One thing that always seems to unite everyone remotely interested in the internationally divisive World Cup is the official song; partly because you’ll hear it approximately 300 times over the next month, and partly because FIFA throws a lot of money at very famous names to crank out semi-respectable pop songs.
This year is no different, as Nicky Jam teamed up with Kosovo-Albanian singer Era Istrefi and, for some reason, Will goddamn Smith for “Live It Up,” which is better than most World Cup songs while not being all that great on its own. With the tradition of bangers and stinkers since the first World Cup to really have a theme song (1962’s Chile edition), The FADER decided to take a look at 56 years of musical madness surrounding the world’s biggest sporting event. Some of these will hurt your ears, and some will bore you, but a handful will get you ready to throw on a kit and go scream in bars until your voice goes numb.
Honorable Mention: 2010 South Africa - K’Naan, "Wavin’ Flag"
If Shakira had the official song of the 2010 World Cup, K’Naan gave us its one true anthem. In partnership with Coca-Cola, the Somali Canadian musician hit every uplifting note that you want from a World Cup jam without crossing over into cloying. While the verses aren’t the strongest, the chorus wormed its way into the brains of anyone who watched the tournament in South Africa. Bonus points for being the main song from the best soccer video game ever (2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa). Super bonus points for the music video, which feels worldly and joyous in a way that few of these songs have felt. If this had been the official song for the 2010 World Cup, it would clock in at #2.
14. 1962 Chile - Los Ramblers, "El Rock del Mundial"
The early World Cup anthems are all pretty bad. That’s not necessarily the fault of the songs themselves, but rather the insistence on making specific World Cup anthems about only the World Cup with little regard for longevity or musical quality. The very first one of these is the worst, because of its insistence on building up the host country.
The World Cup is one of the few real worldwide soccer events, and yet Los Ramblers spend a not-insignificant amount of time during “El Rock del Mundial” just saying “goal for Chile!” It’s more a song for La Roja than the whole tournament, and it would take a bit of time for FIFA to realize that they could have more fun with these.
13. 1970 Mexico - Futbol Mexico 70, "Los Hermanos Zavala"
Woof. The literal lyrics on this anti-banger are not doing anyone any favors, but it climbs over Chile’s effort due to the instrumentation, which at least sounds very Mexico, cribbing from norteño and mariachi traditions, full of horns and hard strums. The constant repetition of the title makes this like a commercial jingle from hell, and the combating vocals in the latter half sound ripped from two different songs. Not the finest effort for a World Cup that celebrated Brazil’s coronation as the first real dynasty in world soccer.
12. 1986 Mexico - Stephanie Lawrence, "A Special Kind of Hero"
It’s fitting that the main song for 1986’s Mexico extravaganza talks about a hero, because this was the World Cup of Diego Maradona. Carrying his native Argentina to its second World Cup almost single-handedly, Maradona truly was the star of the tournament. The song, however, did not perform nearly as well as Dieguito. A bland ballad that gets exactly no one hyped up, this would have been better replaced by Bonnie Tyler’s “Holding Out For a Hero,” and no one would have been sad.
11. 2002 Korea/Japan - Anastacia, "Boom"
While there are songs that better fit the countries that were hosting their respective World Cup, no one song better exemplifies the era of its tournament like “Boom.” Trashy electro-pop from the early 2000s aged like sour milk, but it’s charming in its own time capsule kind of way. For a moment there, Anastacia was a bigger deal than any of us would like to admit, and “Boom” is Anastacia at her most ridiculous. I mean, just peep her outfit in the video: she looks like a space cowboy, with brown leather pants and a gold top with bell-bottom sleeves.
What this all had to do with South Korea or Japan is still up for debate, and this stands out as one of the few songs on the list that didn’t try to incorporate either the language or a performer from the host countries.
10. 1974 Germany - Maryla Rodowicz, "Futbol"
Not going to lie, this slaps a bit. The lyrical content is as empty as the previous anthems, but Polish singer Maryla Rodowicz brings it with the vocals and her backing band sounds like they’re having a lot of fun in a very 1970s way. It’s propulsive without sounding like a thrown-together mess, and the best use of horns to date. One of the more underrated gems from the early days of World Cup songs. Futbol futbol!
9. 2006 Germany - Il Divo and Toni Braxton, "The Time Of Our Lives"
If there’s one thing FIFA finally learned by 2010, it’s that ballads don’t make for the best World Cup songs. People want to dance and sing and scream during the tournament, not reach for the tissues. That being said, 2006’s “The Time Of Our Lives” is not bad!
Toni Braxton is Toni Braxton, bringing her amazing pipes and flair for the dramatic, while Il Divo bring in Spanish and English bellowings into the proceedings. (Side note: why does every World Cup need Spanish now, even if the country is extremely not Hispanic?) If you need to bring in a slow song to make people get in their soccer feels, you could (and FIFA has) done a lot worse. It’s also quite funny that this slow, somber song was the soundtrack for a World Cup that ended with a vicious headbutt and pants-shittingly close penalty kicks.
8. 2014 Brazil - Pitbull, Jennifer Lopez, and Claudia Leitte, "We Are One (Ole Ola)"
A song with the star power of Mr. Worldwide-nee-305 and Jenny From the Block should not be as average and unexciting as “We Are One” ended up being. While trying to bring the magic of Brazilian samba onto the world stage was admirable, the song falters with its underwhelming melodies in the chorus and Pitbull going a bit too far into his “love everyone” shtick, which definitely comes off cheesier than he meant it here.
On the other hand, JLo and Brazilian singer Claudia Leitte are definitely overshadowed here, and it’s not for the betterment of the song. At least the drums are fun, when they’re allowed to be towards the front of the mix. If you want a good Pitbull sports song, may we recommend the “Timber” remix from the 2013 NBA Playoffs?
7. 1990 Italy - Giorgio Moroder Project, "Un'estate italiana (To Be Number One)"
Long before his career revival in the last half-decade, Giorgio Moroder was a pioneer in the Italo disco genre. So, you would assume that his take on a World Cup anthem would bang all the way off, honoring both his musical legacy and the power of his homeland, hosting their second World Cup. And, well, there are bright sides here.
The chunky guitars leading into the chorus are great, and the extremely glam metal vocals are fitting for the dying gasps of the genre before grunge came around. But you can’t help but feel like there should be more here; the chorus is a musical dud that slows everything down, while the requisite guitar solo is boring as hell. Not the worst, not the best; it’s an acceptable entry that only feels like a disappointment given the man behind it.
6. 1982 Spain - Placido Domingo, "Mundial 82"
Whoever told Spanish tenor legend Placido Domingo to go full toreador with this deserves a raise. Lively and bouncy, the song lets Domingo crank out his magnificent voice in a song that is perhaps the first to truly capture the sonic landscape of the host country (1970 also did, but, come on, that song sucked). If you were a Spain fan in 1982, you were probably ready to rip your shirt and go screaming in the streets after listening to this; too bad Spain blew it and got eliminated early in the second round.
5. 2018 Russia - Nicky Jam, Will Smith, and Era Istrefi, "Live It Up"
This would probably rank a few spots higher if not for the short-lived rumor that J. Balvin and Bad Bunny were pegged to do the World Cup song for Russia 2018. Instead, we get another Latino reggaetonero in Nicky Jam, and gave production duties to Diplo, who went all in in his typical maximalist manner.
The Fresh Prince of Dad Raps brings in his usual cadence to the proceedings, not going off with #bars but also doing just enough for a mass market song. That’s a compliment, considering how innately popular all World Cup songs end up becoming. Jam busts out both Spanish rapping and English singing, as is his wont, and it works. And Istrefi puts on her best Rihanna impression for the chorus, so, you know, good for her. If there’s one thing that keeps “Live It Up” from being even higher on this list, it has to be the production. The song tries for epicness, with horns blaring throughout and a backup “oh oh OHHH” vocal that probably could have been saved for an uplifting bridge.
4. 2010 South Africa - Shakira and Freshlyground, "Waka Waka"
It’s strange to remember how massive “Waka Waka (This Time For Africa)” was when it was released. That it has racked up a staggering 1.8 billion views on YouTube is the best testament to the power of the World Cup marketing machine, even if the song itself is one of the least soccer-sounding songs in the history of the tournament.
Too much was done within the lyrics to boost up Africa as a continent that the songwriters — Shakira herself, alongside John Hill and Cameroonian group Golden Sounds — forgot to make it about the World Cup. Given how Shakira’s lyrics are sometimes absurd in the best ways, it’s disappointing that such a big song was shackled to such formulaic songwriting. But because it is Shakira, and because of the inclusion of South African group Freshlyground, it still ends up being a banger that we still can’t get out of our collective heads 8 years later. The aforementioned Freshlyground freshens up the song’s middle, although the track gets points off for immediately undercutting that with a cringe-inducing “we are all Africa” message. That’s basically what the song boils down to: listening to it now, in 2018, feels patronizing and indicative of the coverage that South Africa got during that edition of the tournament, but you can’t deny that it’s a fun song to blast before games.
Aside from the song itself, another good thing came out of “Waka Waka”: Shakira met future husband and Spanish international Gerard Pique during the filming of the video, and they are just adorable.
3. 1978 Argentina - Buenos Aires Musical Symphony, “El Mundial”
Oh, hell yes. Ennio Morricone doing a World Cup anthem is something so bizarre that it fits perfectly. The master of the Spaghetti Western film score, Morricone brought it with a fun little bop for Argentina’s first time hosting the World Cup, with a song that recalls some touches from his scores (the horns towards the end could absolutely kick off a high noon duel). One thing that drops it down the list is the vocalization, which frankly feels useless and distracts from the interesting marching band of sounds in the background. But overall, this is the best of the pre-pop song era of World Cup songs and a fitting start to the top 3.
2. 1994 USA - Daryl Hall and Sounds of Blackness, "Gloryland"
For the first — and, to date, only — World Cup held in the United States, FIFA commissioned the most American-sounding song possible. Daryl Hall does what Daryl Hall does, while Sounds of Blackness helps give the song an R&B hook that works better than it should. It’s jingoist as hell, and suffers from the same downbeat problem as 1986’s offering, but it somehow works that the biggest World Cup ever has such a bombastic yankee doodle as its theme song. The World Cup brings out everyone’s nationalism, and no one does nationalism better than the ol’ US of A.
1. 1998 France - Ricky Martin, "La Copa De La Vida"
You had to know this would be number 1. No song has mixed a soccer-heavy message with such a fun song that hits uplifting notes without being corny. Ricky Martin was still a year away from releasing his massive self-titled album (a.k.a. the one with “Livin La Vida Loca”) but it’s fair to question whether that would have been as huge if not for his France 98 anthem; his incredible performance of the song at the 41st Grammy Awards made sure that he was on everyone’s mind right before the self-titled released in the spring of 1999.
Backed by vibrant horns and energetic drums, Martin’s vocal performance goes from singer to dance floor preacher and back. It’s mystifyingly fun, and really, that’s what this is all about. It’s fitting that this was the song for the World Cup that saw Brazil samba its way to the finals, only to fall to the hosts in a game that kicked off the celebrations across France. There’s no real message in this song beyond “live it up tonight, because tonight is the most important night of your life.” Feels fitting for the most important tournament in sports, and a fitting number 1 for the checkered history of World Cup songs.