England Football Songs – 1998: ‘Top of the World’ Wars

In 1998, as England hopped the Channel to have another crack at the World Cup in France, two singles were released by different groups; one a supergroup comprising established indie songwriters and members of a phenomenally successful girl group, the other a bunch of punks from Burnley armed only with megaphones and a massive major label debut. Each of these songs staked a claim to being ‘Top of The World’. But as any Highlander fan knows…There can be only one.

Chumbawamba Olé, Olé, Olé

Spoiler alert: I like their version a lot more.

 

It’s the war of 1998 which didn’t take place between David Beckham and Diego Simeone to get the fans singing on the terraces and to get the royalties coming in. First up:

England United – (How Does It Feel to Be) On Top of the World?

 

You know what? Listening to this now, 16 years on, it’s not quite as entirely crap as I remember. Of course, when it came out the last people I wanted to hear from were the bloody Spice Girls, so sick of the sight of them as I was at that age. But being only 13 I wasn’t actually aware of the other featured artist (and writer) of this song: Ian McCulloch from Echo and the Bunnymen. The bloke from Space is there too, as is, I gather, the singer from Ocean Colour Scene. Not that this automatically raises the quality of the official England anthem for France ’98 or anything, but I am nonetheless surprised to see the talent on show.

I’m even more surprised by the ‘morphing’ effect of the singers from children and back again – McCulloch’s change in particular scared the shit out of me when I saw it last night. The other special effects are pretty naff, but the look on Sol Campbell’s face – the very embodiment of Dante Hicks’ “I’m not supposed to be here today” – is priceless.

I would like this song a hell of a lot more if it weren’t so crammed full of singers trying to get their verse in – I’ve always maintained that Mel C is the only Spice Girl that can actually sing, and judging by this video it seemed like she was the only one who even wanted to be there too, despite her fellow Mel’s attempts to be ‘scary’ by waving a yellow card about, so a more prominent role for her would’ve been a treat.

All in all this feels like the very last drops of Cool Britannia being wrung out of their trendy sponge, which is the very thing that separated them from their Top Of The World rivals in 1998:

Chumbawamba – Top of the World (Olé, Olé, Olé)

 

It’s like this; if your best mate is hit by a taxi two weeks after a one-hit wonder about getting “knocked down” comes out, you are always going to remember that band. (In a neat twist, that song was released exactly halfway through their 30-year tenure.) The follow-up singles obviously got nowhere near the level of Tubthumping, but they did release a footy song of their own just one year later which did okay.

Considering their dramatically different arrival at the same heady heights of pop fame as England United, both videos share a few common themes; mainly the ‘kickabout’ aspect of the World Cup bringing everyone together. The words to Olé Olé Olé aren’t so much sung as spat either, but there’s very much a pure, raw and beautiful appreciation in the Chumbawamba effort which you just don’t get in England United’s squeaky-clean finished product – it’s far too artificial. A cursory dip into the former’s history tells you that these people have had a far rougher time of trying to keep things together than anyone Space-y or Spice-y did, living and playing in squats and dedicating vast amounts of their time and money to good causes. Sadly, England United took the plaudits with a number nine chart position, while Chumbawamba just missed out on the top twenty.

I much, much prefer Olé Olé Olé as, if you can forgive the spoken word verses, it’s obviously so much more of a singalong and feels much more genuine to me. The Burnley punks may have got the last laugh, as the over-bracketed (How Does It Feel to Be) song was booed by England fans when played at their matches. Both these songs would be far overshadowed during the 1998 World Cup, however, but we’ll get to that food-related song next time.

Oh yeah, I guess I need to mention how England got on in France ’98 don’t I. Well, there’s only one man to blame for their second-round exit, and that’s my Haircut Hero of the 1980s, Roger Daltrey – sorry, Kevin Keegan.

England World Cup Songs

Strangely enough, the damage was done from the commentary box rather than the managers’ dugout (although Keegan would sadly be equally bloody useless for England there too in just a few months). In their Group G defeat to Romania (which may otherwise have had them avoid Argentina), England had just equalised through wunderkind Michael Owen when Keegan uttered:

“There’s only one team winning it now and that’s England.”

Minutes later, England conceded the losing goal.

Despite this, they made it to round two, where a David Beckham red card put England up against it for over an hour and a quarter. We should be glad that Sol ‘Dante Hicks’ Campbell was there that day as he headed in a goal during extra time, which was disallowed. Michael Owen also happened to put in what’s still my favourite memory of English international football:

 

But Keegan was to strike again; as David Batty stepped up to take England’s crucial fifth penalty, Keegan was asked: do you back him to score?

“Yes.”

And guess what: he only bloody didn’t. Cheers Kev.

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