If there are three words in the English language that can agitate fans of world soccer more than “goal under review”, it is this seemingly innocuous phrase: Football’s Coming Home.
You will hear this plenty between now and the Sunday 3 p.m. ET kickoff of the Euro 2020 final, which arrives a year late because of the pandemic but five decades late for England fans who have ached for a major championship since their lads won the World Cup in 1966.
The websites for London’s The Independent and for the BBC ran headlines relative to that phrase after England’s 2-1 victory over Denmark in extra time advanced the Three Lions to the Euro championship game against Italy.
And this irritates those who contend the sport wasn’t really invented in England, and those inclined to dislike the team nicknamed “The Three Lions” because of the crest on the players’ jerseys, and even those who have some political animus to the most populous portion of the United Kingdom.
“It’s a flat lie,” author Ged O’Brien once told BBC Sport Scotland. “The genius of Scots over the last 500 years, and particularly the idea of the clan system, is what gave us football. It’s entirely a Scottish game.”
The origins of the sport are widely debated, with some tracing it to China nearly 2,500 years ago. It seems hard to argue, though, that the rules of soccer as it’s presently played can be traced to the formation of the Football Association in 1863. That occurred in London, where stands Wembley Stadium, which will serve as the venue for the England-Italy final on Sunday.
That is why many English fans consider their country to be the game’s spiritual home, and that led to the composition of a song 25 years ago, before Euro 96 became the most recent major international tournament to be staged entirely in England, called “The Three Lions.” The most frequently repeated phrase in that song is, “It’s coming home”, followed by “Football’s coming home.”
So you know the origin of the controversy, but perhaps not entirely the reason it’s a controversy.
The easiest way for an American fan to understand the impact “Football’s Coming Home” has had on fans of world soccer is to consider how a similar pop-culture phrase has impacted the past century of NFL football.
No one in the Dallas Cowboys organization stood forward and proclaimed their squad, “America’s Team.” That was the title assigned by NFL Films to the 1978 Cowboys highlights film. Among the responsibilities of NFL Films was production of a season recap for every team in the league. It was a challenge, often, to put a pleasant spin on a season that ended unpleasantly. In the 1978 season, the Cowboys lost the Super Bowl by a narrow margin to the Pittsburgh Steelers, after one of their tight ends dropped a certain touchdown pass that might have changed the game.
NFL Films was not going to call that film, “Well, Almost” or “Butterfingers”. So the authors focused on the team’s vast television popularity and the number of Cowboys fans who showed up when the team played on the road and came up with “America’s Team”. That immediately was resented by fans of other teams, and they (and the journalists and commentators those fans follow) helped make it ubiquitous. Now, “America’s Team” is mocked and ridiculed across the United States every day since, as the Cowboys have failed to reach a Super Bowl since 1995.
Now take that and multiply it by the world, and you’ll understand why “Football’s Coming Home” is so grating to so many. It is presumed to be, at its core, an expression of arrogance: This is our game and you all are lucky we allowed you to play.
Asked prior to the semifinal against England what he thought about football “coming home,” Denmark goalkeeper Kasper Schmeichel — whose day job is with Premier League club Leicester City — responded, “Has it ever been home?”
The song itself, though, is inventive, appealing and, most important, self-deprecating. It was not written by David Beckham or Gary Lineker or Paul Gascoigne. The comedians who wrote it, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, and who performed it along with the band Lightning Seeds, made no apparent effort to declare England as the only worthy winner of every major international soccer championship.
Instead they made references in the song to “30 years of hurt” that followed the 1966 World Cup title and included this verse:
So many jokes, so many sneers
But all those oh-so-nears
Wear you down
Through the years
In fact, the aspect of “Football’s Coming Home” or England fandom that genuinely is exhausting is that embrace of perpetual heartbreak — the fatalism “That England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away”, as the song says – reminiscent of the Red Sox prior to 2004 or the Cubs before 2016. As if only they lose, and only they lose in big moments, and only they lose in devastating fashion.
Sure, the Sox had Buckner and the Cubs had Bartman and England had Becks blasting a penalty over the crossbar at the 2004 Euros (above). Hey, the Detroit Lions have been to the NFC Championship game once in 51 years, and Belgium just saw its golden generation tumble from another major tournament without reaching a final.
All fans suffer some. It’s part of the bargain. There is no home for sporting agony. That resides everywhere.