On Saturday evening, as Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur line up to square off in the 2019 UEFA Champions League Final, the event will kick off with an anthem—not one honoring either club, but the signature tune of the Champions League: a thrilling, orchestral, trilingual tune that has become legendary among all fans of the sport. Spine-chilling, epic and dramatic, the Champions League anthem unites players and fans from nearly every country, evoking a sense of unified participation in one of the most anticipated spectacles of the sporting calendar.
One of the most iconic scenes in the journey of both teams to this year’s final came at the close of Liverpool’s surprise win over Barcelona in the semis, when over forty thousand Liverpool fans stood up in tribute to their victorious team, scarves and flags raised high, and sang what was described as a ‘spine-tingling’ rendition of the club’s famous song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” The Liverpool players and staff, exhausted, sweaty, and visibly exhilarated, lined up in front of the singing Kop and stood arm in arm, singing the song with, and back to, the crowd; the lyrics—of solidarity, hope, and perseverance—made this musical conversation of mutual gratitude even more poignant.
Originally a show tune adapted into a single by local Liverpool group Gerry and the Pacemakers, Liverpool fans have sung “You’ll Never Walk Alone” after thrilling wins, crushing defeats, at half-time to rouse the players up during critical games, and at the start of every game played on their home ground. Over time, the song has become much more than a mere chant or tune sung by the fans; it is an anthem of Liverpool Football Club, the words emblazoned on its crest, tattooed on its most ardent supporters, and its shorthand—”YNWA”—used as a stand-in for all things associated with the club.
Beyond the Champions League, and Liverpool, anthems have provided a soundtrack for many of football’s most memorable moments. Most clubs have tunes sung in moments of their most spontaneous bursts of joy; some are long-standing, like West Ham United’s playful “Forever Blowing Bubbles,” and Galatasaray’s staccato “Galatasaray March.” Others are associated with a particular moment in a team’s timeline, like “Seven Nation Army”—one of the most popular sports songs around—adopted by Italian fans as their own, and known, whimsically, as the “po po po po po po” song, after the team’s victory in the 2006 World Cup. Yet the anthem has a curious, ambivalent place in modern sport. Though the effect of thousands upon thousands of people, standing together and singing in solidarity, can be electrifying, the anthem has become a place of controversy in recent conversation; the first name that comes to mind at the intersection of “anthem” and “sport” is Colin Kaepernick, who heroically took the knee during the US national anthem, in protest of violence against Black Americans. Kaepernick’s protest—which came at great cost to his sporting career— was an iconic moment in sport, too, though one in sharp contrast to the Liverpool fans at Anfield: explicitly political, courageous, individualistic, and demonstrably oppositional; an act in discordance with an anthem, rather than in tune with it.
Sport is fundamentally a messy, democratic beast—one that doesn’t respond well to being channeled into a mode of national discipline.
While Kaepernick’s act was by no means the first time that the sporting arena became a site of political activism, his action sparked a social consciousness around the symbolic violence of the national anthem among several athletes, in the NFL and beyond. As sports and politics journalist Dave Zirin described, post-Kaepernick, “Expressions of dissent broke out in every single NFL game during the playing of the national anthem. Some players kneeled, some sat, some raised fists, and some linked arms . . . Announcers and commentators discussed their actions sympathetically. The booing one might expect from fans was sparse. Two anthem singers—a black man in Detroit and a white woman in Tennessee—took a knee during the last note of the song.”
Football wasn’t far behind its American counterpart. Players from Hertha Berlin in the Bundesliga kneeled in solidarity with the protesting NFL players. Adem Ljajić, a Serbian midfielder and practicing Muslim, refused to sing the Serbian national anthem—a tune with “multiple references to orthodox Christianity, ‘Serbian lands’, ethnic Serbs, exclusion of the non-religious and non-Serbs” in a friendly against Spain. Megan Rapinoe, stalwart of the US national team, knelt during the anthem as well, citing solidarity with Kaepernick, and “know[ing] what it means to look at the flag and not have it protect all of your liberties.”
That the reaction from sporting bodies was swift and harsh should come as no surprise to those attuned to the relationship between sports and politics. Athletes taking the knee have often been admonished for making sports “political,” but ardent nationalists have always attempted to politicize sport to foster a spirit of national unity and boost their national pride. Nations struggling to rebuild after a civil war, or assert national identity, explicitly or implicitly use sport as a site for nation building. In 1931, Germany succeeded in a bid to host the 1936 Olympic Games, and the Nazi government seized the opportunity to demonstrate Hitler’s ideals of racial supremacy and anti-Semitism. In 1978, Argentina, ruled at the time by the military general and dictator Jorge Rafael Videla, played host to the football World Cup in part to “polish the dictatorship’s image in the face of accusations of torture, murder and disappearances that were beginning to appear in the world press, filtered out by exiles.”
Indeed, Kaepernick’s protest is only a response to the political decision of the NFL to mandate that players hold their helmets in their left hands and salute the flag during the anthem. Post Tommie Lee Smith and John Carlos’s famous black power protest at the Olympics, the NFL’s move was a means of disciplining the players against the rumbling of the patriotic waters. As David Meggyesy, a linebacker for the St. Louis Cardinals described, “the game was being used by the establishment forces to sell the [Vietnam] war, with things like patriotic half time demonstrations and military jets flying over the Super Bowl . . . It was like the military.”
Sports is often likened to war. In the United States, this is part of why the anthem’s place in it is considered sacred, to the point of being untouchable. But the United States is not unique in mandating that the anthem is played before non-international sporting events—Thailand, for example, plays the Royal Anthem prior to every single sporting event (along with other events, such as movies and performances). And it certainly isn’t unique in mandating respect for the anthem when it is played before a game. Indian cricketer Parvez Rasool was slammed for allegedly disrespecting the anthem before an international game. China threatened to imprison football fans who turned their back and booed during the national anthem in protest of China’s growing influence over the semi-autonomous Hong Kong.
To disrespect the anthem is to pull the veneer from those who paint the pitch as a battlefield; to take the knee is to dismantle the illusion that sport is a right-wing, nationalist, uncritical, unified project. To call the national anthem into question during a sporting event is to reveal sport for what it really is—a messy, joyous coming together of a diverse community of people who love the game and seek the beauty in it, not the bloodshed.
Sports is not war. Marxist historian C.L.R. James described sport—cricket, in this specific instance—as a spectacle, a theatre of conflict where the drama is alive and engaging, but the stakes are symbolic, different from the violence and trauma wrought by war. While war is violent, sport takes the stakes away; playing out the human desire for narrative conflict and dramatic tension without the blood, or death, or long-lasting consequences. War is fundamentally an act of exclusion; sport has a knack for drawing people in. Where war attempts to shape national identity in a homogeneous way, sport does the opposite—even countries with high levels of racial oppression cannot suppress their sports stars of colour; even clubs in homogeneous areas draw together a diverse range of supporters, where sporting excellence constantly pushes at the boundaries of societal reticence. Where war demands conformity, sport is the site of subversion.
This isn’t to say sport doesn’t have its own problems, that sport isn’t an arena where the worst of racism, sexism, xenophobia, nationalism, and fascism can perform their most ugly tunes. But it is to say that sport is fundamentally a messy, democratic beast—one that doesn’t respond well to being channeled into a mode of national discipline. The anthem is a symbol both of what can be beautiful, and what can be ugly about sport. When sport is used as a tool for nation building— whether in imperialist Britain to tame colonial subjects or in Argentina or Germany or Azerbaijan to prop up a project of “sports-washing” of human rights abuse, when it is used to berate communities into suppression and to support a national project outside the arena, it will eventually fail to inspire.
National anthems at sporting events now only make the news when a player protests them; otherwise, they are formulaic, routine affairs that inspire none of the rousing sentiment we see in sporting anthems. It is no surprise that the song on Rome’s streets after Italy’s 2006 World Cup victory was “Seven Nation Army,” and not “Inno di Mameli”; in the World Cup after, the victorious selección rode through Madrid with the cheerful “A por ellos, oe!” playing in the background, not the “Marcha Real.”
After Greece surprised everyone with a victory in Euro 2004, “those who left the stadium as winners did not sing their national anthem as they celebrated on Avenida di Liberdade in Lisbon. Instead they did what has become a tradition in football, singing ‘We Are The Champions’.” And who could forget the delightful tongue in cheek “It’s Coming Home,” that played all through England in the summer to mark one of England’s best World Cup campaigns in recent memory, a song associated more strongly with England and its diverse football team than its monarchist national anthem.
The best moments for the anthem in sport arise from spontaneous joy turned into voluntary ritual; they are often playful, tongue-in-cheek, self-aware, and hinged to memories of triumph and happiness for the entire community of fans. At Anfield on that Wednesday evening, fans from all over the world came together to sing “You’ll Never Walk Alone”; they sang to a team of Egyptian, Dutch, Brazilian, Swiss, English, Scot, Belgian, Scouse, and Senegalese heroes. And they will be united once again before the Champions League final, not in a project of nation-building, or jingoism, or parochial xenophobia, but simply in a celebration of, and an ode to, football.