Europe resonates to Champions League anthem

Tom Williams, Yann Bernal

London (AFP) - For fans of European football, it is a sound that has become as synonymous with autumn's arrival as the turning of the leaves or the drawing in of the nights.

Every autumn since November 1992 the world's leading players have assembled beneath the floodlights at the continent's grandest stadiums and the Champions League theme music has filled the evening air.

The stirring, trilingual hymn, performed by London's Royal Philharmonic Orchestra and the choir of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields, has become irrevocably linked with the world's premier club tournament and has been taken to heart by fans and players alike.

Cristiano Ronaldo practically sang it, almost like a national anthem, before facing Atletico Madrid in the quarter-finals of last season's tournament.

Mamadou Sakho, meanwhile, admitted to using it as his mobile ringtone to mark Paris Saint-Germain's return to the competition in 2012.

"I hear the Champions League music on my phone and my friends wake me up with it," said the France international, now of Liverpool.

"It's magical for me, but also for lots of players who've never even played in the competition."

For Laurent Cochini, consulting director at Paris-based audio brand experts Sixieme Son, the Champions League music is "THE reference in terms of music in the world of sport".

- Three Tenors -

The swelling crescendo and rousing melody are the creations of Briton Tony Britten, who composed the anthem in 1992 at the request of UEFA's marketing department to mark the competition's re-branding.

"Football had a pretty tawdry name back in the late 80s, early 90s," Britten told AFP in a telephone interview.

"There'd been Hillsborough, and that was just the tip of the iceberg. There was a lot of terrible stuff going on -- inadequately equipped stadia, appalling hooliganism. It was horrible.

"And UEFA, to their eternal credit, said that the Champions League needed to reflect all that was best in this wonderful game.

"Part of the music brief was that it needed to have gravitas. It mustn't feel like it was cheap pop music. It had to feel like it had substance."

He added: "It was not long after the Three Tenors thing at the (1990) World Cup and so suddenly 'classical music' was a big deal.

"So they wanted something like that, but they knew they didn't want soloists. They wanted a choir.

"We had to offer them something to narrow it down and they heard the beginning of 'Zadok the Priest' by George Frideric Handel and said, 'That's what we'd like.'

"There's a rising string phrase that you hear in the Champions League anthem, which is taken from Handel. And then I wrote words and the music kind of in the style of Handel, although the chords are much more modern."

- 'Religious aspect' -

The lyrics, which Britten wrote in "a few days", are in English, French and German, UEFA's three official languages, and one of the quirks of the music's popularity is that few people know what they are singing.

"These are the best teams / The big teams / The main event," go the words, before the unmistakeable, lingering pay-off: "The chaaaampions!"

Cochini says: "From a strictly musical point of view, it's a hymn in the first sense of the term: there's a warrior-like, religious aspect.

"Furthermore, musically, it's not linked to the period in which it was composed. Musical tastes change all the time, so it's difficult to have continuity.

"But this is classical music, so it's neither in fashion or out of fashion."

The music cannot be bought or legally downloaded, according to UEFA, but the royalties have enabled Britton to set up his own film production company, Capriol Films.

Britten considered the brief to be "just one of those jobs" at the time and admits that he was "more of a rugby fan than a football fan".

Hailing from Croydon in south London, he supports Crystal Palace and with Alan Pardew's side currently riding high in the Premier League, the thought of hearing the Champions League music ring out at Selhurst Park has crossed his mind.

"That would be the ultimate," he says. "Brian Clough took Nottingham Forest from nowhere to win the European Cup. It can be done!"