Booing the Anthem

‘We don’t know, but we want it in the three UEFA languages’: the story of the Champions League anthem

We’ll likely have different reactions to the ‘anthem’ which introduces UEFA Champions League matches. For some, it may be an inoffensive – still uplifting – steal from Zadok the Priest with usefully aspirational ideals expressed by music and words. For me, the underlay of Handel’s simple processional with anachronistically Romantic dissonance and interval-leaps makes for a toe-curling clash of styles only partially redeemed by the unintended irony and cognitive dissonance to be enjoyed every time a billion-dollar organisation thinks that it looks classier by co-opting classical music without making any effort to understand the gulf, the chasm, between why a composer wrote a piece, and what the organisation wants it to do now, which is inevitably either glorify themselves or pimp their wares.

You can’t do that: Manchester City fans boo the Champions League anthem at their home match against Sevilla, 21 October 2015

The composer of that anthem is Tony Britten, who has written much film music and directed a documentary on his (unrelated) namesake Benjamin Britten. In a BBC Radio 4 interview (2h 21m in), he was refreshingly honest about the process of composition for his best-known work, commissioned for the launch of the league in 1992. ‘The commission was to help create a new brand. You have to remember that the European Cup was pretty low grade. There were a lot of problems across Europe with hooliganism. My brief from UEFA was to come up with something that said excellence, inspiration. They wanted an anthem, so we sent them a lot of choral works. They said they liked Zadok, so I stole the first few bars, and it seemed to do the trick.’

More curious is the story of the words. ‘The Champions’ is the only readily audible phrase used on the excerpt for broadcast, but the first verse of the anthem runs as follows: ‘Ce sont les meilleures équipes / Es sind sie allerbesten Mannschaften / The main event / Die Meister / Die Besten / Les grandes équipes / The champions!’

‘The brief then extended,’ according to Tony Britten. ‘They said they’d like some words, so I asked, who’s writing them? They said they didn’t know, so I asked, what do you want me to say? They said, we don’t know, but we want it in the three UEFA languages. So I simply took a whole load of superlatives, wrote them down in English and had them translated into French and German.’

If the story as Tony Britten tells it is true, what conclusions can be drawn from it? That UEFA knew they wanted a shiny new brand, but had no idea of what the brand would be. Indeed, its content was unimportant to them compared to the ‘look and feel’; so much so that instead of using a professional (and expensive) advertising or marketing agency to help them shape the elements of the brand, they commissioned a composer and expected the words to be thrown in for free.

A quarter of a century on, the anthem has a life of its own, albeit one carefully controlled by UEFA, who evidently regard it as a sacralised object that can be wholly identified with the organisation and promotes its values. Manchester City fans booed the anthem at a match against Sevilla, as they have done before, and now UEFA may take action against the club – for what? Elevating itself to nation statehood with as much hubris as FIFA, the governing body it purports to resist, the organisation has issued an edict banning ‘the disruption of national or competition anthems’. Is this another instance of the dangerous power and status of music, feared by philosophers and dictators since it was invented?