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Like hockey and bad haircuts, the World Cup and pop music have a long and troubled history.
For decades, the globe’s premiere sporting event has played out to the sound of at least one official, and several unofficial, World Cup songs. Loved and hated, often in equal measure, these pop anthems have become an inextricable part of World Cup tradition.
“Live It Up!” from Nicky Jam, Will Smith and Era Istrefi, the official tune for the 2018 World Cup, which kicks off Thursday in Russia, is only the latest in a long line of great, horrible and truly bizarre pop songs dedicated to the beautiful game.
Here are the best, worst and weirdest of the lot.
“Live it Up!” (2018)
Nicky Jam and Will Smith’s upbeat ode to the unifying effect of sports follows the musical game plan of World Cup songs past, with producer Diplo mixing Euro and Latin dance beats with Jam and Smith’s rap lyrics (in English and Spanish) and some extra dancehall credibility provided by Kosovar singer Era Istrefi. The official video for the song, which dropped last week, also sticks to the tried-and-true, with shots of games past mixed in with kids playing on the streets and the obligatory cameo by a soccer superstar (in this case, ex-Brazilian midfielder, and 2002 World Cup champion, Ronaldinho).
“El Rock del Mundial” (1962)
This is the tune that started it all. Los Ramblers, a pioneering group in South America’s Nueva Ola scene, released “El Rock del Mundial” (“World Cup Rock”) timed to the 1962 tournament in their home country of Chile. Sadly, the foot-tapping rockabilly sound and catchy chorus, “Take it! Get in! Complete it! GOOOOAAAAL, goal for Chile!,” neither became a global hit nor set a musical precedent for World Cup songs to come.
“Hot Hot Hot” (1986)
The first few decades of World Cup anthems were all over the map, but there was the occasional gem, like this calypso classic from Arrow. Originally released four years earlier, it was adopted for the 1986 tournament in Mexico. It doesn’t have much to do with soccer (though it must have been roasting on the field in Mexico City), but it’s still a great tune.
“World in Motion” (1990)
In its infinite wisdom, world soccer body FIFA picked the operatic cheese of “Un’Estate Italiana,” from Italian pop stars Gianna Nannini and Edoardo Bennato, as its official anthem for the 1990 World Cup, but the people’s choice was this tune, written by British group New Order for the England side. The song’s success (it was New Order’s first No. 1 song on the U.K. charts) helped launch a subgenre of World Cup anthems for national sides, often featuring the local team chanting along — though few dared to go as far as New Order and let a player (English Hall of Famer John Barnes) rap his way through the middle of the tune to glorious effect.
For the first-ever World Cup in the U.S., a John Oates-less Daryl Hall penned this tribute to the land of the free and home of the overwrought pop anthem. The video plays like a tourist brochure, featuring shots of Time Square, Las Vegas and Disneyland. Altogether now: “USA! USA! USA!”
“Far Away in America” (1994)
But for sheer entertainment value, in the “what were they thinking?” variety, few World Cup songs can match this delight, commissioned by the German national team for the 1994 tournament. It’s unclear whether the German squad knew that aging disco stars Village People were gay icons and that some of the lyrics — “It’s a tough man’s paradise/ Take a final ride in America/ There’s a rainbow in your eyes/ On the other side of America” — could be read sexually. It certainly didn’t seem to bother future German and U.S. national team coach Jurgen Klinsmann, who can been seen a minute into the video belting out the chorus.
“Three Lions 98” (1998)
At the next tournament, England (of course) showed the world how to do self-deprecation properly with this tongue-in-cheek tribute to backing a lost cause. The original “Three Lions” tune, from The Lightning Seeds with help from comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, was for the 1996 European Cup, held in England (hence the chorus “Football’s coming home”). But the updated 1998 version is just as good, and the video (featuring fanboy Robbie Williams bouncing in the background) was an instant classic.
“The Cup of Life” (1998)
This is the song that set the musical template for World Cup anthems to come. Latino superstar Ricky Martin got the world shimmying and shaking to “The Cup of Life,” his official song for France ’98, which debuted at No.1 on the U.S. charts. Martin’s Latino/dance crossover style would be much copied in Cup songs to come, as would shoehorning the iconic soccer chant “Ole! Ole! Ole!” into the lyrics.
“Waka Waka (This Time for Africa)” (2010)
If Ricky Martin pioneered the World Cup megahit, Colombian pop star Shakira perfected it. Written for the 2010 Cup in South Africa, “Waka Waka” is the best-selling World Cup anthem of all time, with more than 10 million copies shifted, and the video, which features cameos by soccer superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, has been viewed more than 1.8 billion times. It was on the shoot for the video that Shakira met her future husband, Spanish national and FC Barcelona star Gerard Pique (check him out at 1.11 on the video).
“Wavin’ Flag” (2010)
The championship title for most inspiring World Cup song goes to this tune from Somali-Canadian artist K’naan. Originally written to express the aspirations of the Somali people for peace and freedom in the midst of a brutal civil war, “Wavin’ Flag” was remade as a charity single by Canadian artists to raise money after the devastating earthquake in Haiti in 2010. That got the attention of Coca-Cola, which picked the song as its promotional anthem for the 2010 World Cup. Multiple versions were made, including remixes featuring will.i.am and David Guetta and one produced by Bruno Mars.
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