Football’s Coming Home — A Defence

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As Leonardo Bonucci bellowed down the lens of the camera with the subtlety of a steel wrecking ball, the BBC’s and ITV’s video editors quickly wound back, rewatched it, and knew how their Euros heartbreak montages would end.

With the rain flitting down from the unsummery sky above Wembley, England were left to watch dazed and dozed as the Italians covered every blade of grass in their celebrations, just as they’d done over an exhausting 120 minutes of tense, taxing football.

Bonucci grabbed hold of the camera, Giorgio Chiellini never far behind his defensive partner, and belted “IT’S COMING TO ROME” down the lens. In a summer of fond memories of Gareth Southgate’s England, it was the sort of nightmare no England fan is likely to forget. The Italians had claimed England’s home tournament as their own, and now they’d claimed England’s anthem as their own too.

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Juventus stalwart Bonucci may have got his hands on the Henri Delaunay Trophy that night, but he just didn’t get the phrase ‘It’s coming home’. He joined an extraordinarily long list of people who misunderstood Three Lions, the England supporters’ song produced ahead of Euro 96 by The Lightning Seeds and David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

Rewind three years to the day, and the build-up to England’s first World Cup semi-final since Italia 90 had featured much the same confusion. Croatia eventually knocked England out of the 2018 World Cup in Russia, as everyone well knows. Yet the days before had included a lot of rhetoric claiming England had shown disrespect towards Croatia. The culprit: Three Lions again.

Real Madrid’s timeless midfield ace Luka Modrić and his national team manager Zlatko Dalić felt England showed an “arrogant” deservingness to win come what may. Modrić did qualify, and has always maintained in subsequent interviews, that he was referring to the English media and fans rather than the players and manager. But that hardly seems to ease the tension.

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Bonucci, Modrić and Dalić are anything but the only ones. Addressing the media before facing the nation where he plays his club football in the Euro 2020 semi-finals, Denmark and Leicester City goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel responded sharply and dismissively about the tune. “Has it ever been home?” he asked, jokingly. “I don’t know, have you ever won it?”

Ex-Scotland international and modern-day divisive pundit extraordinaire Graeme Souness once said: “Football’s coming home, is it? So, England effectively own the sport. I don’t think so.”

I don’t expect these foreign internationals of today and yesterday to love the song. Why would they? England don’t go about their business quietly at major tournaments. The players might do, especially this young and conscientious group which Gareth Southgate fosters. But the success-or-not of the England team becomes all-consuming for the British mainstream press every two summers. And England fans, regardless of how many of them do behave themselves, are rightly bemoaned by other nations who see the worst damage done by the worst and most mindless of England’s so-called ‘fans’. See: anywhere that wasn’t the Wembley pitch in the leadup to, middle of, and aftermath of the Euros final for evidence of that. No wonder England face two games behind closed doors this summer for “crowd trouble”. How’s that for putting it euphemistically?

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Nevertheless, Three Lions is a song which speaks to the pain, to the almost predestined cockingituppery of England when it comes to a tournament. The truth of the matter is: England have entered 33 Euros and World Cup campaigns, reaching the final of either just twice. All footballing indicators suggest England should have had much greater success than that.

Always losing on penalties, always losing early leads, always retreating fatally far back to their own goal. There is a formula. For England fans, failure is inevitable.

‘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…’

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And yet, as Euro 2020 showed — with England just a couple of spot-kicks away from actually, properly, finally, doing it again — there is always hope. Someone’s got to win it.

‘Thirty years of hurt
Never stopped me dreaming

But the most contentious part of this song has seemed over the years not to be that it supposedly implies England feel they’ve won before the first ball is kicked. It’s that:

‘It’s coming home
It’s coming home
It’s coming
Football’s coming home.’

As Souness said, do England feel they “effectively own the sport”? No Graeme. No one in their right mind thinks that. But Wembley Stadium is nicknamed ‘The Home of Football’. It is named that because it was in London that in 1863, The Football Association was formed and the sport codified by 13 clubs on Monday 26 October 1863 at the Freemason’s Tavern in Great Queen Street, Covent Garden. What event was Three Lions written for? Euro 96. Where was the Euro 96 final held? Wembley. O how context is bliss.

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And even then, they don’t claim such reasons — rational and factual though they would be — motivated the lyrics. Baddiel told The Times last year that “The song was never a statement about owning football. ‘Football’s coming home’ meant maybe one day we can win it.”

“We love this game but we don’t assume it’s going to be wonderful all the time because watching England isn’t. The most likely thing is that you are going to lose but some magical thinking keeps you watching. It’s a song about magical thinking and I think that’s what chimes with people.”

Bonucci, Modrić and friends don’t have to Get It. I expect they’ve got better things to be busying themselves with. But it’s a peculiar reality that the song has been so misconstrued that it has been a source of energy and determination for England’s opponents in some of the biggest games of their recent history. The irony has come full circle if a song which ironically glorifies England’s tournament exits is so misunderstood overseas that it contributes to further England tournament exits. How very English of us to let that happen.

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It’s not jingoistic, it’s delicate. It’s not triumphalist, it’s self-deprecating. The FA know that. And whether or not their story was immediately rubbished, The Sun’s sports editors know it too.

“I think there is a psychological element, something in the English character which is self-conscious about winning,” David Baddiel told The Times that day.

“You can’t sing that song as an anthem of nationalism. It’s a vulnerable patriotism.”

I know that was then, but it could be again…’

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