Why singing the national anthem is an irrelevance

On 29th March 2013, Asif Burhan (@asifburhan) wrote this piece for kickitout.org –

England boss Roy Hodgson has called on his players to sing loud and proud

England boss Roy Hodgson has called on his players to sing loud and proud

“[Karim Benzema] shows an inconceivable and unacceptable contempt for the jersey he has the fortune to be able to wear.” Eric Domard, Front National

National Anthems never used to be played before World Cup matches. Players used to sprint onto the field, wiggle their ankles for a few minutes and then play a game.

In the 21st century, football has become a form of show business with every little move magnified by a media microscope and replayed to death on a 24-hour, worldwide scale.

A huge part of the modern “show” has become the pre-match team-line up. The issue of whether or not certain people shook John Terry’s hand has become a national obsession for nearly three years and will re-emerge again on Easter Monday should erstwhile England captains, Terry and Rio Ferdinand both start in an FA Cup replay. (For the record, I have shaken John Terry’s hand.)

In the international game, we have the added choreographed drama of the National Anthems. The moment when a camera stares directly into your face and aloof, millionaire footballers briefly go eye-to-eye with the watching plebs, like you and me.

Travelling the world has taught me many things. One is that most people dislike their own national anthems (the exception to this rule tends to be in newly independent countries). Many want to change their anthem – the words, the dreary tune, the connotations with war and crusade. This is true here, where as recently as last year a groundswell for a new “English” National Anthem of Jerusalem was championed by, among others, David Cameron.

For an international footballer to admit this would, of course, be heresy. Since Roy Hodgson became England manager, he has insisted every player sing God Save the Queen. It is a move widely praised, particularly as certain former managers could not and one former captain famously admitted to miming the words. Yet, Hodgson’s coach, Gary Neville, never sang the anthem in 85 appearances.

Have England have ever had a better right-back than Neville?

Singing the anthem has now become a sign of passion and patriotism. Older readers will remember Chilean Iván Zamorano belting it out before a 1998 World Cup match against Brazil – John Motson said it was his most memorable moment of the tournament. Chile lost 4-1.

Last week, Karim Benzema, arguably France’s best player, was criticised for not singing La Marseillaise before games. Benzema has now gone over 1000 minutes without scoring for Les Bleus. I am sure the criticism is just a coincidence. On Twitter, the majority felt Benzema unpatriotic for not singing. One, @AlexisGerot, called him “Ennemi de la République”.

Others pointed out how a man of Algerian descent may feel uncomfortable singing about washing your furrows in sang impur (impure blood).

Patrick Vieira (107 caps) once said “I do not understand, this is a false problem. I never sung it but that does not mean that my heart is not pounding. Lilian Thuram sang it but that does not mean that he loves France more than me.”

As I wait to go through security at St. Pancras station, I am stuck behind a group of teenage French schoolgirls on their way home. They apologise for their bad singing and start asking me if I know Doctor Who – it is their favourite apparently. I quiz them about Benzema. They are unanimous in their condemnation. “If he doesn’t want to sing, he should be kicked off the team” Like our own talisman, Wayne Rooney, Benzema has had a “colourful” private life involving prostitutes. Naturally, this has shaped the public’s perception of him. One of the girls, Brunelle, said Benzema was “a dirty man”.

In Paris, while David Beckham lorded it at the exclusive five-star Hôtel Le Bristol, I stayed in a flat in the 18ème arrondisement in a small room with two triple bunk beds. The area is known colloquially as Goutte d’Or (Drop of Gold), a haven, historically, for immigrants of North African origin – like the Benzema family. The nearby market is a congested beehive of trade, more Arabic souk than Champs-Elysées. This is the Paris most tourists never see. The wrong side of the tracks from the adjacent Gare du Nord where the queue for taxis to get somewhere else is phenomenal for a city with such a cheap and efficient metro system.

I stay with three Ivorian brothers living in Paris. One of them agrees Benzema should sing as it is France that gave him an opportunity in football, but, understands if he chooses not to. Another, my host Claude Marcel, says he will be supporting Spain rather than France.

Of course, France’s ten singers plus Benzema were beaten, like everyone else in the last seven years, by a team who never sing their National Anthem. Spain’s 252-year-old Marcha Real does not have any official lyrics.

Would this team of proud Asturians (Juan Mata, David Villa), Andalucians (Jesús Navas, Sergio Ramos), Basques (Xabi Alonso), and Catalans (Sergio Busquets, Gerard Piqué, Víctor Valdés, Xavi) sing about a king who they may, or may not, feel represents them? Does it matter?

In 2007, the Spanish Olympic Committee held a competition to create lyrics for Marcha Real. This was the winning entry chosen in January 2008:

Long live Spain!
Let’s sing together,
with different voices,
and only one heart.
Long live Spain!

Five days after, the proposal was withdrawn due to a public outcry over the supposed nationalist tone of the verse. Later that year, still without a song to sing, the Spanish National Team won UEFA Euro 2008.

Spain are now double European and World Champions.

When Karim Benzema’s name was announced over the PA at Stade de France, it was met with widespread derision, booing and catcalls. Around me, La Marseillaise is sung ferociously and badly out of tune, by the people in the cheap seats (€15). Even I sing – I like the tune and know the words.


Karim Benzema is, once more, the only member of L’Equipe that does not sing. “No one is going to force me to sing La Marseillaise”

The game started with Benzema to the fore. The young guy next to me, who had booed, started shouting “Allez Karim” and chanting “Ben-ze-ma, Ben-ze-ma”. At half-time, things looked good for the French. Spain had been frustrated and Franck Ribéry had nearly put France ahead just before the break.

Then Spain scored, slightly against the run of play, France were reduced to ten men and all hope began to drift away into the bone-chilling Parisian air. Benzema was substituted on 82 minutes. Once more the derision.

There are those who will say that this is just theatre, banter. I have never been booed by 80,000 people. I can only imagine what it would feel like. I doubt if Karim Benzema would find it very funny. I’m only guessing, but I think he would find it very personal being singled out and condemned by people who do not share his particular ethnicity.

This is not what I would call Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité

One man who did share Benzema’s Algerian heritage is Zinedine Zidane. It has been wrongly alleged, that his father was a collaborator in the Algerian War of Independence for the army of the Fifth Republic. You know the one whom La Marseillaise glorifies. In 108 appearances for France, Zizou never sang La Marseillaise either.

With him, France became World and European Champions at the turn of the century.

I’m just saying…

(All rights belong to Kick It Out and author)


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