The Story of the English National Soccer Team’s Anthem, ‘Three Lions’

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Those following England’s surprising run in the 2018 World Cup will most likely have noticed the repeated use of the phrase “It’s coming home” from their supporters and pundits. It’s a reference to “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home),” a 1996 recording by the Lightning Seeds, an alt-rock band best remembered in the U.S. for their 1991 Top 40 hit “Pure,” with David Baddiel and Frank Skinner.

The track had been commissioned by the Football Association (FA), which governs the sport in England, during the run-up to Euro 96, the European Championships that were being held in England. Between the home-field advantage and a team consisting of stars like Alan Shearer, Paul Gascoigne and Teddy Sheringham, there was considerable optimism that England could capture its first trophy since winning the World Cup in 1966.

The FA hired producer Rick Blaskey, who contacted Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Broudie to write something that acknowledged the shield on the England jersey, which consists of three lions. Broudie wrote the music, but brought in Baddiel and Skinner, comedians who hosted a BBC soccer show, for the words and the lead vocals. Their lyrics reflected the traditional pessimism of the England fan (“So many jokes, so many sneers / But all those ‘Oh, so nears’ / Wear you down through the years“) with the idea that football glory could be “coming home” to the country that birthed the modern version of the sport through rules codified in 1863.

‘I thought it was only worth making if it reflected how it feels to be a football fan,” Broudie said. “Even the most successful teams don’t always win, but there’s a suspension of reality and you believe anyway — whether you support Rochdale or Man[chester] United. I’ve always felt there was something very primal about music that links into that. At the most raw, emotional times, people sing together, whether it’s a funeral or football match. ‘Three Lions’ has something of that — we’re all in this together, we’re all willing to dream.’”

Watch the ‘Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home)’ Video

Released a few weeks before the start of the 1996 tournament, it captured the mood of the country, then at the height of the ’90s Britpop / Cool Britannia movement, and quickly topped the U.K. singles chart.

But it couldn’t completely help England to the top. As they had done in the World Cup six years earlier, they lost in the semi-finals to Germany, with the game being decided on penalty kicks after play concluded in a 1-1 draw. German star Jurgen Klinsmann would later say that his team sang “Three Lions” on the way to the stadium.

Two years later, the song was updated with some new lyrics in time for the World Cup in France, and put out as “Three Lions ’98.” Again, it shot to No. 1, and again, England was eliminated on penalty kicks; this time in the second round to another longtime foe, Argentina, in a game that saw rising star David Beckham ejected for kicking Diego Simeone and teenager Michael Owen score one of the goals of the tournament. David Batty’s missed penalty kick was the decider.

Watch the ‘Three Lions ’98’ Video

Since then, the song has been reissued during every World Cup, charting every time. In the week leading up to England’s semi-final against Croatia tomorrow, it reached No. 1 for the third time.

The Lightning Seeds will perform the song in London’s Hyde Park tomorrow before a public screening of England’s semifinal match against Croatia. The organizers have allotted 30,000 free tickets to be distributed in an online lottery. Coincidentally, the man who missed the decisive penalty kick in 1996 was Gareth Southgate, who is currently the manager of the England national team.

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