By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 9, 2006; D01
So, what are soccer fans singing about?
Sure, most of what's sung at World Cup games are patriotic chants along the lines of "Vamos, vamos Argentina" or -- as you'll hear in today's World Cup final -- "Forza Italia!" But few supporters squander a chance to lob musical barbs at opposing fans -- the more politically or historically charged, the better. Setting their words to well-known pop songs or even Charles Wesley hymns, they save all their creative pepper for the words. Crude, tasteless and often hilarious -- when you can decipher what they're singing.
The Dutch and the British all but relive World War II when their teams draw Germany. The Brits fall back on old-time jingoism -- "Hun" and "Jerry" -- and whistle or dum-di-dum their way through the theme from "The Great Escape," the 1963 Steve McQueen flick about British and American POWs trying to tunnel out of a German camp. When the Dutch sing "I want my bicycle back," they're referring to the bikes and vehicles confiscated by the German army in the 1939 invasion. (When they're feeling particularly caustic, says the University of Amsterdam's Daan Scheepers, who has written about the psychology of soccer supporters, they also sing "I want my grandmother back" -- a sardonic reminder of the Dutch Jews and non-Jews lost to the Holocaust.)
Naturally, the majority of the songs are meant to rally the team or salute a favorite player who's just scored. Soccer songs can be as innocuous and innocent as "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," penned in 1919 by Jaan Kenbrovin and John William Kellette, which London's West Ham United adopted decades ago, probably in honor of a popular player of the era, Billy "Bubbles" Murray. Some sound sweet, but aren't. A favorite in British grounds (set to "Guantanamera") is, "Sing when you're winning / You only sing when you're winning."
More often, the songs are crude and insulting (and unprintable here). Others are just low blows: Manchester United lost eight team members in a plane crash on a snowy Munich runway in 1958, which provided fodder for generations of rival fans. One recent taunt -- to the Monty Python tune "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" -- goes: "Always look on the runway for ice."
In Glasgow, the Rangers team is supported mostly by Protestants, while Celtic, the other Glasgow club, has a considerable Catholic following. Which is why Celtic fans sing (in favor of the Provisional Irish Republican Army) "Say Hello to the provos / Say hello to the brave / Say hello to the provos / And Ireland shall be saved."
In some cases, singing has been a form of political expression. When Spain's Gen. Francisco Franco banned the use of the Basque and Catalan languages in the 1930s, such clubs as Barcelona -- which considered its team a symbol for its beloved Catalonia -- and Atletico Bilbao (in the heart of Basque country) defiantly sang songs in their own tongue. And Brazilian soccer club Vasco da Gama which, in the 1920s was the only Rio club that allowed black players, sings songs with African themes and chants -- often in contention with the richer Rio teams of Flamengo and Fluminense.
But regardless of what they're singing, there remains the question: Why do soccer fans around the world sing?
Visit any American ballpark, arena or dome and you barely hear a warble -- aside from dutiful intoning of the national anthem and "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," some shouty "Sweet Caroline" and the collective barkings to "Who Let the Dogs Out?" It's mostly officially sanctioned sounds, led by the stadium's chosen soundtrack. "I'm unlikely to break out in song," says sports sociologist Merrill J. Melnick, co-author of "Sports Fans: The Psychology and Social Impact of Spectators," "if I'm not familiar with the people around me."
That idea, a fan's social identity -- "I" vs. "we" -- is key, according to Scheepers, a social and organizational psychologist at the University of Amsterdam.
In the United States, he says, "there is more of a balance between keeping one's distinctiveness as a person and, on the other hand, identifying with a team. But in Europe, it's more like an all-or-nothing phenomenon: People completely lose their personal identification and switch to their social identity in the stadium."
But hasn't America by now exported this idea of individuality by way of Hollywood, globally televised Lakers games and McDonald's?
Scheepers clarifies that "although the social structure in many European countries is less fixed than it was ages ago -- resulting in more options for 'individual mobility,' i.e., the 'American dream' -- thinking in group terms is still more prevalent when it comes to self-definition. The different classes are replaced by different soccer teams one can identify with."
That group identity gets a boost from the nature of soccer clubs abroad, which often hail from neighborhoods with distinctive socioeconomic, class or ethnic makeups, points out Franklin Foer, editor of the New Republic and author of "How Soccer Explains the World." But most American teams represent entire cities, states or regions. When a franchise "tries to represent everybody," Foer says, "they end up representing nobody."
"The English, the French, the Italians and the Brazilians have homogenous cultures, with a predominant religion and a cultural existence that has been there thousands of years," says Mark Spacone, co-founder of Sam's Army, the official fan club of soccer's Team America. "But the culture of America is individual freedom. So you have 80,000 individuals doing their own thing."
A significant element in the emotional algebra of singing is game atmosphere, according to Foer, who says most American sporting rituals "feel kitschy to me. When I go to English soccer games -- even though I can't understand half the songs -- I'm not ashamed to join in, because it feels more authentic."
"I think the parking lot tells it all," says Melnick, who spent half a year in the late 1980s with London soccer fans while researching the "Sports Fan" book. "[Americans] come to the game individually in our cars, thousands of cars in the lot, suggesting our approach is more individualistic and idiosyncratic."
Many soccer fans in other countries, he says, "gather collectively for lunch, then march by the hundreds from their watering holes to the field. . . . The whole existential experience is so radically different."
Soccer fans sing, in large part, to influence the play on the field, says Foer. But in the United States, where "American sports has always been so professional, there's a sense of detachment from what's happening on the field." Foer likens professional American sports to "a Disney spectacle," where it takes mascots, cheerleaders and interactive scoreboard games "to elicit any coherent emotional response."
And although Americans are in the stands to see their team win, they're also conditioned -- for the most part -- to accentuate the positive and not taunt the losers; they partake less of schadenfreude, according to Scheepers. In other words, America's stadiums will resonate with song only when its sports fans learn how to sing in the key of human misery.