Music to win football by

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Our melodic guide to the World Cup

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Rafael Nadal, recent winner of tennis’s French Open championship, has revealed that he likes to listen to classical music before a match. Fabio Capello, England football manager and multiple trophy winner with clubs such as AC Milan and Juventus is a confirmed opera fan and has been known to attend the occasional LSO concert.

So there’s proof, as if we really needed to provide it, that classical music is a vital aid to sporting achievement. If they have any sense, the 32 teams about to take part in the World Cup in South Africa will currently be hunting through their CD collections to find that rousing pre-match opera or symphony that will lift their on-pitch accomplishment to a new level.

To save some of them the trouble, however, we at BBC Music Magazine have come up with a few suggestions of our own, in each case drawing on our knowledge of the team’s national classical music heritage (our apologies in advance to the likes of Ghana, Honduras and North Korea).

So, England first. Capello may have lost his captain to an untimely knee injury but, in Rio’s absence, he does at least have a fine choice of mighty tunes with which to spur his troops to action. Last Night of the Proms fare such as ‘Jerusalem’ and Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance marches make an obvious choice, but for something to really get the blood racing and fists pumping, how about the ferocious opening of Vaughan Williams’s Sixth Symphony, or the stormy close to Britten’s Four Sea Interludes? Against a US team fired up by, say, Copland’s Fanfare for the Common Man, England’s opening Group C match could prove a tough ask, though things should then get a little easier against Algeria and Slovenia.

In other groups, clearer favourites emerge. Italy have won the World Cup four times and, with the ‘Dies Irae’ from Verdi’s Requiem pounding away in their changing room, the Azzurri must surely be confident of emerging safely from Group F ahead of New Zealand, Paraguay and Slovakia (whose music-enhanced sporting chances suffered something of a dent when they split from the Czechs in 1993 – who’s up for some Eugen Suchoň or Iris Szeghy?).

Likewise, three-times champions Germany will surely surge to the top of Group D on the back of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries or the much-loved (if admittedly over-used in a sporting context) ‘O Fortuna’ from Orff’s Carmina Burana – only the Aussies, stirred by Grainger’s Gumsucker’s March, look like putting up anything more than token resistance here.

Expect Piazzolla’s passionate Libertango to take the red-blooded Argentinians to victory in Group B – we can’t really envisage Xenakis’s bewildering Metastasis to help Greece’s cause much here, ingenious though it may be – while in Group H, the Fire Dance from Falla’s El amor brujo should see Spain off to a winning start (though they’ll want to be wary of the sound of Honegger’s Pacific 231 steaming out of the Swiss dressing room…)

Group G, in which perennial favourites Brazil have been drawn, has been dubbed the ‘Group of Death’ by the football experts. In musical terms, it’s more the ‘Group of Dearth’. Villa-Lobos’s melodic Bachianas Brasileiras is unlikely to turn the South Americans into raging warriors, but they might instead float to victory with grace and serenity – enough to comfortably see off Ivory Coast, Portugal and South Korea.

And finally, a couple of dark horses. Watch out for Denmark in Group E, who have the rowdy timpani in the last movement of Nielsen’s Inextinguishable Symphony to inspire them to give a similar thumping to their Dutch, Japanese and Cameroon opposition. And Mexico, in Group A, will surely get a buzz from the rhythmic drive of Revueltas’s highly Stravinskyan Sensemaya, particularly when they face France.

The French, lest we forget, resorted to cheating to get into the World Cup finals. As such, we have no intention of recommending any music that may help them to get any further. Instead, may we suggest Debussy’s hazy, dreamy Prélude à l’après-midi d’un faune or some soporific Satie Gymnopédies? Or maybe Berlioz’s ‘March to the Scaffold’…?

Jeremy Pound is deputy editor of BBC Music Magazine, and formerly the editor of leading football website totalfootball.com