World Cup songs – and almost all official football songs, if we're honest – are rarely anything to celebrate. But this year's, unveiled on Friday night's Sport Relief, is something of a nadir, a giant shrug of "Will this do?"
There's no bespoke song, just a rather grim cover of Take That's Greatest Day, supervised by Gary Barlow, featuring the vocal talents of, among others, Gary Lineker, a couple of Spice Girls, Pixie Lott, Eliza Doolittle and Katy B, who must have turned up at the studio, looked around at her companions, and wondered what had possessed her management to agree to this.
Greatest Day isn't a bad song, per se. It's a perfectly serviceable representative of the uplifting-yet-slightly-melancholy big ballad that's been one of pop's default settings since Coldplay became huge enough to be worth copying. What it isn't, though, is the kind of fists-in-the-air singalong that tends to work when sung by choirs of drunk people in football shirts. Greatest Day, you can be sure, is unlikely to be bellowed out of pubs this June.
Watching the video, you could feel the idea of the World Cup song as some sort of repository of expectation withering before your eyes. Football was represented not by current England stars, but by a selection of retirees – the much-maligned midfielder Carlton Palmer, who played 18 times for England in a team that failed to qualify for the 1994 World Cup, is bafflingly prominent. In fact, the presence of Emma Bunton and Melanie C, alongside Glenn Hoddle and Michael Owen, cast it as a bizarre time-warp back to the 1998 World Cup, when the Spice Girls appeared on that year's song (How Does it Feel To Be) On Top of the World, led by Echo and the Bunnymen, a band who inspired the young Coldplay and therefore stand as forefathers of the uplifting-yet-slightly-melancholy big ballad genre. You watch Greatest Day and think: even James Corden and Dizzee Rascal was better than this. Or that at least James Corden and Dizzee Rascal seemed representative of 2010: God only knows who thought the combined presence of Pixie Lott and Peter Shilton summed up England in 2014.
But, you know, it's all for Sport Relief, so never mind.
The golden age of the official England song was very short. It lasted for six years and two singles, from EnglandNewOrder's World in Motion in 1990, to Three Lions, by Baddiel and Skinner with the Lightning Seeds in 1996.
The former – though in retrospect it looks like the beginning of the end for New Order, not least because it destroyed their aura of remote cool – was a genuine shock. Coming as the hooligan era was fading, it repositioned football away from the lumpen; people who liked music rather than sport were enthusiastic about it, and people who liked sport rather than music were enthusiastic about it. It was, and remains, the only forward-looking official football single ever made. (The more I think about it, in fact, the more I'm sure Cool Britannia couldn't have happened without the events of the 1990 World Cup; from World in Motion, to Gazzamania, to England reaching the semi-final. Here was where football took the central place in popular culture that was a crucial factor in lad culture, and Cool Britannia.)
Three Lions was rather different, because by this point, post-Oasis, the linkage between football and music was at its high point. It succeeded by tapping expertly into national sentiment – football coming home, the perpetual hope of success balanced against the expectation of failure – and by having a chorus so indelible it could be taken up by anyone.
Now, though, after two decades of bands on the Soccer AM sofas, it seems impossible for football and music to be combined in any way that makes a statement. The only way to surprise would be to do something so unlikely that it would probably end up being unlistenable – These New Puritans featuring Wayne Rooney, perhaps. Greatest Day is the return to the pre-New Order days of lowest common denominator songs, because football doesn't have to make any effort to sell itself anymore: just slap something down, and the Official England Song imprimatur will do all the work. It's Back Home or This Time for a new era.
It's football's contempt for its audience in musical form.
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