The Singing of National Anthems in International Soccer

The World Cup ended on Sunday, July 11th. Many of us delighted in this tournament not only as inveterate soccer fans, but also as witnesses to a unique event that unified the globe for more than a month. And yet, the potentially divisive forces of nationalism have not vanished. Clearly, in competitions in which teams appear solely based on the commonality of their players' passports, any and all rooting interests express by definition some kind of nationalism, no matter how muted. The "us" and "we" means ipso facto a nation. This is markedly different in such top-level competitions like the Champions League in Europe and the Copa Libertadores in South America where the "us" and "we" is decidedly non-national and accentuates at the same time the global and the local. Having attended five World Cups since 1966 and experienced all with some degree of knowledge and consciousness since the 1954 tournament in Switzerland, I have witnessed the ever-increasing singing of national anthems by players and fans in the more recent cups.

Indeed, the singing -- or not singing -- of the anthem by players led to major discussions in their home countries pertaining to the degree of their patriotism and their commitment to playing for their country. Nowhere was this more pronounced than in France where players' singing of the Marseillaise was judged in terms of its quality, demeanor, projection, and acquaintance with the text as proper measures of their extant national allegiance to France and thus their commitment to play for the national team. Clearly, the volume of the criticisms escalates proportionally to the team's failures on the field.

Thus, for example, voices on the French right questioned some of Les Bleus proper love of France during the team's poor performance at the European Championships in England in 1996 when some players did not sing the anthem, whereas nothing of the sort emerged two years later when the team with virtually the same players won the country's one and only World Cup. Still, the iconography of a national team's players singing the anthem and/or exhibiting other mannerisms such as linking arms and placing hands on hearts during the playing of the anthem have lent the World Cup and other major soccer events contested by teams representing a country a nationalistic air and martial demeanor that did not exist in soccer until sometime in the 1990s. Even during the word-less Spanish anthem, the eleven players of the Furia Roja expressed their team spirit by linking each others' arms across the backs and shoulders.

A search on Youtube reveals that the first team to sing the anthem at a World Cup was the great but unsuccessful Brazilian side of Socrates, Falcao and Zico at the 1982 tournament in Spain. In terms of a World Cup final, four players of the Johan Cruff-led Dutch team sing the anthem in 1974. Yet, it is clear that these players are having fun doing so -- with one of them laughing during his rendition -- and none standing at the near-militaristic manner and with the grim demeanor that has become de rigueur today. And not one player of the great Michel Platini-led French national teams of the 1980s sings the Marseillaise which -- at least to my knowledge -- did not lead to the questioning of their proper love of country by the French public.

What explains this changed manner in the players' behavior during the playing of their country's national anthem starting in the early 1990s? I see two forces at play: First, the unquestionably greater importance of national identity precisely in response to the growing forces of globalization affecting soccer players just as much as ordinary citizens; and second, the increasing importance of the outcome of these games precisely as agencies of national differentiation but also as means to measure these players' value as professionals in an increasingly lucrative and competitive global market place in which every win, regardless whether for club or country, enhances a player's short-lived worth.

Andrei S. Markovits is co-author with Lars Rensmann of the recently published GAMING THE WORLD: HOW SPORTS ARE RESHAPING GLOBAL POLITICS AND CULTURE (Princeton University Press). They both teach at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.