The group stage is complete and the knockout rounds are ready to begin. In just a few days we'll see who advances and who does not. In the meantime, let's discuss something even more important: how the bracket would shake down if each nation's anthem was competing.
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.
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, let's see how the tournament shakes out.
Quarterfinal #1: Great Britain v. Australia
Once upon a time, these countries shared the same anthem. Australia chose a new one for themselves in the 1970s. Surely that gives them the advantage. Let's find out.
Great Britain – God Save the Queen (8 points)
It’s a perfectly pleasant tune. It’s in a nice major chord, and flows along quite merrily. There’s a reason why it’s been adopted so many places around the world—including as My Country ‘Tis of Thee here in the US. It’s certainly not a banger, but it’s nice.
When sung boisterously in a crowd, it gains a bit of energy, and the clear melodic progression (and stately pace) make that easier to manage than many anthems. But, again, the pace is stately at best. This is a song that might be nice to play for a Wimbledon crowd, but it’s not going to get the blood stirring.
The song is embedded within an incredibly rich historical tapestry—with standard and alternate variations that emphasize peace, push for a republican state, or a Jacobite return, not to mention dozens of versions that spread across the commonwealth. The Sex Pistols mocked it. Beethoven loved it. Which is a little puzzling because it’s such a fundamentally dull song. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Australia - Advance Australia Fair (6 points)
It’s a perfectly serviceable song. No one is going to avoid listening to it, but I find it hard to imagine anyone really seeking it out. It basically sounds exactly like what it is: a corny little hymn to Australia with absolutely nothing to reflect the genuine, manifold, very weird charms of the place.
It doesn’t put you to sleep, I guess. I’m struggling to find much more here to recommend it.
Imagine living in Australia and deciding that one of the unique and wonderful characteristics of the place you want to commemorate is that it’s “girt by sea.” Points also lost because this was actively chosen in a poll in the 1970s as a replacement for God Save the Queen—a poll that contained Waltzing Matilda as an option. You could have had Waltzing Matilda as your anthem and you went with this? Come on, Australia, get it together.
God Save the Queen is a pretty bad song, but it doesn't take much to knock out one of the worst anthems at the whole tournament. A relatively easy 1-0 and GB are into the semifinals.
Quarterfinal #2: Sweden v. Japan
Two very strong anthems. A lot of people going in were calling this as a potential semifinal or even a final. Tough luck for Sweden to top their group and still get stuck with a strong competitor like Japan.
Sweden - Du gamla, du fria (10 points)
This is a very lovely song, with a bright central theme and some very nice flourishes. The only real ding is that it’s quite repetitive, basically sticking with the same melodic structure for every line. But for a song that’s meant to be short and sweet, even a little repetition never makes it feel like it’s overstayed its welcome.
Much like Sweden itself, it’s very nice and very cosy. I’m reliably told it does a good job of getting the average Swede’s heart stirring, but it's hardly a banger. This tune make you feel happy to be alive, but doesn't do quite as much to prepare you for battle.
Not really an anthem about Sweden per se; it’s really just a song about the Nordic countries in general which over time was adopted in Sweden to the point that it took on the status of unofficial anthem. The lyrics hint at past glory, when their ships patrolled far and wide, but mostly focus on the quiet beauty of the cold north.
Japan – Kimigayo (10 points)
It’s a genuinely beautiful song: restrained, crystal clear, as pure as a mountain stream. It’s also wonderfully short. It does precisely what it needs to do and then kindly takes its leave.
The song soars high in the sky, but it’s the quiet glide of a bird on wing, not the rocket launch that the truly great anthems can deliver. This is a song to make you shed a gentle tear at the shared history of a great nation, but it doesn’t necessarily incite you to be great.
The lyrics were composed roughly a thousand (!) years ago, and are mostly as beautiful and precise as the melody. Unfortunately, those elements of simplicity have been overidden by an aggressive and authoritarian politics. If you think Americans are uptight about respecting the flag, consider Japan—where teachers can be fired for failing to respect the flag, and have been threatened with jail-time for encouraging students to remain seated when it plays. Yikes.
A hard-fought match, but Sweden's all-around game is just enough to see them through. Japan always knew it was going to be tough to find the right balance between a beautiful melody and gross nationalism, and that's what eventually burned them.
Quarterfinal #3: Netherlands v. USA
The US have a great squad, but an absolutely dreadful anthem. This one is not going to be close.
Netherlands – Wilhelmus (11 points)
It’s a strangely beautiful song, which definitely sounds like it was written half a century ago, but which wears that age with dignity.
Sadly, for all the gentle beauty of the song, it does very little to get the pulse racing. It’s not actively tranquilizing, but that’s about all we can say for it.
It’s the oldest national anthem in the world, having been written to commemorate the Dutch revolt against Hapsburg rule in the 1500s—one of the first modern revolutions. The melody was actually stolen from an existing song—which had been written to mock the French Huguenots—and which turns the message on its head by glorifying the great Protestant savior William of Orange, who was the stadholder at the time. In fact the song is actually written from William’s perspective. It’s a weird conceit. But I think that’s a feature more than a bug. Distinct anthems are cool.
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.
Quarterfinal #4: Canada v. Brazil
Two solid competitors, both with strong advocates, but also with serious weak spots. This is ultimately about who can avoid making mistakes in key moments.
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.
Brazil - Hino Nacional Brasileiro (8 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.
Brazil try to get a little too fancy. Canada do enough to take it to penalties, where they on stand guard over the goal and ease through.
That sets up a semifinals of Great Britain v. Sweden and Netherlands v. Canada, both of which are very easy to call. Sweden takes out GB with ease, while the Dutch struggle a bit more with Canada but eventually secure a late winner. In the bronze medal game, O Canada shakes off the dust of their Commonwealth history and stands free and alone on the podium.
But who wins in the final? The straightforward 442 of Du gamla, du fria or the wild and weird totaalvoetbal of Wilhelmus? Cast your vote!