To the uninitiated, watching a professional soccer game on TV can be confusing. The ball is so small! The players move so fast! The announcers talk a mile a minute! Meanwhile, an incessant whir of noise comes from the fans in the stands. Often unintelligible to the naked ear, this ruckus is an integral part of the football tradition: The terrace chant.
The good thing for fans new to soccer chants tuning into the FIFA World Cup in Qatarsays Andrew Lawn, author of We Lose Every Week: The History of Football Chantingis “there’s no right or wrong way to do it as long as you’re having fun.”
Soccer, Lawn says, is a reflection of society and almost all of the game’s chanting is a celebration of community. “When you bring 5,000 people together from all walks of life, you have a cross-section of society. And then football chanting is the most audible way in which that cross section of society can make itself heard. So sometimes that’s a really positive thing. Occasionally it’s a really horrible thing. But it’s always a really powerful thing.”
The history of football chants
The story of football chants begins during the Victoria era, in Norwich, England. Written to the piano, Norwich City FC’s chant “On The Ball, City” is known as the first football chant, and its focus for the local community of Norwich is emblematic of how chants began.
In the 1960s, Cilla Black and the Beatles became big names in music, but “they were also very famously from Liverpool,” says Lawn. Their songs like Anyone Who Had a Heart and She Loves You became another way for Liverpool fans to celebrate their home, and introduced pop songs into the football chant canon.
Chants were influenced once again when fans began to travel to games, so there would be away fans in the crowd. “It became about celebrating your own place, but also taking the mick out of,” or ridiculing, “someone else’s place,” says Lawn. Lyrics would be adapted to fit the team or the team’s area, and sung to melodies from pop songs and hymns.
Football chants now
Today, chants pull from all kinds of inspiration, remixing pop songs and hymns. YouTube plays a big role in spreading catchy versions of songs around the world, and fans are “cherry picking the best bits from other places” and then making about their team, and “using that to celebrate your own place,” says Lawn.
After COVID-19 lockdowns began to lift and fans returned to stadiums to watch games in person, Sweet Caroline appeared suddenly as a soccer chant. Lawn says it was “very much rooted in the experience of the pandemic.” It captured the feeling of the nation, coming out of being separated and delighting in coming back together, singing “Good times never seemed so good,” and “Hands, touching hands. Reaching out, touching me, touching you.”
Chants can also be used as a way to have fun when the football isn’t very good, Lawn says. “You can kind of use it just as a way to entertain yourself if the game is boring, which sometimes they are.”
The World Cup and soccer chants
The game’s biggest tournament, the World Cuphas been a launching ground for some of the most famous chants in soccer history.
Around the 1930 World Cup, Uruguay fans showed off their chanting, and during the 1950 World Cup, Brazil’s “carnivalesque” way of supporting the team with music and sound was broadcast around the world, making them famous for their colorful, loud musical support, Lawn says.
Globe and Mail sports reporter Paul Attfield says Argentina’s Vamos, Vamos Argentina is particularly iconic, stemming from the seventies and used during both of the country’s World Cup triumphs.
Attfield adds that no World Cup would be complete without memories of the vuvuzela horns from the 2010 South Africa World Cup and the Icelandic Thunder Clap from the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
At the World Cup in Qatar, Lawn predicts there will be a “lot less chanting and much more kind of general murmur, crowd noise,” due to lower attendance by international fans. “I don’t think it will feel as much like football,” he says. Qatar is expecting 1.2 million visitors for the World Cup, while more than five million fans were in Russia in 2018, and 3.18 million fans attended the 2010 tournament in South Africa.
Someone who is new to soccer can listen for England fans – specifically their band – playing and singing the theme from the 1963 Michael Caine film, The Great Escape, which Attfield says the band loves to play at all World Cup and Euro matches. And you’ll likely hear the team sing Three Lions, a song originally composed for the 1996 UEFA Euros in England, Attfield says, that has become legendary with the lyrics “It’s coming home, it’s coming, football’s coming home.” Despite this song, England has not won the World Cup since 1966, and has never won the Euros.
Globe and Mail columnist and co-host of the Ahead of The Game podcast John Doyle says Canadian fans might hear the call-and-response chant that Toronto FC supporters use, where one person belts out the question, “Qu’est-ce que vous chantez?” (What do you sing?) and the crowd roars back, “Nous chantons ‘Les Rouges allez!’” (We sing ‘Let’s go Reds!’) over and over and over.
Doyle says it can spook MLS teams from the US and others, who don’t know why they’re suddenly singing in French in the stands in Toronto.
Do you have a favorite soccer chant? Share it with The Globe and Mail by emailing [email protected]