On 20 November, the World Cup kicks off in Doha, Qatar. Among the 32 countries taking part, aspirations will range from hoping to scrape an unlikely draw in the opening group stage to lifting the trophy at the final on 18 December.


We don’t dare to predict who will be in that final, or even how far Gareth Southgate’s England will get, but we are fairly sure that, after the month-long football fest, the theme tune for the BBC’s coverage will be lodged in people’s minds for a while to come.

While we don't know what this year's theme tune will be (watch this space) for some World Cups, the BBC has commissioned a specially written new theme tune for its coverage – Mexico in 1986 and Japan/South Korea in 2002 spring to mind. But in others, Auntie has turned to well-known existing works, often given a little tweak for added impact. Here are five such examples…

Best World Cup theme tunes

1982: Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Cats

Four years earlier, in 1978, for the World Cup in Argentina, Andrew Lloyd-Webber had written the catchy Latin American-sounding Argentine Medley. Now, the BBC turned to him again, but this time used the ‘Jellicle Ball’ tune from his musical Cats, which had hit the stage the previous year.

A curious choice, some might say, given that it sounded not remotely Spanish and also began in a minor key. In the tournament itself, Scotland briefly showed their claws against Brazil, while England and Northern Ireland purred their way through the group stage, only to be put out for the night by Germany and France in the next round.

1990: Puccini’s Turandot

Undoubtedly the most famous BBC World Cup theme of all time, and a choice that gave classical music itself a huge boost in popularity.

Though it’s not entirely true that Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of ‘Nessun Dorma’ from Puccini’s Turandot was largely unfamiliar before the Italia 90 tournament began – its inclusion in a recent Pirelli ad had already pricked the ears of millions of TV viewers – it certainly embedded it in people’s consciousness, not least when associated with the dramatic images of Gazza’s tears and Stuart Pearce’s penalty miss as England reached the semi-final against Germany.

Cue the Three Tenors phenomenon and booming CD sales.

1994: Bernstein’s West Side Story

After the stirring opera aria of 1990, the Beeb opted for sheer high spirits for the 1994 World Cup in the US – Bernstein’s vivacious ‘I like to be in America’ from West Side Story greeted viewers tuning in to watch a tournament that included crazed goal celebrations by Maradona, a famous German exit to Bulgaria and an infamously boring final between Brazil and Italy.

Quite sensibly, BBC producers chose an orchestral moment from Bernstein’s song for the theme tune rather than include any of the words – given that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland had all failed to qualify, ‘liking to be in America’ was but a distant dream.

More like this

1998: Fauré’s Pavane

At the opposite end of the emotional spectrum from ‘I like to be in America’ was the restrained, almost elegiac Fauré’s Pavane, the BBC’s choice for the 1998 World Cup in France.

Arranged for choir by British composer Elizabeth Parker, the work was reckoned by some to give an air of sophistication – a perfect accompaniment to shots of the Parisian skyline and the debonair demeanour of presenter Des Lynam – while others found it dispiritingly dull.

Sadly, it inspired neither Scotland nor England to great things, as France went on to win its own tournament. Zut alors!

2006: Handel’s Judas Maccabaeus

How best to introduce a World Cup in Germany in which England’s ‘golden generation’ were expected to be one of the favourites? The German-born, naturalised Englishman George Frederic Handel was an obvious choice, especially as a beefed-up version of the chorus ‘See the conquering hero comes’ from the oratorio Judas Maccabaeus struck just the right sort of optimistic note.

Given that the music was originally written to celebrate a victory over the largely Scottish Jacobite army at the notoriously bloody Battle of Culloden in 1746, it was, admittedly, perhaps not the most diplomatic choice for pan-UK TV coverage. However, if any Scots feared it might inspire England to greatness they need not have feared, as Sven-Göran Eriksson’s team wobbled out in the quarter-finals.


Main image by Matthias Hangst/Getty Images


Jeremy PoundDeputy Editor, BBC Music Magazine

Jeremy Pound is currently BBC Music Magazine’s Deputy Editor, a role he has held since 2004. Before that, he was the features editor of Classic CD magazine, and has written for a colourful array of publications ranging from Music Teacher to History Revealed, Total Football and Environment Action; in 2018, he edited and co-wrote The King’s Singers: Gold 50th anniversary book.