The 1990s synthesized dance track that is the unofficial anthem of Copa America

Moments before the opening kick of this year’s Copa America, Canada’s men’s national team lined up for the national anthems. First came their opponent Argentina’s, belted out in full voice by players and fans alike. Then, something a little more stately: O Canada.

Written in the late 1800s, the Canadian national anthem is about as traditional and dignified as they come, a nod to Lord Tennyson’s description of the country as the “True North.” On the TV broadcast, a camera panned across Canada’s starting XI. “O Canada,” they sang, “we stand on guard for thee!” As the song drew to a close, the smattering of Canadian fans in the crowd burst into applause.

Mere seconds later came a jarring transition. The anthems, with all of their staid pomp and circumstance, were replaced by the faint wail of a synthesizer. Layer by layer, the sound built, the energy in the stadium swelling as the crowd realized what was happening. Like moths to a flame, many of the 70,564 in attendance rose to their feet.

The song they were hearing has no lyrics. Sometimes, you don’t need any — you just need a synthesizer tone so cutting, so visceral, that it feels like an injection of adrenaline shot directly into your cerebral cortex.

“Do do do do do,” the song goes. “Dee dee do do do do do.”

Sandstorm isn’t any country’s official national anthem. By now, though, the song — released in 2001 by Finnish DJ Darude — might as well be the unofficial anthem of sport.

It’s been played just before every match at Copa America and in nearly every case, it has brought the crowd to their feet. Love it or hate it, after 23 years, Sandstorm isn’t going anywhere.

Phelps Olympics scaled

Swimmer Michael Phelps has been known to listen to Sandstorm before races (Christophe Simon/AFP via Getty Images)

Darude — Toni-Ville Henrik Virtanen, or just Ville, for short — never expected Sandstorm to become ubiquitous. In reality, it’s a miracle the song exists at all.

Virtanen, now 48, grew up in a town of about 10,000 people in southern Finland. His interest in music, he remembers, started early in life. This was the golden era of so-called “Eurodance,” with groups like 2 Unlimited, Technotronic and Snap! cranking out club anthems. Finnish radio waves — and American ones — had been taken over by tracks like Get Ready For This and The Power. Somewhere out there, Virtanen was up late at night in his bedroom, recording the local radio station on a cassette deck.

By the time he was a teenager, Virtanen had started to go to DJ nights at local clubs. His friends would be having a good time. Virtanen, on the other hand, would usually find a corner to stand in.

“Up until that point in my life I had heard music as this single blob,” says Virtanen. “The thing that you sing to, hum or whistle to. I realized around then that it was actually layers, it was an arrangement. There’s the kick drum, there’s the hi-hat, there’s the clap, the bass, the piano. I think my life was ruined for the next couple of years because the only thing I was doing was analyzing.”

By the late ’90s, Virtanen had started writing and recording his own music, working on an old Pentium computer in his kitchen. He had a particular interest in “Happy Hardcore”: positive, frenetic, uptempo dance music which became popular in Europe in the early ’90s. In one of these tracks, he heard a synth sound he liked. He sampled it, then distorted and re-shaped it, and ended up with the iconic synthesizer sound used in Sandstorm.

“I was obsessed with the sound immediately,” says Virtanen. “I knew there was something great about it and I had to create the whole track around it. But you have to understand that I was not considering myself a musician. I was just a tinkerer, a noisemaker.”

The song he ended up crafting, Virtanen’s first effort as a professional, took about a week to wrap up. He named the track Sandstorm after the startup message displayed on the Roland synthesizer he used during the making of the song, and then uploaded it to, an early home for self-released dance music.

Weeks later, Virtanen was at a local club with his collaborator on the project, a producer who calls himself JS-16. The track had gotten some traction online, but Virtanen was about to see — for the first time — the true power of Sandstorm. As the track’s intro built, the kids in the club became immersed in the music. By the time the beat dropped, about 30 seconds in, the entire club had devolved into madness.

“(We looked) at each other like ‘is this a ‘Candid Camera’ kind of thing?’,” says Virtanen. “People went nuts. They went crazy. And they were weird reactions, intense ones.

“We didn’t realize that the song would be so big but we did experience the weirdness of it. The strange reactions of people.

“I don’t know what it is about the track. I know every millisecond, every sample, every note, everything. But what on earth creates that weird, strange, hyped reaction in people? I have no idea. We didn’t know it would snowball like this.”

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Darude talking to The Athletic about Sandstorm

Sandstorm was released on Darude’s debut album in October 1999 and started a slow, methodical climb to relevance. Within a year, it was a top-five single on the dance charts and a year later, it had cracked the Billboard Hot 100. It would take another decade, though, for the song to begin to engrain itself in the cultural ether, largely buoyed by its use in viral videos in the early days of YouTube.

It crossed the bridge from millennials to zoomers (Gen Z) by becoming a legitimate meme on Twitch, where wildly popular esports gamers would either use the song or intentionally misidentify whatever they were listening to as “Darude, by Sandstorm.” By 2010, it had sold 500,000 copies. By 2020, it had gone platinum.

It had also slowly crept into the sporting world. First, in Finland, where it would be used from time to time as an arena anthem of sorts. Then, during a pair of successive Olympic games in the mid- and late-2000s, swimmer Michael Phelps used it during warm-ups for his races.

Others adopted the tune: MMA great Wanderlei Silva made it his entrance song, while a host of college basketball and football teams have used the track to whip students into a frenzy. It has been used as entrance music for relief pitchers and warm-up music for soccer and American football teams.

Maybe most notably, the track was adopted by the University of South Carolina Gamecocks, who have used it during college football games since 2008. Needing a defensive stop on fourth down late in a game against conference rival Ole Miss in 2009, the in-house DJ at South Carolina’s Williams-Brice Stadium dropped Sandstorm. The scene, preserved all these years later on YouTube, is something to behold.

Its popularity at South Carolina has only grown over the years, having become the team’s unofficial anthem. Last year, the school invited Virtanen to play the song live during a game against Kentucky. As the stadium lights dimmed and the strobe lights came on, the scene at Williams-Brice looked less like the American south and more like an electronic music festival in Eastern Europe.

“I had my own surreal, 80,000-fan moment with the Gamecocks,” says Virtanen. “That was pretty incredible. I’d heard and seen some videos but then being there myself — going down to the field and meeting the players and the coach and experiencing the full ‘American football experience’ … It was mind blowing.”

The song now has 279 million views on YouTube and nearly half a billion plays on Spotify. Virtanen attributes much of the track’s staying power to its simplicity in design. His lack of formal training in music, he sometimes says, might give his music an appeal that other trance or techno artists don’t get across.

“One thing that I can say,” says Virtanen, “Is that it’s interesting that Sandstorm is so repetitive, but for whatever reason — and I have no idea why — it doesn’t get irritating. And that is the key, I don’t know why. It’s so recognizable, you hear like the first half-second and you know what’s coming.”

Sandstorm has become so ubiquitous at this point that many consider it a joke, or listen to it with a knowing wink of sorts. To others, it might encapsulate their feelings about techno or trance music in general, held up as the exemplar of an entire genre or subset of music that they disdain.

Virtanen doesn’t much care. He’s not bothered by why anyone is listening, whether they’re driven by sarcasm, irony or just a genuine love for his track. What matters is that they’re listening at all.

“In the United States, it’s so huge and varied,” says Virtanen. “You have rednecks in one part of the country, hippies over in some other part. Of course they are not all gonna like dance music. That’s very understandable that some people might be like ‘this electronic BS is playing again.’ But the coolest thing for me is that it seems like overwhelmingly it is still this positive thing.

“This undeniable energy that the track creates at a mass event, that’s a cool thing for me to witness.”

(Top photo: Hector Vivas/Getty Images)

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