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‘A lot of players have said it makes the hairs on the back of the neck stand up’

The story behind the Champions League anthem, in the words of composer Tony Britten.

Soccer - UEFA Champions League - Final - Real Madrid v Atletico Madrid - Estadio Da Luz A choir performs on the pitch before the 2014 Champions League final. Source: EMPICS Sport

TONY BRITTEN IS still proud of it.

It’s over 25 years since he sat down and stitched together what would eventually become one of the most celebrated and iconic pieces of modern music.

But, at the time, it was just another gig.

Uefa were rebranding the European Cup for the 1992/93 season and set up a specific marketing arm called TEAM to handle the fine-print. The new strategy would see every international broadcaster use the same template: graphics, sponsorships, designs. It would all be centralised, with Uefa running the show. There would even be a specific match-ball used only for Champions League games. And, a further idea was to have the teams walk onto the pitch to a specially-composed anthem.

That’s when Britten first got involved.

“Nobody really knew the beast we were unleashing,” he says.

“All we were told was they wanted something classical because we’d just had The Three Tenors phenomenon. But they didn’t want a voice so we suggested a choir. They asked what that might sound like so I sent them lots of different bits of tracks from Handel and Bach and Elgar and they said, ‘Oh, we like Zadok The Priest’, which is by Handel. There are some who say it’s nicked from it but it’s not. It’s just the first writing string phrase and the rest is me. But it did give me a point of reference.”

Source: gorgul90/YouTube

Britten is keen to stress the creative freedom he was allowed. He’s equally keen to stress that it was a different era.

“It was before the days when things had to be decided by focus groups and scared middle management and all of that,” he says.

“We were pioneering a little bit. I’ve been asked to go back to TEAM and Uefa to talk about the process of creating a brand because that’s what we did. It was an unknown concept in those days. And we did it the right way. I remember sitting in meetings with the design team behind the star ball and then the people behind the TV designs. And we just kicked it around. There wasn’t that pressure. The idea was, ‘You’re all clever people, you know what you’re doing – come up with something that might have a life’. The result is that it’s definitely the most successful sports brand in history.”

Approached in the summer but with the competition due to start just a few months later, Britten had very little time. He whipped the melody together and the various orchestrations but there was one substantial piece of the puzzle that needed solving: the lyrics.

“I said it to the guys at TEAM, ‘Right, you want an anthem so what about lyrics?’ And they said, ‘Yes, great idea’.

We thought about what we were trying to say and the brief was to give this competition status, dignity, gravitas. So, it had to be about superlatives. I sat down one night – and I still have the piece of paper somewhere – and wrote out a whole list of superlatives in English.

I brought a guy in who was trilingual, with English, French and German – the three official Uefa languages – who gave me literal translations. And then I threw it all together and said, ‘Right, I need a bit of English here, some French here, and some German’. And then…that final crescendo of ‘The Champions’…I don’t know where it came from but it just seemed natural. And, every song – a pop tune or symphony – needs a hook. And we got lucky with that one because it’s easy to hear it. Everybody knows what it means.

Source: 1finch2finch/YouTube

There was a strong sense of making it more dignified. Like, it still wasn’t long after Hillsborough and there had been such terrible hooliganism all across Europe too. The whole idea was to give the work a sense of gravitas. But I don’t think anyone had any idea that it would still be going strong. If we’d known then what we know now, I think we’d have been a lot more nervous about it.”

Britten never even made a demo of the anthem. He went into studio and helmed the original recording that featured the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the choir of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields.

He was confident and proud of the work and his ability.

“Maybe I was young and naïve but I recorded it and said, ‘This is great’”, he says.

“I played it to the powers that be but I didn’t demo it or anything. I didn’t have time. And they knew my work and my reputation so they knew I wasn’t going to fuck it up. So, going into the studio, I felt, ‘Okay, this works’. So I don’t remember any anxiety, which might have just been stupidity on my part. But when it’s right you know.

It took longer to assemble the different versions than to record it. In those days, one region needed a DAT tape in stereo. Another wanted a quarter-inch mono. So I had to appoint someone to make all of the elements and in the end there was this great pile of tapes that then had to be couriered to all the broadcasters around Europe. Now, it’s all in an email. A touch of a button.”

For the first few years of the competition’s existence, Britten didn’t pay too much notice. It was a job that had gone well. Everyone had been happy the final product. But then, there was a night in Russia and Britten knew it was a turning point.

Josep Guardiola - UEFA Champions League Final - Wembley The European Cup was rebranded after Pep Guardiola's Barcelona won at Wembley in 1992. Source: Nebinger Frederic

“You suddenly realise it’s become so big and you can’t escape it – and that’s weird,” he says.

“I did a film in Russia and I was recording the score out there. We had a merry night afterwards and rather too much vodka was consumed. But I got back to my room – this was the mid-1990s – and threw myself on the bed and nodded off. But the TV was on and I woke up to the strains of Champions League on Russian telly and I thought, ‘Right, we’ve arrived – they’ve even got it in Russia.’”

“There was some analysis done a few years ago on the brand and they said the music was the most important element. And that the Champions League anthem was as important to the overall brand as the colour red is to Coca Cola. And you think to yourself, ‘That’s alright then.’”

It’s an emotive piece of music and a stirring motivator for the players involved. And Britten says it’s an added bonus to see the main performers so heavily immersed in the anthem before big games.

“A few years ago, I went into my local newsagents for the paper,” he says.

“And the young guy behind the counter said, ‘Mr. Britten, you’ve gone viral’ and it was a video of Ronaldo singing along loudly to Champions League. But a lot of players have said that it does make the hairs on the back of the neck stand up and that it means you’ve almost ‘arrived’.

I did a TV show in Germany and the pundit was Stefan Effenberg, a renowned hardman. Years before, I was standing and conducting the chorus of La Scala Milan singing the anthem live at the San Siro before the Bayern Munich versus Valencia final. And I was within touching distance of Effenberg and he was really shaky.

So I told him this on the TV show but he got very defensive and was saying, ‘I was not – I wasn’t nervous.’ And the audience was pissing themselves. But he just said, ‘I was getting in the zone’. But he went on to say that standing there and hearing that music is the most exciting thing.

Soccer 2017: Real Madrid 3:2 Dortmund Source: Manu_reino

So, he became my new best friend and we had a very nice evening! Gareth Bale said one of the main reasons he went to Real Madrid was to make sure he was standing there and getting to hear that music. Which makes him another new best friend!”

So many years later, Britten remains fond of the anthem. And is proud to have played such a crucial, if understated role, in the blossoming of the Champions League product.

“I’m very lucky and very pleased to have written it,” he says.

“I don’t think it was all luck. There was some ability in there. But I remind myself that I’m a lucky chap and I enjoy creating other pieces of work – be it film or music – but they might never have seen the light of day without Champions League.

“There were other pieces I’ve written that I like as much as Champions League and maybe I think I’ve done better. But in terms of what was required by TEAM and Uefa, I gave them what they wanted. And if you’re writing music on a commercial basis like that, the Holy Grail is to give them exactly what they want, on the basis that they don’t know what they won’t. I don’t think I’d have done anything differently, I’m happy to say.

“And it remains a great competition. You’re going to see good football. It’s like going to the National Theatre. You may not like the play, but you know it’s going to be put on well.”

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Eoin O'Callaghan

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