When Brazilian player Neymar lined up with his team to play Mexico last week in one the early fixtures of the World Cup, he knew a lot was riding on his wiry shoulders. The burden of expectation for the host country is great, and it weighs most heavily on Neymar, the country's talismanic star. And it proved too much: As the fans sang the national anthem, he cried. The performance that followed was largely anonymous, for his standards.
National anthems are strange things: Hymns and dirges that can't help but seem anachronistic, played out to the sort of music no one would really want to listen to on their own time.
But they nonetheless matter a great deal. The World Cup, a unique arena for national struggles, puts a whole range of such tunes on display. We watch players cry and break down; we speculate about what's wrong when one athlete stays stone-faced and silent.
In this year's tournament, there have been some stirring renditions, with fans — particularly those from the well-represented South American nations — in terrific voice. Many have been singing after the 90 seconds of music allotted by FIFA expires, their cries — of "unfading glory" (Colombia) or of being "the tomb of the free" (Chile) — echoing around the stands.
But beyond the spectacle, national anthems at the World Cup and other international matches often present a political hot potato. In Europe, especially, populist press and far-right politicians routinely lambaste certain players for not singing their national anthem. Refusal to sing can signify all sorts of things to these anthem hawks, including a lack of commitment on the part of an overpaid superstar or a lack of patriotism on the part of a player from an ethnic minority.
Ahead of the tournament, England's manager urged his charges to sing "God Save the Queen," Britain's national anthem and a source of perpetual fuss in British tabloids. They did seem to make a good go of it — the singing, that is — this time around, but that didn't help their performance on the pitch: England was one of the first teams to crash out of the World Cup.
Last year, France's xenophobic National Front party singled out French star striker Karim Benzema for not singing "La Marseillaise" ahead of French games. Benzema, like quite a few other talented French players, is of North African origin and therefore suspect in the eyes of some of France's far right. "I love the national team. I don't understand how anyone can question that," he said at the time. "It’s a dream to play for France but nobody can make me sing." Benzema has been arguably France's best player in the current tournament.
In some cases, even ruling governments get involved. Today, legislators in Kazakhstan passed a sweeping law on sport and culture that included a requirement for athletes to learn the former Soviet republic's national anthem. The reason, RFE speculates, has to do with an embarrassing incident in 2012, when a victorious Kazakh shooter stood to attention at the medal ceremony in Kuwait as organizers mistakenly played the fake Kazakh anthem invented for "Borat," the satirical 2006 film. It was suggested that she wouldn't have been able to identify the real Kazakh anthem, either.