My latest reflection on intersections of nationalism and World Cup soccer comes courtesy of the English team’s coach Roy Hodgson, who has recently insisted that his players sing the English “national” anthem “God Save the Queen” before matches—with some reports framing the coach’s directive as an order rather than request. I put “national” in scare-quotes here, not out of a skepticism that national anthems, usually customary rather than official in nature, are nebulous phenomena, but because the issue of what counts as national in the case of British football and who should sing what and on behalf of whom is a fraught and fascinating question. While England is from one (say, the United Nations’) perspective a region within a nation-state, it nevertheless, due to FIFA policy, competes as a nation within World Cup qualifying matches—and so the gesture of singing “God Save the Queen” as a “national” anthem potentially encompassing all of the United Kingdom, is one that bears within it the possible charges of imperialism (namely, that England is the dominant power who can, due both to historical and athletic successes, sing its preeminence on the World Cup stage).
Since I am not British, I had to do some quick and dirty research on what the stakes of an English team’s singing of the national anthem at the World Cup might be—though the Daily Express, whose logo includes a medieval knight with a stylized Cross of St. George that features a sword, assures us that the Anglo-nationalist squad will be in “tune.” I knew enough of the national anthem “God Save the Queen,” and was not surprised to read that this royalist anthem is sung throughout the United Kingdom and also, though not usually as the sole national anthem, in many parts of the Commonwealth and Territories; and I was not surprised to find that most in Scotland and Wales turn to other “national” anthems for sporting events. The Welsh national anthem, “Hen Wlad Fy Nadau” (“Land of My Fathers”), has had a long history, with its composition going back to 1856; here is a rendition by the Welsh National Choir. The Scottish case is quite a bit more complex, with a number of candidates under consideration—and especially with the prospect of independence come September 18, when the decision about having a national anthem might become acutely more relevant. Whereas the probably early twentieth-century song “Scotland the Brave” once served as a Scottish national anthem, the anthem that is sung at football and rugby matches is of more recent vintage—the late-1960s “Flower of Scotland,” sung here by the originators, the Corries. Rather heated debate about what song should fill the role of national anthem in Scotland continues—and perhaps some new contenders will arise after the September 18 vote.
What most surprised me in my hasty investigation into British national anthems and sporting events is that it is not just the Welsh and the Scottish fan-bases who are uncomfortable with “God Save the Queen,” but the English. Sport is not immune to the rising tide of nationalism that has been affecting Europe, recently seen in Britain through the strong electoral showing for the anti-European UK Independence Party in recent elections for the European Parliament. Many in England are uncomfortable with what seems to me to be the rather imperialist gesture of an English nation singing its own anthem for the entire nation-state of the United Kingdom (and indeed much of its vestigial global empire via the royal figure at its anthemic center), and instead what a specifically English anthem, with the usual choice being “Jerusalem,” as we can see in this analysis and in this rugby-focused report. A musical composition set to lines from William Blake’s prophetic poem Milton and appealing to some because it links England’s very soil with the Christian God, “Jerusalem” has the support, not just of many left-leaning individuals to whom Blake’s anti-industrialist rhetoric appeals, but also of the current, conservative prime minister of the United Kingdom as being the right national anthem for the virtual nation of England.
Hodgson’s insistence on his players singing the anthem tells us a lot about the ritual power of such anthems (and here is one ritual rendition of the anthem, sung during the celebration of Queen Elizabeth II’s eighty-fifth birthday)—and has set me to thinking about how much nationalist work sporting events can do. While states are, of course, complex things, they do not generally require singing to hold together—though nations often appeal to this brand of cultural maintenance. National anthems, of course, are a crucial means through which people express their national identity—and the learning of these tunes and words is one of the ways in which so many of us are socialized into such an identity. Sporting events are one of the key venues in which national identity is often so tunefully expressed—and repeated versions help consolidate a culture’s hold on lands where, surely, other songs could be song (thinking of the competing national anthems in Britain makes me wonder how much more interesting it would be if we heard multiple Native American songs at any local sporting event—with such diversity reminding us how contentious is our nation-state’s claim to territorial dominance). How many of us have, quite without thinking, stood up on cue and, if wearing a hat, have taken it off, all while singing, usually on auto-pilot, the half-remembered words of an anthem—all while waiting to watch a game that most likely has nothing to do with national identity, played by players who may well be of multiple national identities, playing for stakes that may well escape the political altogether (though, of course, the venue may be, here on US soil, the National Football League, the National Basketball Association, or the National Hockey League—the latter of which should really be called the Bi-National Hockey League, especially since we usually hear two anthems at those events).