The folk origins of football chants and the Unity Beat

BY Babbel

7th Aug 2023 Sport

The folk origins of football chants and the Unity Beat

The Women's World Cup's new Unity Beat enters a long line of football chants that unite fans across the world. But where did football chants come from?

Why do we chant at football matches?

Chanting at football matches is just a given. Whether you're singing along to "You'll Never Walk Alone", or chanting "Allez, allez, allez, allez!", it's as though you know the words before singing them.

That's because chanting has its origins in creating a sense of community. Communal singing has been shown to improve people’s mood, and chanting draws upon the same sense of togetherness that makes communal singing beneficial for mental health.

"Communal singing has been shown to improve people’s mood"

Chanting can be used to critique the ref’s judgement, put off the other team, or generally proclaim that your team is the best (unless you’re chanting “you’re nothing special, we lose every week”, which has become something of a fan favourite across leagues).

Whatever the chant, its communal nature has the effect of making you feel connected to those around you.

Origins of football chants

Maori haka danceCredit: H E Partridge, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons. The Māori's Haka has been adopted as a traditional dance and chant for the New Zealand rugby team

Chants and songs were an important part of pre-literate culture, so you could see chanting at football matches as part of a long tradition of verbal communication.

This principle of communal singing or dancing exists across cultures, including in the Māori Haka of one of the 2023 host nation’s, New Zealand (Aotearoa).

The Haka is a ceremonial dance in Māori culture which has most famously been adopted by the New Zealand rugby teams, accompanied by chanted sounds and words from the Māori language.

Māori culture has included different forms of the Haka for centuries, but it was first performed before an international rugby match in 1888. The Haka is not usually performed by New Zealand football teams due to FIFA rules, but we might see an exception made for the hosts this year. 

This provides a powerful example of how group chanting or dancing can be used to face down opponents, but also help to create a common sense of culture.

First football chants

Illustration of revellers at Victorian dance hallFootball chanting has its roots in rowdy Victorian dance halls

The very first football chants have their origins in dance hall music and folk culture. Music halls became popular around the same time as football in Britain, in the late 1800s, and had a similar appeal as an accessible form of entertainment for working class people.

They usually hosted theatrical shows, featuring musical and comedy entertainment, often drawing upon traditional folk songs.

The common demographic between music halls and football stands meant that some music hall songs, such as "Football Crazy" by James Curran, soon made their way to the football stands.

"Music halls became popular around the same time as football in Britain, in the late 1800s"

Some of the first chants at actual football matches were "Play up, Pompey" amongst Portsmouth fans in the late nineteenth century, or "Rowdy Dowdy Boys" in the Sheffield United stands. These chants were both adapted from music halls for the terraces.

The famous composer Edward Elgar even composed a song specifically for his favourite team, Wolverhampton Wanderers, called "He Banged The Leather For Goal" in the 1890s.

Of course, the emergence of football chants did become organic over the years, but it is still common for teams to have a signature song which they adopt or adapt for match days.

For instance, "Sweet Caroline" has now become a firm favourite amongst England fans, so we can expect to hear it being belted out at this year’s World Cup.

What is the Unity Beat?

The Unity Beat is a lyricless chant which will be performed before every game of the 2023 Women’s World Cup, designed specifically so that people from any nation can join in, regardless of language.

While previous years have seen vuvuzelas become the defining sound of the World Cup, this tournament’s organisers are aiming to make the Unity Beat the sound of this World Cup amongst all fans.

Will the Unity Beat live up to its name?

Iceland football fans doing the Viking thunder clapCredit: Светлана Бекетова, CC BY-SA 3.0 GFDL, via Wikimedia Commons. The Viking thunder clap was another example of a wordless chant that captivated the world

The Unity Beat is not the first wordless football chant to reach football fans at major tournaments. The "Viking Thunder Clap", was popularised by Iceland at the 2016 Euros, and soon spread to other teams across the world.

The tune of the White Stripes’ "Seven Nation Army" has been used as a football chant since 2003, when Club Brugge used the melody of the song as a chant when they defeated AC Milan in one of the biggest upsets of the 2003 Champions’ League.

The song then featured as a chant at the 2006 Men’s World Cup and the 2016 Men’s Euros.

"The Unity Beat reflects the Women’s World Cup’s ability to bring football to new audiences"

The Unity Beat reflects the Women’s World Cup’s ability to bring football to new audiences and generally help to make the game more inclusive.

Lyricless chanting is already a part of football, and offers all the benefits of communal singing, without the potential to slide into abusive or offensive chants, as unfortunately still happens at some matches.

The Unity Beat should provide a way into chanting for football fans, both new and seasoned, without normalising abuse towards those on the field.

As the Lionesses aim to build on their Euros victory with another major trophy, there will be plenty of chanting to spur them on!

Insights from the cultural experts at the language learning platform, Babbel

Banner credit: Science Museum Group. Cheering crowd at a football match. 1983-5236/12650 Science Museum Group Collection Online

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