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‘Football’s coming home,’ explained

England’s World Cup rallying cry has plenty people asking: “What does ‘It’s coming home’ mean?”

Football Fans Watch England Take On Belgium In The World Cup Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

You’ve heard it. If you’ve had even the faintest contact with England fans over the course of this World Cup, you’ve have heard it. Maybe you saw it online, floating around Twitter, jammed into every meme going. Maybe you heard it offline, in the real world, being sung from the white-and-red crowds in Russian stadiums and squares, or in England’s pubs and parks.

Either way, you’ve been told: “It’s coming home. It’s coming home. It’s coming. Football’s coming home.”

And with England in the semifinal playing Croatia, you’ve certainly heard about it coming home a lot more.

Yes! I have seen it! Or heard it. What is it?

It’s a football song. And in the grand scheme of England football songs, which range from the from the wonderful to the dreadful, and on through the highly peculiar, it’s a pretty good one. It’s catchy. It’s got a good hook for chanting. And (perhaps unusually, for something emerging from English football) it manages to be bittersweet, reflective, and ultimately hopeful without lapsing into weird jingoism or laddish in-jokes.

The song — actually called “Three Lions” — was written and recorded by two comedians, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, along with Liverpudlian indie band the Lightning Seeds. The original version (above) was released in 1996, in the build-up to the European Championships, and although it wasn’t the official tournament song it was quickly adopted by England fans. Perhaps it helped that official song was extremely turgid.

So why was football coming home?

Like all truly great song lyrics, this works on two whole levels. The first is literal: England were hosting Euro ‘96, and the slogan for the tournament was “Football Comes Home”. This is the country where some old men in hats first wrote down the rules. This is where it all began.

The other level was half-prediction, half-plea. England, though they may be the originals, haven’t often been the best. Their only major tournament win was the 1966 World Cup, also held in England, and in the thirty years since then they’d been occasionally decent, often bad, and frequently a total mess. They’d lost on penalties, they’d failed to qualify for tournaments, they’d conceded to San Marino, and they’d been mocked at great length on Norwegian television.

This is the key to the song. Instead of going straight to bland triumphalism, it begins with the miserable bits. Excerpts of commentary from England’s more embarrassing moments plays over the first two verses: “Everyone seems to know the score, they’ve seen it all before / They just know, they’re so sure / That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away …”. And then later: “So many jokes, so many sneers”.

Then, set against this, the assertion that England aren’t actually that bad. “But I know they can play. ‘Cause I remember …” And then the chorus: “Three lions on a shirt / Jules Rimet still gleaming / Thirty years of hurt / Never stopped me dreaming.”

(“Jules Rimet still gleaming”, incidentally, refers to the original World Cup trophy, named after the man who created the World Cup. England lifted it in 1966, and it was given to Brazil to keep in 1970. If you want to annoy England fans on the internet, pretend you think the words are “jewels remain still gleaming”.)

By the end of the song, we’ve been taken on a quick trip through various high points from those years of hurt — “that tackle by Moore, and when Lineker scored” — and, as a result of this journey, optimism has won out. And the song ends with the chorus being sung over that refrain you’ve heard. “It’s coming home. It’s coming home. Football’s coming home.”

Did it? Come home?

Well … sort of.

If you’ll excuse a brief detour, the mid-90s was a very interesting time in Britain. A long period of wildly unpopular Conservative government was coming to an end, and a young fresh-faced man called Tony Blair — back before the wars and the weirdness — was on his way to save the nation. And British culture seemed to be flourishing as well, most notably Britpop as spearheaded by Oasis. As Michael Gibbons puts it in When Football Came Home:

the country — the world, even — was under the spell of Cool Britannia, a movement spearheaded by a motley collection of figures from the British arts. They had gathered under one roof with a Union Jack flying from the mast, and embarked on a lost weekend that went on for around three years […] An undeniable wave of optimism [passed] through the country. For a short while, anything seemed possible.

Football was caught up in this. After the dark stretch of the 1980s, and the horrifying lows of Heysel and Hillsborough, the game passed into the hands of men who decided to rebrand it, to gentrify it, and to sell it back to a nation ready to feel good about its national game.

The Premier League decoupled from the Football League in 1992, and quickly began turning football into a soap opera. Manchester United were winning things again. Newcastle were brilliant. Meanwhile Oasis were onstage in Manchester City shirts. So Euro 1996 fell at a fortuitous conjunction, and the England team — perhaps a touch surprisingly — rose to the occasion.

After opening the group stage with a draw against Switzerland, they took on Scotland (more homecomings: this is the oldest international fixture). The game was tight, but England had a one-goal lead when Scotland’s Gary McAllister missed a penalty. The hosts charged up the other end, and Paul Gascoigne, the patron saint of troubled English souls, flicked the ball over Colin Hendry’s head and volleyed it past the keeper.

England followed this up with a 4-1 demolition of the Netherlands, one of those delirious games when everything seems to go perfectly. Even the late Dutch consolation served English ends: it eliminated the Scots. The sun was shining, the team was winning, the nation was bouncing. And it was bouncing to the refrain of Three Lions.

More catharsis was to come in the quarter-finals. After a goalless draw with Spain, England faced a penalty shoot-out, their first since the semi-final of Italia 90. Stuart Pearce, who missed that night in Turin, stepped up and converted as England scored four to Spain’s two. Then he screamed, and clenched his fist, releasing six years of frustration and rendering himself instantly iconic.

But that meant another semi-final and, as in Italy, it was against Germany. The game ended 1-1, though Gasciogne was inches away from a late winner, and that meant another penalty shoot-out. This time, it wasn’t to be. Gareth Southgate, now England’s manager, was the man who missed the final spot-kick. Another two years of hurt, at least.

To make things worse, Germany went on to win the tournament, and sang the song at the trophy presentation. Football, apparently, had moved over to the continent a long while ago.

So what happened then?

Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds re-recorded their song ahead of the 1998 World Cup, incorporating the events of Euro 96 into the lyrics. (It remains one of only three songs to top the UK charts twice with different lyrics; there was a 2010 version, but nobody talks about that.) But England crashed out of that tournament after David Beckham was sent off for flicking a leg at Diego Simeone, an incident that seems, in its bringing together of celebrity and calamity, to have set the tone for England in the early 21st century.

Throughout the 2000s, and on into the teens, England were trapped in a weird cycle of hype and disappointment, as excellent players failed time and against to coalesce into anything coherent. You may recall the Lampard-Gerrard conundrum, or the perennial left-sided problem, or any number of other hexes. And while you occasionally heard “It’s coming home” during this period, it never really seemed to stick.

Perhaps that was just a lack of victories. But then this current lot haven’t really won anything either.

So why is it back now?

A few theories. The first is speculative: unlike those that came before, this group of England players deserve to accompany it home. As noted above, the song constructs its optimism on a foundation of humility; it’s anthemic, but it’s laced with self-awareness. Nobody has ever said that about anything involving John Terry.

But this England team are nice. They’re pleasant. They are, in the words of many England fans, “surprisingly likeable”. And while that surprise isn’t particularly flattering to those who came before — imagine liking an England team! — it says good things about this lot. Three Lions is a song that loses its power in the face of arrogance, but there’s little to be found under Southgate.

Another theory, perhaps even more fanciful: unlike those that came before, this group of England players are good enough to accompany it home. The widespread stuttering of the other favourites helps here, of course, but England have looked in good touch so far.

More, they look organised, they keep the ball well, and they seem to have confidence in their plan and in themselves. This hasn’t always been the case, no matter how notionally talented the squad. They’re young, too. If not now, maybe some day.

Final theory: perhaps it’s this is simply another happy conjunction. After all, Euro 96 was 22 years ago, and France 98 was 20. That means the kids that watched those tournaments are now adults, and have grown up frustrated with their national side. But they’ve also grown up with the songs and the memories. They have a good ear for a slogan. And many of them are extremely online.

One more question. Is football coming home?

Oh, it’s much too early to tell. But even the most pessimistic England fan would have to admit that it’s not not coming home. And further, that they’ll take that. For the moment.