Chicagoan Roxanne Spruance has heard “The Star-Spangled Banner” countless times before sporting events, but this week, as she stood among thousands of red, white and blue-cloaked fans at Soldier Field to watch the U.S. play Belgium in a World Cup match, she said the anthem had become a much more intense experience.
“When it’s on a worldwide stage, it means that much more than just a Cubs game,” she said. “The feeling’s totally different. You’re amped up.”
The World Cup has put national anthems in a global spotlight, with broadcasters training their cameras on each team’s players as they sing — or not — their country’s sacred song.
Connoisseurs have ranked the anthems on their tunefulness and graded the enthusiasm of athletes, with many efforts found wanting (London’s Telegraph websitesaid the English team sang “with the air of naughty fourth formers who had been chided into doing so by a stern teacher”).
But those moments of pregame patriotism have opened intriguing windows into each country’s history and identity, emphasizing how a national anthem is much more than a song.
“It’s an important national symbol, especially so for new nations,” said Steven Greene, a political science professor and anthem enthusiast who teaches at North Carolina State University. “It’s like having a flag. It’s something you need to do.”
He said the U.S. takes its anthem more seriously than most, but other countries have shown great pride in their national songs during the World Cup. One of the most stirring moments came before host country Brazil played its first match; FIFA, per its regulations, shut off the music after 90 seconds, but the players and a stadium full of spectators kept singing until the anthem was finished.
The scene was more placid before Tuesday’s game pitting Switzerland against Argentina. Switzerland’s gentle anthem, “The Swiss Psalm,” is reportedly so little known within the country that the government is holding a contest to write a new one, but native Marc Lacher sang it word for word while watching the match at Chicago’s Fado Irish Pub.
“I feel enthusiastic, pumped up and excited,” he said. “We only sing it on special occasions, not before every soccer match.”
Upstairs, Diego Awruch, a Chicagoan by way of Argentina, said his homeland generally reserves its anthem for national holidays and international sporting matches. One recent wrinkle is that fans cheer in time with the music instead of singing the lyrics, he said, a gesture that is seen as passionate rather than disrespectful.
“It’s very powerful,” he said. “It’s all the people (giving energy) to the team.”
Belgium’s anthem, “The Brabanconne,” is a more complicated matter. It can be sung in any of the country’s official languages of French, German or Dutch, though one version contains lines from all three tongues.
Paul Van Halteren, honorary consul of the Kingdom of Belgium in Chicago, said many citizens do not know the lyrics, so they hum along instead of singing. But almost everyone knows how it ends — with the words, “For the king, the law and liberty!”
Bram Geelen, a Belgian who was taking in the World Cup match at Soldier Field, said that verse, sung forcefully, provides a measure of unity in a country long rattled by separatisttensions.
“We have our problems in Belgium,” he said. “Some people want to split it. I’m pleased when people sing (the anthem) and still believe in the one country.”
Few anthems are more problematic than Germany’s. “Deutschlandlied,” a song that joins a Croatian folk tune modified by 18th century Austrian composer Joseph Haydn with the words of a 19th century German poet, contains a line made infamous during the Nazi era: “Deutschland, Deutschland uber alles.”
That verse is omitted today when the anthem is played, said Philip Bohlman, a University of Chicago professor who studies music and nationalism, but the entire song is still uncomfortable for many Germans.
Some of them appear to be members of the national soccer team, whose reluctance to sing before matches has been criticized by those who say the players should show more overt patriotism. That’s in keeping with what Bohlman described as a modern surge of German pride.
“Ten years ago, the national anthem would never be played before a public gathering; you would never see German flags hanging out of the window,” he said via Skype from Germany. “Today you see much more of that, and you will hear (the anthem) sung more often.”
The situation is different in Nigeria, a relatively young country whose anthem was introduced in 1978. Desmond Odugu, a Lake Forest College education professor who hails from the West African nation, said people there learn the song in school but generally have little emotional connection to it.
That’s due in part to the country’s heterogeneity: Nigeria comprises more than 250 ethnic groups and is split between Christians and Muslims, and few people have a strong sense of national identity. The one uniting force is soccer, Odugu said, and the anthem takes on a new dimension when played before an international match.
“If you want to catch the best image of a Nigerian singing the national anthem with passion and pride, don’t look at the presidential inauguration — look at a soccer game,” he said.
Americans, too, often lack knowledge about their national anthem, even though it’s played everywhere from peewee sports games to the Super Bowl.
Michael Dean, a UCLA voice teacher who has coached singers on how to tackle “The Star-Spangled Banner,” said many don’t know the history or meaning of the song that waswritten during the War of 1812.
Learning those things, he said, actually helps the performance.
“I tell them to spend a little time with the poem by itself,” he said. “A lot of singers don’t know what a rampart is, or what twilight is. They need to approach it seriously, with some respect for what it is. Invariably, they sing it better.