My first memory of hearing it was in June 2006 at the Frankfurt airport. It was early in the morning, and several England fans who had just gotten off a plane on the way to that year’s World Cup opening round quietly (and tunefully) began to sing:
It’s coming home
It’s coming home
Football’s coming home
The lyrics made no sense in context. They had been written for the 1996 European Championship, hosted by England, which has a legitimate (if not undisputed) claim to be the birthplace of football, aka soccer. But the “coming home” refrain was catchy, evocative and somehow familiar — I must have heard bits of it on the radio and/or TV while living in London in 2000 and 2001. The rest of “Three Lions,” as the song is titled, is even better, a wry, loving commentary on the futility that has marked England’s international football efforts since it won the World Cup at home in 1966. I bought it on iTunes as soon as I got back to New York in 2006, and I have happily played it pretty much every time the England football team has appeared on my TV since. And yes, I cranked it up on my tinny smartphone speaker Saturday morning (I’m traveling in California at the moment) after England beat Sweden 2-0 to make it to this year’s World Cup semifinals.
I’m not English, and among national football teams, England ranks at best third (behind the U.S. and the Netherlands, where I was an exchange student decades ago) in my personal rooting hierarchy and may be lower than that. But I do love “Three Lions,” and with more and more of the world becoming familiar with it this summer, thanks in part to an explosion in “It’s Coming Home” Twitter memes, it’s worth examining why.
First, the music, by Ian Broudie, is lovely. I don’t really possess the musical vocabulary to explain why it’s lovely, but it manages to both evoke the British Invasion of the 1960s and feel timelessly anthemic. Broudie is a Liverpudlian who in the late 1970s played guitar in the band Big in Japan, which wasn’t, and in the 1980s produced albums by, among others, Echo and the Bunnymen, the Fall, and Wall of Voodoo. In 1989, he struck out on his own as the Lightning Seeds, originally playing all the instruments himself, and scored a few minor U.K. hits. One of them, 1992’s irrepressibly peppy “The Life of Riley,” came to be frequently used as background music on the BBC’s football highlights show “Match of the Day,” which is surely why England’s Football Association asked Broudie to write a song for Euro 96.
Official England team songs were already a well-established thing by that point. There had been an ode to the 1966 tournament mascot, “World Cup Willie,” performed in Dixieland-ish skiffle style; in 1970, the actual England World Cup squad sang “Back Home,” which sounded like a bad pub song from the 1930s but nonetheless hit No. 1 on the U.K. charts. After failed World Cup qualifying campaigns in 1974 and 1978, the England squad was back in 1982 with “This Time (We’ll Get It Right),” a slightly poppier song with a video of players gathered at the Abbey Road recording studio and singing while holding headphones to their ears that (visually, not musically) prefigured the “Do They Know It’s Christmas” and “We Are the World” videos of two and three years later.
That rose to No. 2 in the U.K., but subsequent team-sung anthems in 1986 and 1988 (for that year’s European Championship) were flops, so in 1990 the FA tried something new, asking New Order to come up with a song for the World Cup.
New Order is the critically acclaimed group that rose from the ashes of the legendary Joy Division after the latter’s lead singer killed himself in 1980. So this was an interesting choice! Drummer Steve Morris and keyboardist/guitarist Gillian Gilbert both at first didn’t believe the proposal was serious, while lead singer Bernard Sumner jokingly (?) told the music publication NME when the song came out that “this should be the last straw for Joy Division fans.” Still, the song, “World in Motion,” isn’t bad, and it repeated the “Back Home” feat of topping the U.K. music charts. The football players’ contributions were limited mainly to mouthing lyrics for the video, although star winger John Barnes wrote and performed a brief, memorable rap sequence (“We ain’t no hooligans/This ain’t a football song/Three lions on my chest/I know we can’t go wrong”):
The song may even have marked, New Order drummer Morris once mused,
the beginning of English football’s turn away from the yobbish violence that tainted it in the 1970s and 1980s (and toward expensive tickets and fans allegedly more interested in their prawn sandwiches than the match):
It did come at a bit of a turning point for football. Until that point it was all very laddish. After ‘World in Motion’ everybody got a bit loved-up with it.
That year also happened to mark England’s best World Cup performance since 1966, a run to the semifinals that ended in a penalty-kick defeat to eventual champion West Germany. Then, after another excruciating England failure to qualify in 1994, Broudie got his chance. He decided he didn’t want players involved, instead recruiting comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner to write the lyrics and sing.
Baddiel and Skinner were former flatmates who at the time hosted a late-Friday-night TV talk show, “Football Fantasy League,” that focused on their shared football obsession.
As Broudie told the Guardian in 2014:
The reason I got them in after the FA asked me to write a song was that I thought it was only worth making if it reflected how it feels to be a football fan.
That feeling, especially for England fans, has over the decades involved a lot of frustration, which Baddiel and Skinner did a solid job of evoking:
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
But I know they can play, ’cause I remember
Three lions on a shirt
Jules Rimet still gleaming
Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming
I looked up the lyrics Saturday morning because I didn’t understand the Jules Rimet bit. Lots of people in England apparently don’t, either, usually rendering it as “jewels remain still gleaming.” Rimet, it turns out, was the longtime president of the International Federation of Association Football, generally known by its French acronym FIFA, which puts on the World Cup. The winner’s trophy in 1966 was named after him.
As for the “thirty years of hurt,” it’s now 52 years since England hoisted that or any other major football trophy. But apart from that, little about the song feels dated. In 1996, it spent just two weeks as the U.K. No. 1 — it faced formidable competition from the Fugees’ “Killing Me Softly” — but ended up as the year’s seventh-most popular song. And then … it just didn’t go away.
It’s not that there weren’t attempts to wrest away the spotlight. In 1998, there was an official England anthem, “(How Does it Feel to Be) on Top of the World?”, written by Echo and the Bunnymen frontman Ian McCulloch and performed by him and his bandmates, the Spice Girls and other notables, plus the unofficial anthem “Vindaloo” by Fat Les, an improbable trio of actor/comedian Keith Allen (who performed in and helped write the lyrics to 1990’s “World in Motion” and has a pop-star daughter named Lily), Blur bassist Alex James and artist Damien Hirst. Sample lyric:
Vindaloo nah nah
And we all like Vindaloo
We’re gonna score one more than you
That was much more popular than the official song, but both were overshadowed by an updated “Three Lions,” which again hit No. 1. Subsequent official and unofficial England team songs have remained in its shadow. “Shout for England,” a footballized cover of Tears for Fears’ “Shout” by Dizzee Rascal and James Corden, did top the charts in 2010 but doesn’t seem to have had much staying power. An overwrought 2010 remake of “Three Lions,” featuring comedian Russell Brand, pop star Robbie Williams, an opera singer and a gospel choir, has also mercifully faded away. And so, with no official or unofficial competition during this year’s World Cup run — the fact that one can no longer make much of any money off a novelty hit single has probably cut back on supply — the original 1996 “Three Lions” is back at No. 1 in the U.K. charts and all is right with the world.
This is not just a song for English football supporters. That is, there are multiple England-specific references in it, but it doesn’t feel particularly nationalistic. It’s a wistful ode to the joy and pain of sports obsession that can be appreciated by fans everywhere. If this year’s England team goes and ruins it by winning the World Cup, maybe the rest of us can adopt it.
(Corrects spelling of Echo and the Bunnymen’s Ian McCulloch in 17th paragraph of article published July 10.)
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Brooke Sample at email@example.com