World Cup anthem: Sing when we're winning

The FA's official World Cup anthem, which was announced this week, will become part of a long and just occasionally glorious tradition
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The Independent Football

In an ideal World Cup, Wayne Rooney and David Beckham would line up with 20 dinner-suited England colleagues on Top of the Pops, stumbling over the words and cracking sheepish smiles as they tunelessly promise to bring the World Cup back from Germany.

The publicity pictures would show them goofing around in the recording studios, crowding around microphones, donning headphones, scanning the sheet music and generally indulging in male bonding.

That's how they did it 36 years ago, when the first England squad single, "Back Home", stormed to No 1. The song, whose lyric had the Mexico-bound World Cup holders pledging to give everything "for the folks back home", came out as early as April and soon dislodged Norman Greenbaum's "Spirit in the Sky" from the summit.

Appearances on the BBC's flagship pop show followed. One saw neatly groomed players surrounded by "dolly birds" as they co-hosted with Jimmy Savile. When they returned from Central America, having gone no further than the quarter-finals, Gordon Banks accepted a silver disc on the team's behalf for 250,000 sales.

The record even recharted before the start of the new season in August and, as the template for dozens of club and national-team songs, it has acquired iconic status.

But they don't make them like that any more. This year's official England song will be by Embrace. If a doddery old High Court judge were to enquire, in time-honoured fashion, as to who or what Embrace is/are, they might be described, m'lud, as Coldplay Lite (and believe me, that's lite) or The Verve without the verve.

To these ears, the Football Association's choice of Embrace is an anticlimax after reports that the cutting-edge triumvirate of Arctic Monkeys, Kasabian and Kaiser Chiefs were vying for the commission. (It could have been worse. If the Republic of Ireland had qualified, Westlife were lined up for their song).

By choosing Embrace's "World at Your Feet", the FA has made a transparent attempt to recapture the indie credibility of 1990's "World in Motion". That song, by New Order, famously featured a rap by John Barnes (second only to his solo goal against Brazil in the Maracana among the achievements of his international career).

By the time the FA received another opportunity to exploit a nation's desire to sing along with "our boys", eight years later, the lessons of "World in Motion" had obviously been forgotten. England went into battle at France '98 to the insipid strains of "(How Does It Feel To Be) On Top of the World", by England United, an unholy alliance of the disintegrating Spice Girls and greatcoated gloom merchants Echo & the Bunnymen. It reached a feeble No 9 before hitting the bargain bins.

In 2002, the ubiquitous Geordie japesters Ant and Dec took the baton, their "We're On the Ball" containing the insidiously irritating call/answer line of "Can we kick it?/Yes we can!" It peaked at No 3 but was bereft of musical cred or the other pre-requisite of a World Cup classic, the infectious chorus - à la "Three Lions (Football's Coming Home)" from Euro '96 - that can be adapted by supporters in the stands.

The late Lonnie Donegan, a Scot who popularised skiffle music in the 1950s before rock 'n' roll barged its way in like an unruly teddy boy, was among the first to connect the worlds of pop and football that many young men simultaneously inhabit.

His trad-jazz styling of "World Cup Willy", a paean to the 1966 tournament's lion mascot, sounded terribly dated, appearing as it did at the same time as the Beatles' magnum opus Revolver.

But the music industry clearly saw the money-spinning potential of the football song. Roy Hudd, the comedian, tried to cash in after England's triumph with "Ramsey's Men", as did the Victor Silvester Orchestra with "World Cup Waltz". Like Lonnie's limp Willy, they flopped, but the seeds of the idea that resulted in England's 1970 smash had been sown.

Despite failing to retain the Jules Rimet Trophy, Sir Alf Ramsey's squad were in the "hit parade" for 17 weeks. They also released a long-player with a ball-shaped sleeve - an idea nicked from the Small Faces' Ogdens' Nut Gone Flake - modestly titled The World Beaters Sing the World Beaters.

A vinyl copy of the album fetches £40 on the web. That's a snip for those wonderfully off-key renditions of "Sugar Sugar" (with Bobby Moore and Franny Lee sharing lead vocals; eat your heart out, Embrace), "Lily the Pink", "Puppet on a String", "Ob-La-Di-La-Da", "Congratulations" and "There'll Always Be An England".

Scotland took up the challenge in 1978, Rod Stewart and the squad producing "Ole Ola" (deliciously rhymed with "We're gonna bring that World Cup home from over tha'"). It did better in the UK charts, reaching No 4, than Ally MacLeod's men did in Argentina.

Yet in terms of making a lasting impact on football folklore it has come off second best to an unofficial single. "Ally's Tartan Army" was by Andy Cameron. "We're representing Britain so we've got tae do or die," chirped the comedian Andy Cameron, continuing pointedly: "England cannae do it cos they didnae qualify."

When England did resurface in 1982 it was with old-style choral droning on "This Time (We'll Get It Right)", which shot up to No 2. When the tired formula was repeated on "We've Got the Whole World At Our Feet" four years on, it lasted two weeks on the chart and scaled the dizzy heights of No 66. Scotland, with the self-mocking, B A Robertson-penned "We Have a Dream" and Northern Ireland, with Martin O'Neill and company joining Dana for "Yer Man", had the better tunes.

In 1998, Scotland's official song "Don't Come Home Too Soon", a ballad by Del Amitri, was a bravely tender ditty which correctly predicted "all France" would have "whisky on its breath". The title prompted Tommy Docherty's equally accurate forecast: "They'll be home before the postcards." England's best that summer was the unofficial "Vindaloo", by Fat Les, a collective of oddballs fronted by the actor-comic Keith Allen, which tapped into the culture of terrace chants.

This time, rumour has it that a cousin of Wayne Rooney's is to release a World Cup rap, and there are boy-band and brass-band homages waiting to be unleashed. But the kudos of officially upholding English (dis)honour falls to Embrace. The five-piece, who boast the Jack and Bobby Charlton of indie rock in Danny and Richard McNamara, are renowned for anthemic ballads like "Gravity" and "Come Back To What You Know". These are safe, plodding songs, full of fourth-form philosophy and poetry, that give teenagers with cigarette lighters itchy fingers.

Embrace have no known affinity with football, unlike their West Yorkshire neighbours Kaiser Chiefs, who proclaim allegiance to Leeds United and actually took their name from the Elland Road favourite Lucas Radebe's former South African club.

Given the likelihood of English fans rampaging through the host cities, however, the gig was never likely to go to a group whose biggest number is called "I Predict a Riot".

"World At Your Feet" remains under wraps. However, with Embrace's track record and a title that sounds as if it was selected by a computer from past World Cup songs, it is tempting to predict a dirge.

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