austrian passport to allow him to play in the German Bundesliga. If you can play soccer at an international level you are most welcome in any country that will have you. U. S. defender Jonathan Spector has two German grandparents and a German passport, too. For a star, it’s even easier to get a green card than a red or yellow one.
A cynic might claim that it was Germany’s devastating 3-0 quarterfinal loss to Croatia in 1998 that prompted the reforms two years later of the country’s notoriously inhospitable naturalization laws. That team had no foreign-born players on it. Now the national side is thoroughly international. The midfielder Kevin-Prince Boateng could have played for Ghana, but opted for the German brand. Polish-born Mirsolav Klose, so crucial to Germany’s success this time around, was added to the squad for the 2002 run to the finals, where they lost to Brazil. Klose scored five goals in that tournament, more than earning his new passport. Given the history between Poland and Germany, it is either heartwarming or downright bizarre—depending on your perspective—to see Klose sing, if somewhat feebly, the German national anthem, still sung to the tune of Deutschland über alles. The biggest proponent of relaxed immigration laws are World Cup coaches.
When it comes time to showing your quasi-religious devotion to your homeland in song, is it better to join in with full-throated vigor or seal the lips and look on in silence? This is a question that the world’s greatest soccer players have had to confront over the last few weeks. The anthem is a moment of great anticipation, the reverent calm before the storm of the match, and the players faces are filled with seriousness and purpose, their nation’s hopes written in their eyes and, in a few cases, passing their lips.
But it is not the transparent nonsense of nationalism that causes so much apparent discomfort for the players as they line up to sing their national anthems before the match. The very act seems to be the problem: there is the nagging suspicion that singing is effeminate. Jocks don’t sing.
The history of Ghana’s national anthem inadvertently reflects this fear. With Independence in 1957 the new nation got itself an anthem with words and music duly composed by Philip Gbeho. He mimicked the hymn-style of 19th-century Protestantism with impressive proficiency. In throwing off the chains of colonialism, Ghana shackled itself to the colonial music of its former European overlords.
Gbeho’s opening line was the catchy: “Lift high the flag of Ghana / The gay star shining in the sky.” No macho footballer could sing that line now. The new lyric of the 1960s avoids any possible implications about Ghanaian sexual orientation: “God bless our homeland Ghana / And make our nation great and strong.”
As a nation Ghana seems to be a great and strong at, among other things, singing. But when the soccer team lines up before the game, most of its members have remained silent for their anthem, with the exception of a couple of players who throw themselves into this retro-styled pomp and circumstance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wpJEPl0VD-Y&feature=related It was a pity that Ghana went out on penalty kicks agains Uruguay, whose, flight up-tempo waltz worthy of a tipsy Johann Strauss, is the most unsingable of anthems. This is a tune to be danced to, sung, but none on Uruguay team even tapped foot or raised an eyebrow.
Away from the glare of the television cameras, the Ghanaian team seems to be much looser and far more musical. This videoclip showing an informal outbreak of dynamic communal song, and reveals a musicality that seems also to reflect a deeper team spirit. While the idea that moving geographically away from the centers of “Western” culture takes one back in time is one of the oldest and most dubious of ethnographic clichés, one could be forgiven for seeing in the Ghanaian team on the practice pitch singing and moving as echoing some of the training methods of the feared Spartans of Antiquity.
If sport is a surrogate for war, then group singing might be heard to reflect esprit du corps, as it long has done. The Spartan soldiers were famous for their music, and were likened by the poet Pratinas Phlius—along with Plato one of the great musical reactionaries—to cicadas because of the willingness with which they broke into choral singing.
If choral song is a symbol of team cohesion, which in turn is an indicator of success on the field, then the national anthem might provide of predicting the outcome of matches. Or maybe not. In the sing-off before Tuesday’s match between Spain and Germany there was a great gulf between the respective confrontations with the two national anthems. Only some members of the 2010 installment of the German team did some singing, and the individual contributions seemed to break down along ethnic lines. Among the players who had have been excluded from the team prior to 2000, only Klose gave it anything.
When one compared this display to, say, the great Beckenbauer team that won the 1974 World Cup one had to worry. There was none of the verve seen, for example, in the rousing oom-pah version of “Fussball ist mein Leben” (Soccer is my Life) that that victorious bunch of long-haired, slack-wearing fellows recorded. Now that was a team whose heart was filled with song!
The Spaniards seem to me to be the most taciturn of any team during their anthem. Not a Spanish Adam’s apple was seen to bob or Spanish lip to move before the match against Germany. Of the Western European teams in the Cup, the Spanish seem also to be the most ethnically unmixed, which is rather ironic given that they once had the greatest, most far-flung empire and started off the entire European colonial project in the first place. It’s as if that the team is so overwhelmingly “Spanish,” that it doesn’t need the artificial binding agent of a song to pull it together. Another impediment to participation is the fact that the Spanish national hymn limps along, one of the few marches that goes out of its way to handicap itself with odd rhythms and awkward melodic leaps. It ranks as one of the musically most impractical in the league of anthems, especially when compared to the German tune which, in spite of its past associations, is hard to resist thanks to its compelling music from the pen of Joseph Haydn—an Austrian according to anachronistic, modern national designations.
The multi-ethnic Dutch team that will meet the Spanish in Sunday’s Final seems among the most committed to its national anthem. As if scripted for the occasion of the World Cup meeting against Spain, the fifteen-stanzas of Het Wilhelmus portray William of Orange’s 16th-century struggle against Spanish tyranny in the Low Countries. There’s no time for all of this, so the first strophe gets a hearing. It ends with what seems like an oddly conciliatory gesture to the opposing team: “To the king of Spain I’ve granted / A lifelong loyalty.” Juan Carlos would be chuckling in his box, if he had any idea what was being sung.
It’s not only the historical elegance of a soccer team representing the original colonizers of South Africa wresting the Cup from the host country and continent that made me pick The Netherlands. I’ve got them as the victor in the pool I joined at the behest of a friend of mine who works on Wall Street; as if he doesn’t have enough chances to gamble in stock he needed to make some bets on a soccer even though he consider it a pointless sport. It’s also their lusty singing of the Wilhelmus that gives me hope for their chances to win the tournament for the first time.
But those silent Spaniards worry me. If we turn again quickly to the lessons of the Spartans we see another precedent, this one for the Iberian team’s behavior. Before the Battle of Thermopylae, the invading Persian King Xerxes sent a spy to look down on the pass where, according to Herodotus, “some of the Spartans engaged in gymnastic exercises, others combing their long hair. At this the spy greatly marveled.” On receiving this intelligence Xerxes “had no means of surmising the truth — namely, that the Spartans were preparing to do or die manfully — but thought it laughable that they should be engaged in such employments.” Herodotus does not comment on any Spartan singing, but I don’t doubt there was some of that too.
This Spanish team is obsessed with its hair: from the meticulously gelled crop tended to by player-of-the-tournament David Villa, to the carefully-crafted tresses of Carles Pujol, who scored the winner against Germany.
So the Cup final is a battle of Spartan values: hair versus song. Here’s hoping that the latter carries the day.
DAVID YEARSLEY teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London”, has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com