English contains more than 170,000 words, but, thanks to England’s success in the 2018 World Cup, the language’s inventors now only seem to know how to say three: “It’s coming home.” It refers to football, and the chant-turned-phrase-turned-meme is a winking catch-all to evoke an ironic sense of hope that England could go all the way.
That sardonic patina fades with every England win, however, and now that the team is in the World Cup semifinals for the first time since 1990 … it’s coming home?
“It’s Coming Home” is the chorus of “Three Lions,” a song by comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner in collaboration with Britpop band The Lightning Seeds. As England prepared to host the 1996 European Championship, the country’s soccer federation commissioned the performers to create an anthem. Other artists have recorded remakes tied to later tournaments, but the original 1996 version is the one that routinely climbs up the singles charts whenever England is playing well, and the song is currently 24 on the UK’s Top 40.
It’s a catchy ditty, which helps explain its durability as a chant, but “Three Lions” is also astonishingly defeatist. The intro features a recording of soccer commentator Alan Hansen complaining about how bad the national team is. “We’re not creative enough, and we’re not positive enough,” he says.
“The song is aware of the negative aspects of being an England football fan,” songwriter Baddiel told The Independent in 1996. “The fact the FA [Football Association] let us do it at all shows a lot of balls on their part.”
The chorus mentions “30 years of hurt,” a reference to the 1966 World Cup in England, the last and only time the country has ever won a major tournament. Euro 96 gave fans reason to believe that England could once again “bring football home,” and “Three Lions” oscillates between fatalism and optimism for the team’s chances. Naturally, England lost to Germany on penalties in the semifinals of that European Championship, and so the song’s message has endured.*
“It’s coming home” may be the subject of countless jokes on social media, but it is also a meme in the original sense of the word. It’s a cultural hook on which a nation can hang its collective baggage—“30 years of hurt” was 22 years ago, after all. There’s a power to it, and the England players themselves coyly tip-toe around any boisterous proclamations that football is, in fact, coming home.
After beating Sweden 2-0 in Saturday’s quarterfinal, England goalscorer Harry Maguire was interviewed pitch-side and asked, “Football’s coming home, right?”
“Hopefully,” he said, slowly retreating from the microphone. “Fingers crossed.”
If so, Baddiel and Skinner may want to record a new version of the song, one in which the chorus is phrased in the past tense.
Correction, July 9, 2018: This post originally and incorrectly stated that England lost to Germany in the quarterfinals of the 1996 UEFA European Championship. It was the semifinals.