'It's coming home': the meaning behind the Three Lions lyrics

An old football refrain echoes through the streets of England as the 1996 song roars again

As many of us laid our heads to rest on Saturday night with windows wide open to offset the effects of the relentless summer heatwave, the distant call of England football fans howling “it’s coming home” may have echoed in the street outside.

Many will recognise the slurred refrain as the choral lyric to the 1996 No 1 single Three Lions, penned by Scouse Britpop band the Lightning Seeds and the then-relatively baby-faced comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel.

Others may more readily know the line from a run of optimistic internet memes.

But the verse of Three Lions, which was released 22 years ago, has left even football-savvy younger fans a little confused.

The refrain “it’s coming home”was actually a reference to the fact that when the song was released, England was hosting its first major football tournament since the 1966 World Cup. But the snippet has evolved to refer to both England’s hopes of bringing home the World Cup trophy but also the disputed spiritual home of football.

The international governing body, Fifa, says football in its current form was invented in England in 1863. But earlier versions of the sport can be traced much further back to widespread countries including China.

Three Lions video

The three lions have a history going back to the 12th century, when a standard with three gold lions on a red field was carried into battle to inspire the troops. Monarchs in the middle ages were sometimes referred to as lions due to the big cat’s associated characteristics of bravery, aggression and having great hair.

Then there is a reference to “Jules Rimet still gleaming” – not as some have misheard “jewels remain still gleaming”.

Rimet was the longest-serving president of Fifa, who held the post for 33 years and who started the World Cup competition in 1929. The original World Cup trophy was named after him – the trophy England won in 1966.

And when Skinner, Baddiel and the Lightning Seeds’ frontman, Ian Broudie, describe “that tackle by Moore and when Lineker scored” and “Bobby belting the ball, and Nobby dancing” they are making reference to the England football heroes Bobby Moore, Bobby Charlton and Nobby Stiles of the 1966 World Cup-winning team and the England footballer-turned-Match of the Day presenter-turned-crisps promoter, Gary Lineker.

Ian Broudie (left), Frank Skinner and David Baddiel promote the release of their Three Lions World Cup single in 1998.
Ian Broudie (left), Frank Skinner and David Baddiel promote the release of their Three Lions World Cup single in 1998. Photograph: PA

And when they sing “but all those oh, so nears wear you down through the years”, they are referring to defeats in the past including the penalty shoot-out loss at the World Cup in 1990. Since then there have been many more, including penalty shootout defeats in the 1998 and 2006 World Cups as well as in the 1996, 2004 and 2012 European Championships, which is why you would be forgiven for presuming, going by the response from some fans and some in the media, that England had won the actual World Cup and not a match in the round of 16 against Colombia.

England will play their first World Cup semi-final in 28 years on Wednesday, the last time being against West Germany in 1990 – six years before Three Lions was released. Back then it was all about New Order’s World in Motion and the John Barnes rap. But we’ll save that for another article.

Contributor

Jamie Grierson Home affairs correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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