Every now and then an annoying song gets lodged in the brain and just won’t move. You try to think of other things, or even different songs but the tune stays in your subconscious. The song is there in the morning when you wake up and you find yourself humming it as you go about your day. Even worse, you know hundreds of thousands of other people are singing it as well.
I have had “Three Lions” by the Lighting Seeds on an almost constant rotation in my head since July 3rd. That was the day when the England national football team finally won a penalty shoot-out at a World Cup.
By beating Colombia in Moscow, England then moved onto a quarter-final game against Sweden. If you reading this article and you don’t know the result of that match, I would suggest that the World Cup might not be the focus of your attention … because England won 2-0.
Which basically means that “Three Lions” is the current de-facto National Anthem of a country that has not been in a World Cup semi-final since 1990. And I don’t know how to stop the song repeating in my head.
Football’s Coming Home … Maybe
In fact, this is only the third World Cup semi-final that England have ever taken part in. The team lost in Italy in 1990 and the only other appearance came in 1966. When England won the tournament itself. In England. Without the need for a World Cup song.
Fifty-two years later and 28 years on from the disappointment of losing to Germany in the semi-finals in Turin, England have reached the last four and face Croatia in Moscow (again) on July 11th. If they win that game, then not only will the Three Lions be in the final on July 15, but also there is a very real chance that “football is coming home.”
Which, in case you have been lucky enough to not have the song on repeat in your mind for over a week, are basically the first 16 lines of “Three Lions.”
There are some other references to “years of hurt” and a number of “oh-so-nears,” but the basic premise is that England are destined not to triumph. The song was originally released for Euro 96—held in England, we lost in the semis—and has been adopted by England fans at almost every tournament since as a way to acknowledge that sporting triumph is very hard to achieve.
Being an England fan is not fun. As I mentioned in my pre-tournament article, England have been generally dreadful in recent years. Two years ago, we lost to Iceland in the round of 16 at the European Championships in France—a defeat that came four days after the Brexit vote. In Brazil in 2014, we didn’t even get out of the group stages.
So I can be forgiven for thinking that Russia 2018 would follow a similar pattern.
A group of talented and reasonably well-paid young men hang out in the former Soviet Union for a couple of weeks, raise expectations, score a couple of goals and then come home. I admit that the team selection only excited me because my beloved Tottenham Hotspur had five players in the squad, even if certain people—yes, I am looking at you former Arsenal captain Tony Adams—said that these North London lads didn’t have the winning mentality.
Rather shamefully, I fell into line. I said that England would not win. Not because I agreed with Mr. Adams, but that I felt that both the weight of history and the quality of other teams would be factors. I actually quoted a study by a sports data analyst that said England had a 4% chance of winning the tournament, which further fueled my low expectations.
Unlike my Turf colleague and fellow Tottenham fan Ryan Matott, I approached the tournament with a sense of trepidation. Football, I suggested, would not be coming home. Rather, England would fail to deliver in Russia and merely just give us fans a few thrills along the way. I would still be proud to wear the shirt, but low expectations seemed about right.
I was wrong.
The team has delivered, the squad has looked focused and the mood of the nation has changed both at home and here among ex-pats in the United States. The number of fans that have turned up at Boston’s Greatest Bar to watch the matches, for example, has steadily increased since England’s first match against Tunisia, and it is tempting to think that the scenes of unbridled joy have been repeated in other American cities.
England Proved Themselves On World Stage
England’s march to the semi-finals has caught both the general public and various well-known pundits off guard, many of whom subscribed to the consensus that the players had talent but were not world class.
Former striker Alan Shearer said in an interview with the BBC that before the tournament started he could not make a case for England winning it, and that all he really wanted was to see some signs of improvement. The team now has a chance of winning it, Shearer said, with everything apparently falling into place. Citing Euro 96 as a moment when England fell short at the semi-final stage, the Newcastle legend said that the other thing in common with that campaign is a song … and I will give you three guesses as to what song was.
The other thing to take into account is that the current England team is not, as the BBC also reported, filled with players who have spent their lives being mollycoddled at various football academies. In place of the so-called “Golden Generation” of Beckham, Gerrard, Rooney, Owen, Scholes et al., the team comprises of lads who learned their trade at places like Darlington, Halifax Town, Welling United and Aldershot.
Dele Alli—who now appears in TV spots alongside Lionel Messi—joined Milton Keynes Dons at 11, for instance, and only moved to Tottenham three years ago. Leicester City’s Harry Maguire was at Euro 2016 as a fan and made his full England debut in October 2017. Goalkeeper Jordan Pickford has eight caps, is aged 24 and has already played in all five of England’s top football divisions—Premier, Championship, League One, League Two and Conference. And let’s not forget that England’s talismanic captain—Harry Kane—was sent out on loan by his parent club four times between 2011 and 2013.
Taking all of that into account, England have come of age at Russia 2018. With the exception of the seemingly meaningless loss to Belgium (which inadvertently opened up a far more favorable route through the knockout stages), the team has exceeded expectations by reaching its first semi-final in a generation. Kane is on track for the Golden Boot and team is playing with confidence. As an added bonus, the scenes of England fans celebrating in a shower of beer has made me happy that I have managed to stay relatively dry during the games.
Unbridled Optimism Ahead?
On the flip side, nobody would have predicted that we would be in the semi-final, irrespective of how much unbridled optimism you have.
The caveat is that England still need to get past Croatia on July 11th, but the final is tantalizingly close. If we do beat Croatia, then the seemingly impossible is within reach, with only France standing in England’s way. If we lose, then we have the chance to finish third.
Put it this way, if you had offered me that possibility before a ball was kicked on June 14, I would have happily taken your arm off. The problem is that now I want to believe. but the sports fan inside me is desperately trying not to get my hopes up …
We all know that I approached this tournament with a sense of familiar dread. Now is not the time for any of us to reflect on what I believed way back in June and, as I said before, any level of success at Russia 2018 was always going to be a bonus. England’s performance has made me think again. Two more games to go … football comes home and then we can party like it’s 1966.
And I already know what song will be playing on repeat at that party.