Football, Migration, Music and Chants

Commissioned for PopChange

In this special article commissioned by PopChange to support the upcoming long table discussion, we look at how migration has shaped the modern game in Britain. We focus particularly on the role of football songs and chants in supporting notions of identity, belonging, and inclusion. And, on occasion, how they are also be used to exclude the ‘other.’



The legendary Brazilian player Pele famously said, “football is the best, it is the biggest sport in the world.” It was true then and is even truer today.

Over 250 million people in 200 countries play football and even more watch it on TV. FIFA, football’s international governing body, estimates that 3.5 billion people watched the men’s FIFA World Cup tournament in 2018. Over the last two decades women’s football has also made major advances. FIFA estimated that 1.12 billion viewers watched the official coverage of the FIFA Women’s World Cup competition in 2019.

The game has travelled a long way from its origins in Britain in the second half of the 19th century. Migration has played a key role in exporting and popularising football across the globe. Almost everywhere you look there is a migrant presence in the sport: players, supporters, pundits…Yes, football is suffering from an upsurge in racism on what we used to call the ‘terraces’. At the same time, however, the profession has benefitted enormously from migrant talent and rewarded many migrants both on and off the field. Take, for example, the English Premier League. This 2019-20 season, players from 62 different nations are registered with its 20 football clubs. The players come from practically every continent in the world (Antarctica being the one exception).

Surely there is something to celebrate in the way the sport of football has welcomed and integrated so many into its world. Arguably, no other profession on the planet has been as welcoming to foreigners.

This paper charts how migration has shaped the modern game in Britain, it both examines the positive impact migration has had on football, but also demonstrates how some have used it to reinforce xenophobic and racist ideas. Secondly, it looks at the role football songs and chants play in informing supporters’ notions of identity, belonging and inclusion, and how, on occasions, they can also be used to exclude the other.

Migration and football

Migration has played a key role in exporting and popularising football across the globe.

Migration is the movement of people from one country to another. People leave their homelands for a variety of reasons and each person’s story is unique. Some seek to escape war and oppression, others to improve their economic and social opportunities, and many make the journey to be with family and loved ones.

But there are other forms of migration: inward migration (also known as rural-urban migration and internal migration) is the movement of people within a country’s borders. Such migration is also a result of people looking for work and a new life.

Migration and inward migration have transformed football in the English League (Welsh clubs also play in the League) and has taken several different forms.

From its very inception English football has drawn on talent from Scotland, Northern Ireland and Ireland. By 1910, Scots accounted for 168 (19.3 percent) of the 870 players in the English Football League.Scottish and Irish players moved to England in order to play professional football and earn a living. Inward migration meant that between 1945-1995 Scots represented just over two thirds of all foreign players in the English Football League.

From the 1920s there was a migration of (white) South African football players to British teams. By 1964 the FA reported “the great majority of the small colony of foreign players in the top two English Divisions come from South Africa.”

The movement of footballers from the Commonwealth also had a major impact on the multiracial nature of English football. Arthur Wharton, a Ghanaian with Caribbean and Irish ancestry, was the first black professional player in the world. He played football for the English team Cannock in 1883. Since Arthur Wharton put on his Cannock shirt there has been a consistent presence of black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) players in British football.

However, as John Barnes, Leroy Rosenoir and Ian Wright’s autobiographies demonstrate, even as late as the 1990s, BAME players had to overcome institutional discrimination and they faced horrific levels of racial abuse from the terraces. Their struggle for equality in the game, alongside many others, means that today 25 percent of English players in the League are BAME.

BAME players also faced a “colour barrier” when it came to playing for England. Jack Leslie was a brilliant striker who played for Plymouth Argyle between 1920 and 1935, scoring over 400 goals. In 1929, Leslie was informed by his manager that he had been selected to play for England, however, he later received communication cancelling his call up to the England team, stating that they didn’t realise he “was a man of colour.”

England played its first international game in 1872 and it would take over 100 years for the first BAME player to be selected for the England squad. The Nottingham Forest player Viv Anderson was the first black player to break the colour bar in 1978. Since then, one in every three players making an England debut has been BAME.


The rise of football as a global industry in the late 1970s, the expansion of the European Union and the end of the Cold War saw new patterns of migration shaping English football. One of the first signs of this change was the arrival of Argentinean footballers Ossie Ardiles and Ricky Villa to Tottenham, and Dutch players Arnold Muhren and Frans Thijssen to Ipswich Town in 1978.

These new migratory trends rapidly changed the make-up of English football. In 1992/93 there were just 11 foreign players in the Premiership, however, by 1998/99 this had risen to 163. In 2019 the number of foreign players stood at 262 and 60 nationalities were represented in the Premiership alone.

The FA Women’s Super League (FA WSL), the highest league of women’s football in England, was launched in 2011 and is divided in two separate divisions: the FA Women’s Championship and WSL2. Over 160 foreign players have played in the two leagues since 2011 and 26 nationalities were represented in the League in 2019.

Up until the formation of the WSL, the lack of professional prospects for English women footballers resulted in many women players emigrating to countries that encouraged women’s football and supported professional teams. The Women’s FA estimates that in 2018, over 100 English women played professional or semi-professional football abroad.

The negative portrayal of migrants by the media and successive governments has increased the levels of racism and xenophobia faced by BAME players and supporters. This must be combated and challenged at all levels of the game. Understanding migration’s impact on football through the perspective outlined in the first section of this paper can help inform a more comprehensive and a less negative and stereotyped view of migration. Far from diminishing the game, migration enriches football, it can become a tool to unite communities, encourage intercultural dialogue and strengthen tolerance and antiracism among players and supporters.

Fans celebrate diversity

What about the fans? How have they reacted to this unprecedented example of multicultural integration?

By and large, very well indeed. More people are paying to watch Premier League matches than ever before, and while, there are many incidents of racism, the vast majority of fans want nothing to do with it. For them, migrant footballers are far more likely to be their heroes.

Just look at how many Liverpool fans wear the replica shirts of players such as Senegal’s Sadio Mane or Egypt’s Mo Salah. For a while, Paul Pogba (a Manchester United player of Guinean heritage) shirts were the most sought-after at Old Trafford… the list of examples goes on and on and this appreciation of migrant talent is continued in the chants of support from the fans.

Take the Manchester United fans’ song in praise of their manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer (Norwegian):

Ole’s at the wheel 
Tell me how good does it feel
We’ve got Sanchez (Peruvian), Paul Pogba (French of Guinean heritage) and Fred (Brazilian)
Marcus Rashford’s (English of Jamaican heritage) a Manc born and bred
Du du du du du du du du du
Greatest of English football
We’ve won it all

Then there’s this Mo Salah chant from Liverpool fans:

If he’s good enough for you he’s good enough for me,
If he scores another few, then I’ll be Muslim too
If he’s good enough for you he’s good enough for me,
Sitting in a mosque that’s where I wanna be

Football songs and chants have been an important way for supporters to demonstrate their affinity with their club, pride in their communities and a sense of identity. Football songs and chants can also be used to ridicule opposing teams, reinforce sectarianism, bigotry and regionalism, and can also be used to demonstrate solidarity with oppressed groups and celebrate the achievements of marginalised people. This next section of the paper looks at the history of football chants and songs. 

The history of football chants and songs

The earliest recorded use of songs and chants at football matches dates from the late 19th century. The oldest football song in the world that is still in use today is said to be “On the Ball, City,” a song composed in the 1890s by the director of Norwich City. Fans of the club adopted the song and it is still sung today. The widespread use, however, of football song evolved on the terraces in the 1960s. They can have historic roots and be considered anthems by supporters and clubs alike. Others are constantly evolving or short lived and usually aimed at celebrating a popular player. They create a sense of club identity and act as the virtual “12th man” striking intimidation into the hearts of any opposition.

The historian Andrew Lawn argues that, apart from the basic football chants that repeat a club’s or player’s name, there are three broad categories of football song:

  1. Songs and chants based on hymns and classical music
  • The tune “Battle Hymn of the Republic” is used as the base of the “Glory Glory” chant used by Leeds United, Manchester United and Tottenham Hotspur fans.
  • West Bromwich Albion’s club anthem is the hymn The Lord’s My Shepherd.”
  • “Stars And Stripes Forever”is often sung with the words “Here we go, here we go, here we go!”
  • “Cwm Rhondda” (also known as “Guide Me, O Great Redeemer”), is used as the tune to the chant “You’re not singing anymore!”
  • Supporters of 29 clubs in the English and Scottish leagues have adopted versions of the song “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
  1. Songs and chants based on spirituals and folk songs
  • The spirituals “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “He’s Got the Whole World In His Hands” are the base for chants used by a number of clubs.
  • Christmas carols have also been used as chants, such as the theme of “O Tannenbaum” by the likes of Manchester United or Chelsea fans. The theme of “Jingle Bells” is used by every club to celebrate an away victory.
  1. Songs and chants based on popular music
  • The song “You’ll Never Walk Alone” popularised by Gerry and the Pacemakers in 1963 quickly became the Liverpool FC and Celtic FC anthems. Likewise West Ham’s anthem “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles” was a popular American Tin Pan Alley song released in 1919 and adopted by West Ham fans. Manchester City (and Crewe Alexander) adopted the Rodgers and Hart song “Blue Moon” as their club’s tune.
  • Jeff Beck’s “Hi Ho Silver Lining” is sung by several sets of supporters including Aston Villa, Sheffield Wednesday and Wolverhampton Wanderers. Crystal Palace fans adopted the Dave Clark Five tune “Glad All Over” after it was performed by the band in the stadium in 1968. “Ain’t Nobody” by Rufus and Chaka Khan is used by a number of clubs to celebrate a respected player.
  • More recently, The White Stripes “Seven Nation Army” has become a popular tune sung by fans of numerous clubs. Also Gala’s “Freed from Desire” is used to celebrate key players scoring goals.

Popular music is the most common source of football songs and terrace chants. It is therefore unsurprising that since the late 1960s football clubs and bands were quick to record songs specifically written for football fans. There have been songs written about the England team (The England Squad, “Back Home”; New Order’s “World In Motion” and Frank Skinner’s “Three Lions”). There have also been songs celebrating football clubs’ cup victories (The Chelsea Squad: “Blue Is The Colour”; Chas and Dave and the Tottenham Squad’s “Ossie’s Dream”; The Liverpool Squad: “The Anfield Rap”) and comedy songs (Gazza’s “Fog On The Tyne” and Fat Les “Vindaloo”).


It is fair to say that, with the odd exception, the average football song of the 1970s-2000s consisted of a group of footballers, singing a naff song out of tune.

But that is changing. Sir Alex Ferguson hailed Hibernian FC anthem “Sunshine on Leith” as the best football song ever. The song was a ballad by Scottish folk-rock duo The Proclaimers and was released in 1998. Hibs supporters now regularly sing the song at matches.

More recently Liverpool supporters have sung “Allez Allez Allez.” The song came to fruition during the Red’s journey to victory in the European UEFA Cup in 2017-18. It was inspired by the Italian disco song “L’Estate Sta Finendo” (“The Summer Is Ending”) by Righeira.

We’ve conquered all of Europe

We’re never going to stop

From Paris Down to Turkey

We’ve got to win a lot

But Bob Paisley and Bill Shankly

The fields of Anfield road

We are loyal supporters

And we’ve come from Liverpool

Allez, Allez, Allez

Allez, Allez, Allez

The UK grime and rap scenes are also producing a number of quality tracks that pay homage to the beautiful game. Stormzy released a mash-up of his song “Nigo Duppy” as a tribute to Frenchman Paul Pogba and his record-breaking transfer to Manchester United in 2016. Geko recorded a track honouring the Portuguese player Cristiano Ronaldo and JXSE has honoured the young French player Kylian Mbappé. Finally, Youngs Teflon recorded a song celebrating the Manchester United player Marcus Rashford and Afro B ft. WizKid produced the track “Drogba.

Racism and bigotry codified through song and terrace chants

Sadly, not all football songs and chants celebrate teams and players. Some spill over into bigotry and occasionally racism and sectarianism.

A Home Office report revealed that there had been a 66 percent increase in hate crime at English football grounds in the 2018-2019 season. The majority of incidents were related to racism aimed at BAME players. Raheem Sterling (the Manchester City and England striker), Tottenham’s Danny Rose and Virgil van Dijk of Liverpool have all been subjected to racist chanting and abuse. There have also reports in the media of antisemitic chants aimed at Tottenham players and fans and a number of recorded cases of homophobic chants directed at Brighton players and supporters.

The Dambusters theme tune is sung by some England fans as a way of mocking German fans. A small group of Luton FC and Bristol FC supporters sang a song supporting the far-right political activist Tommy Robinson. Some forms of sectarian and xenophobia songs still persist at some games. The song “Sloop John B” has been adapted by some Rangers fans; the song contains anti-Irish lyrics. Also, despite being banned, some Rangers fans still sing a sectarian song called “Billy Boys.” Stoke City’s James McClean has been the target of sectarian abuse.

Countering racism in the stands

While the levels of racism at football games in England is nowhere as bad as the 1980s there is still much to do.

There have been protests, songs and chants that have challenged racism and bigotry. A number of teams have walked off the pitch when they have been confronted by racist chants and abuse. Tottenham supporters have turned the antisemitic abuse aimed at their club on its head and chant “Yid army” back at the anti-Semites. A number of supporters’ clubs have produced banners, badges and tifos(choreographed displays) supporting refugees, opposing racism and homophobia.

The songs that are sung and the chants that are adopted in football stadiums are contested territory — a form of cultural warfare. There is a vocal minority in the stands that want to use football as a vehicle to promote racism and bigotry. But there are many more players and supporters that hate racism and intolerance and want it eradicated from the game.

Culture and sport have always been a contested space, our job is to create an environment at football matches that is welcoming for all. That means progressive footballers and supporters developing cultural spaces, songs and chants that challenge the scourge of the beautiful game.

Now it’s your turn

PopChange (Pop Culture & Social Change) is a pioneering initiative led by Counterpoints Arts exploring how the power of pop culture can be harnessed for social change in order to shift the way we talk, think and feel about migration and displacement in the UK. Together with a network of cultural innovators, creators, producers, funders and activists, we are championing new ideas and cross-sector collaborations across UK culture.

We believe football can teach us a lot – about fair play, team work, passion, dedication, creativity, participation, well-being, community support and so much more. And, most importantly, about embracing diversity.

That’s why we’ve commissioned Lady Leshurr — the brilliant artist, rapper and co-host of Don’t hate the Playaz — to collaborate with football fans for migrant and refugee backgrounds, to develop a new football chant to celebrate diversity, one that unites all fans across the UK (and maybe beyond).

We invite you to get involved:

  • Spread the song: Learn the lyrics, share it with other football fans, and sing it at the games.

Contribute to our online collection: Share your reflections and ideas on the role of football, migration and chants on our website. We are very open to the type of work we can publish: articles, poems, music, academic papers, or even anecdotes.

  • Join the conversation: Participate in our long table discussions and join our network. We welcome new voices.

Find our contact details at:

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