A Definitive Rankings of the National Anthems at SheBelieves
The United States Women's National Team are heavy favorites to win the SheBelieves tournament, but how does their anthem stack up against the competition?
International soccer brings many joys. One of the finest: the opportunity for collective appreciation of different cultures through the medium of song. National anthems are often equal parts corny and jingoistic, which isn’t a great combination. But the context of a sporting event strikes a fine balance between the two sides. Mostly you just get a bunch of folks non-ironically celebrating their home and history.
That’s all true almost independent of the individual quality of the song. But it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a banger for an anthem. So let’s talk about what separates the good from the great.
We’ll start with the four teams competing in the SheBelieves tournament over the next week. But with the Olympics coming up, and plenty more international soccer on the horizon, I plan to make this a recurring feature.
To structure the conversation, I want to focus on three essential features of a great anthem. In each category, I’ll assign from 1 to 5 points, thus giving us a highly objective measure for definitively ranking each song.
First: Music. This is just a measure of the quality of the song as a song. Is it pleasant to listen to? Would you voluntarily play this for your own enjoyment?
Second: Uplift. How much does it stir your spirit to hear this song? A good anthem should be celebratory, powerful, inspirational. There are plenty of lovely songs in the world but point of an anthem isn’t to be lovely; it’s to be anthemic.
Third: Lyrics and history. Good anthems should be specific and should evoke something unique about a given national character. So here we want to ask what the song is about. Does it commemorate an important event? Is it a generic paean to the nation or does it highlight particularly laudable features? Are the lyrics beautiful?
Based on those metrics, how do the anthems of the four SheBelieves nations stack up?
4. United States - Star-Spangled Banner (6 points)
The melody is okay, though a bit overcooked. Some of the big flourishes are quite nice. But it’s not a particularly thrilling song, even when sung well. And it’s particularly hard to sing well. A good anthem should nestle easily into a normal person’s vocal range. This one…does not.
It cultivates a good loud/soft dynamic. The quiet moments carry you forward to the big moments when the song truly explodes. There aren’t many anthems that can match the energy of “and the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air.” And while the “land of the free and the home of the brave” is often a little (or a lot) overdrawn, it’s still a pretty good finale.
The Flag Anthem is pretty corny on its own terms, and fares even worse when you reflect on the fact that it was written by a slaveowner and concerns a war that the US started for pretty silly reasons, and then lost rather badly. So as a hymn to flags, bombs, and military failure, it wouldn’t fare well in this category in any case. But the thing that really sinks it is the more recent history of its deployment as a form of persistent mandatory patriotism at countless domestic sporting events, as well as its function as a nexus point in the culture war to preserve white supremacy.
Change the anthem to Battle Hymn of the Republic, you cowards.
3. Brazil - Hino Nacional Brasileiro (7 points)
A lovely song, if perhaps a little overly ornate. It begins with a superb opening flourish, though starts to trip over itself just a bit once you get into the heart of things.
It’s joyful, certainly, but the pace is a little too frantic for it to really succeed here. You want an anthem to feel like it has some serious weight behind its punch. The Hino Nacional Brasileiro is a little too busy to carry that kind of heft.
This song existed for a full century before gaining official lyrics, which were authorized or the centenary of the nation. And they are some beautifully evocative lyrics (“Brazil, an intense dream, a vivid ray of love and hope”). Unfortunately, some points have to be deducted here for the unpleasantly authoritarian style of the song. Under the military dictatorship of the 1960s, the anthem was statutorily locked into place. An official version was authorized and all others forbidden. While the return of free speech norms in the 1980s now permit some variation, the old laws are still on the books, and the norms remain strong. It’s all a little discomforting.
It's a perfectly good song, but not as good as a nation with Brazil's glorious soccer history deserves.
2. Canada – O Canada (9 points)
It’s a very pleasant melody, with lovely harmonic progression. The pacing is nice. The only problem here is that it’s just a little bland. It’s a perfectly nice song, but is missing the hook that would provide the counterpoint it really needs.
I know lots of folks think this one deserves top marks in this category, but…come on. The tune is quite repetitive, and “O Canada, we stand on guard for thee” is perfectly pleasant, but it’s not the sort of thing to get your heart racing. Not even when it’s sung by Christine Sinclair.
Canada had competing national anthems for over a century, with difficulties posed by the bilingual citizenry, as well as the enduring status of God Save the Queen. They eventually settled on O Canada as the national anthem while keeping God Save the Queen as the ‘royal national anthem,’ whatever that means. One cool thing about O Canada: the original lyrics were French, and the English version isn’t a translation but just a new song to the same tune. And then there’s a bilingual version that includes elements of both. Very Canadian.
It’s a very nice song, but doesn’t really pack a huge punch. Which honestly feels a little overdetermined for the Canadian national anthem, but here we are.
1. Argentina – Himno Nacional Argentino (9 points)
It starts out beautifully, but then takes a pretty slow meandering journey through a lengthy prelude. But then things kick into gear, and they start dropping bombs.
As noted above, things drag quite a bit in the buildup. But the boisterous horns that close out the opening section are legitimately thrilling.
The version played at international events is actually just the instrumental introduction. So there’s not much in the way of lyrics to discuss. If you do hear the ‘full’ version, it’s a pretty straightforward call to freedom, composed in celebration of independence from Spain and a repeated cheer to the good health of the Argentine people. But the modern full version is actually MUCH shortened. The original included a lengthy section detailing all the things they hate about Spain. Which…you have to kind of love the pettiness, but it’s probably for the best that it’s been trimmed.
A good song, which really shines in the right context. Listen at home on tinny speakers and you might not get a huge amount from it. But in a crowd of enthusiastic singers, the joyfulness and promise truly shines through.
So there you have it. Regardless of what happens during the 90 minutes, Argentina can feel satisfied with their performance before the opening whistle.