It’s a piece of music that Lionel Messi said motivated him, a tune that captivated Zinedine Zidane and one that compelled Cristiano Ronaldo to sing along. For nearly three decades the Champions League anthem has galvanised fans and players across Europe’s greatest football stadiums – and it was all created and composed in the space of a few weeks by a man from Croydon.
The Champions League has become football’s elite club tournament and on Sunday Bayern Munich and Paris Saint-Germain will battle it out to become the latest kings of Europe.
But, before the famous star ball is kicked the players will line-up in Lisbon and listen to the Champions League anthem – a piece of music that drew inspiration from the coronation of a king nearly 300 years ago.
“I still get royalties but it’s not millions,” composer Tony Britten says. “It’s mainly from the broadcasters but there are territories such as China and Russia where I don’t get a penny – which is crazy.
“Any composer will tell you, when you do have royalties it makes up for the times where you made something that wasn’t successful.”
Back in the summer of 1992 Barcelona, whose team featured now Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola, had just lifted the European Cup for the first time at Wembley and composer Tony Britten was writing and producing jingles for TV ads.
A marketing agency said Uefa had plans to revamp the European Cup format and create the Champions League. Britten was told it needed a song to galvanise the new tournament to help repair and improve the image of the beautiful game.
“It was a long time ago and to be honest it was just another job,” Britten recalled. “The old European Cup had become a very tired competition and to Uefa’s credit they wanted to elevate the sport around the time when there was of a lot of hooliganism right across Europe.
“Uefa wanted this competition to be about the best of football rather than the worst and said they must have an anthem. The World Cup in Italy had just had the three tenors so classical music was all the range.”
Because this was new territory, Britten said Uefa was not too sure what it wanted so he gathered a playlist of classical anthems so the organisation’s representatives could get a flavour of what they might like.
Officials came to like the sound of Handel’s Zadok The Priest – a song written for King George II’s coronation in 1726.
With the music decided Britten took to a studio in Islington and used the choir of the Academy of St Martin in the Fields and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to record the anthem.
“Some say the tune is nicked from Handel but it’s not,” Tony said. “It’s just the first writing string phrase and the rest is me.
“I remember asking ‘where are the words?’ and they said they didn’t know but that they wanted something in Uefa’s three official languages – English, German and French.
“So, I came up with a set of superlatives. ‘The greatest’, ‘the best’, ‘the masters’, ‘the main event’, ‘the champions’ and translated between those languages.
“It all came together in a matter of weeks and the actual composing process was just a matter of days.
“Although it was designed to be an important competition there were only eight teams and no-one thought it was going to be the mega competition that it has become now.”
Over the years Britten, a Crystal Palace fan, found himself inside some of Europe’s iconic stadiums listening to the music he created.
“I remember going to Arsenal and we were a bit concerned that the stadium sound wasn’t as good. I was moving around the stadium because I wanted to hear the sound at Highbury.
“But I do remember getting a thrill listening to it and that was kind of a buzz.”
Through the perks of having written the anthem Britten has been able to watch numerous finals and some of the world’s greatest footballers play in their prime.
“I took my brother to the final in Paris in 2000 and we had such a ball,” he said. “We were standing in the really nice seats and my brother pointed and said there were people singing along.
“At the old Olympic Stadium in Munich I got to meet Pele – he was a sweet man but for some reason I didn’t get his autograph.
“The memorabilia is priceless. We took some bar glasses from another final at the San Siro in 2016 – because a barman told us as soon we go they smash them all up.”
But the composer said it was another final in Milan he held as his fondest memory.
In 2001, to mark the final between Bayern Munich and Valencia at the San Siro, Britten conducted the famous chorus of La Scala Milan to sing the anthem live in front of 79,000 screaming fans.
“It was a unique experience,” he recalled. “Both sets of fans were nuts and so loud. They actually started to quieten down to listen when La Scala started to sing their own song and listen.
“But there was a point when a Uefa guy came up to me and said we had to pull the choir before the start as it wasn’t going to work and I knew it was too late for that and just turned my back to him.
“Having the final in Milan I felt we had to have La Scala perform and it was only finalised a few days before the final.
“As the San Siro is very steep I had never heard anything like it, to the point we had to start absolutely on time and I couldn’t hear the playback.
“Luckily the sound guys were savvy enough and whacked the sound up louder and the choir jumped.
“It was terrifying to be half a bar out in front of 180 million people.”
Standing six feet away from Britten was the fearsome Bayern Munich captain Steffan Effenberg and a few years later the pair met again when the composer was asked to do a live TV interview in Germany.
“He said whenever he heard that music the hairs stood up on the back of his neck and I called him out saying he was nervous. To be fair to him it is nerve-wracking – financially and emotionally.
“It’s a long running competition that goes on for two-thirds of the year and it’s very rare you get a clear cut winner throughout [the competition].
“Effenberg was this renowned tough guy and he said that the music made his spine tingle.”
But Effenberg was only one of many top footballers to have paid tribute to the music that has come to represent a sense of occasion around Europe.
Gareth Bale famously said he wanted to sign for Real Madrid to listen to the Champions League anthem.
“It’s sweet when players say things like that, of course,” said Britten.
“But if everyone is totally honest, at the time we made this we had no idea it was going to become as big as it has.”
‘We did a funk version’
Britten, who now splits his time between Croydon and living in Norfolk, remains proud of the part he played, to the point where he thinks it would be silly if Uefa got rid of his creation.
“Every few years Uefa do a rebrand and there was a review not long ago where they said the music was the single strongest branding.
“They said it was as important as red was to Coca-Cola.
“We have tried messing around with it a bit. We did a funk version and a beats version and it worked really well.
“We sent it to the broadcasters and they all said it was great, but they would stick to the original.”