It doesn’t take much to get England – the entire country, from the Queen’s pet corgis to the locals in the pub on the corner – believing that its national team is poised to win a major soccer tournament.
Never mind that it has done so only once, never mind that it was all the way back in 1966 and never mind how infinite doses of pain, frustration, heartache and failure have been administered in the meantime.
Because … football’s coming home.
Those three words, chorus to a song that strikes deep into the English soul, will be heard this week as Euro 2020, delayed by a year, gets underway. And, if England starts winning, they’ll be heard again and again, chanted and whispered and uttered with unreserved hope, right up until – probably – the point where the myth evaporates one more time.
Plenty of nations know what it is like to feel communal agony through the shortcomings, the near-misses and sometimes the outright ineptitude of their soccer team. Few have made such an art form of doing so — in the most excruciating fashion possible — as England.
At World Cups and European Championships, England has crashed out six times through the gut-wrenching format of penalty shootouts, lost elimination games to historic rivals and nations they’ve waged wars against, lost to tiny, underrated opponents at the precise moment when glory beckoned, almost always after showing enough form to tantalize that this could be the year.
In 1996, England hosted these same Euros and, seeking to boost interest, a theme song was commissioned. Comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel joined the Lightning Seeds and put together an addictive masterpiece that lingers on, still as relevant as ever.
“Three Lions” wasn’t some triumphant pop trash — it leaned into the historic pain of the suffering fan, encompassing lyrics such as “thirty years of hurt” and “England’s going to … throw it away.” Football was coming home because England was staging the event, but everyone knew the words also teased the dream that a miracle could happen and that for once glory could beckon.
“Three Lions, really, is a song about magical thinking,” co-writer Baddiel told The Guardian. “About assuming we are going to lose, reasonably, based on experience, but hoping that somehow we won’t.”
It became a stirring battle cry and by the time England beat Scotland and the Netherlands in the 1996 group stage it felt like an inevitability. Football was indeed coming home, to the place that invented it in its modern form. Not so, it turned out, as a defeat to Germany on penalties in the semifinals ended the country-wide party.
Such feelings may come again. Euro 2020 is to be held in a unique format, with the group stage spread around 11 cities in 11 European nations, a logistical challenge already but never more so than in these restricted times.
But the business end of the event will be in England, as London’s Wembley Stadium prepares to host three group matches, two round of 16 games, both semifinals and the final. England, if it gets that far, would potentially play six of its seven matches at home.
“The country desperately needs something to uplift people and for people to get behind,” John Ley, a former Daily Telegraph soccer writer who covered the 1996 tournament, told me via telephone. Ley remembers 77,000 fans singing Three Lions en masse at Wembley, with Skinner and Baddiel brought to tears by the scene as they gazed in wonderment at how their tune had united a nation. “Those same emotions could start to take off again if things go right,” Ley added.
There are ongoing challenges. Attendance for England’s Wembley games will be heavily capped, at least for the first two matches against Croatia (this Sunday) and Scotland, while national lockdown restrictions remain in effect.
More pertinently, while the wider public who only comes on board for the biggest of events never cease to believe, soccer realists understand there is a lot stacked against England.
FOX Bet puts England at +550 odds to win Euro 2020, second-favorite behind World Cup champion France at +400. However, even if England wins Group E, a treacherous path featuring either France, Germany or Portugal, then Spain in the quarterfinal, would be a serious possibility.
“The hardcore football fans realize how tough this is going to be for England,” Charlie Wyett, football correspondent for The Sun, told me. “It could start off a bit muted. But if the team gets into the knockout stages, then the expectations might take off again.”
A young squad led by head coach Gareth Southgate made the World Cup semifinal in Russia three years ago, sparking a wave of nationalistic joy. “Football’s coming home” was heard a lot then too, and it felt like it, until it didn’t – hope snuffed out by a late Croatia fightback just as a spot in the final came into view.
Southgate is a positive figure and the right man for a job that carries a heavy burden. It is often said no other position in English society, except for the prime minister and the Royal Family, is scrutinized so heavily.
Southgate can be light-hearted – his World Cup waistcoat became a humorous national fashion statement that saw people suddenly wearing vests to work, out to the shops, to get their fish ‘n’ chips and yep, in the pub as the games were broadcast. He understands his team’s position in the broader scheme of things.
“I tell (the players) that when you go out there, in this shirt, you have the opportunity to produce moments that people will remember forever,” Southgate wrote in the Players Tribune. “You are a part of an experience that lasts in the collective consciousness of our country. When England play, it’s not a few thousand — or even a few million. You are representing more than 50 million people.”
Probably, as Baddiel said, it is just magical thinking once more. Probably, but – as this is what keeps every fan going – not definitely.
Until the dream dies, there will be all those millions, waiting and wondering. daring to embrace it. Singing their song and hoping beyond belief that finally, finally, football’s coming home.
Here’s what others have said …
James Olley, ESPN: “England’s biggest challenge this summer might be how they cope with hope turning into expectation.”
Brian Phillips, The Ringer: “Before the start of Euro 2020 and amid talk of biannual World Cups and expanded Champions League formats, it’s time for soccer to consider embracing scarcity.”
Martin Green, SportsLine: “England reached the semis of the last World Cup. Talented youngsters like Phil Foden, Jack Grealish and Reece James have since emerged, and the team has great strength in depth. Captain Harry Kane is a goal scoring machine, and England scored 37 times in just eight qualification games. The semis and the final of Euro 2020 will be held at Wembley in London, which could give England an edge if it makes it that far.”