Who is Sparta?
We've seen songs from bands that love soccer. We've seen songs from the anti-soccer perspective. We've even seen one artist who's written one of each. "Sparta F.C.", on the other hand, is a soccer song that may not be about soccer at all.
The fact that Mark E. Smith and his friends named their band, The Fall, after an Albert Camus novel, is a tip-off that their songs aren't going to be simple affairs. And the puzzling, obscure, irresistible "Sparta F.C." doesn't disappoint.
Smith and The Fall were inspired by a Sex Pistols concert in 1976, but not in the way you might think. As Smith said in his autobiography, Renegade, “I thought, my lot are not as bad as that. We’re better.” And while they never got as big as Johnny Rotten's outfit, The Fall were quickly making a name for themselves with a sound that has been described as "post-punk" but that mostly reflects Smith's unique voice.
Over the years, the band, or at least the name "The Fall," has survived countless lineup changes, onstage fights, divorce, drama, changing tastes and the occasional arrest. The one constant through the band's thirty-five years and twenty-eight studio albums has been Smith's bewildering, but often beautiful, lyrics.
Another common thread in the band's history has been soccer. A Manchester City fan, born and raised in a working-class household in Greater Manchester, soccer has always been important to Smith and this has popped up more than once in his lyrics. 1983's "Kicker Conspiracy" rants against Jimmy Hill, mourns George Best, and gives a prophetic warning to English soccer fans just a few years before the Heysel disaster:
Fans! Remember, you are abroad!
Remember, the police are rough!
In 2010, Smith and one of his side projects, Shuttleworth, recorded a World Cup anthem called "England's Heartbeat," one of the strangest World Cup songs ever written. The lyrics blur the lines between cynicism and sentimentality:
When you're losing your dreams,
Hold on tight, and think of England.
2004's "Sparta F.C." is a different kind of song altogether. Instead of the contest on the field, "Sparta F.C." is about European hooliganism. The lyric is a challenge issued to English fans:
English Chelsea fan,
This is your last game
We're not Galatasaray,
We are Sparta F.C....
We live on blood,
We are Sparta F.C.
The lyric is over the top, on the edge of ridiculous; a comment on the mentality that leads to crowd violence and on violent societies. But the music behind it, a rhythmic, heart-pumping guitar riff, shows the spooky attractiveness of that violence.