Font Size: A A A


World Cup 2018: English Romance

Christopher de Bellaigue
Some 20 million Britons saw the Sweden match on telly. Viewing figures of this kind belong to another era, before the Internet punctured the idea of nations’ watching the same thing at the same time. What is going on? 

Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

England player Harry Maguire talking to his fiancée Fern Hawkins after the game against Colombia at Spartak Stadium, Moscow, Russia, July 3, 2018

This is the fourteenth in a series of essays about the 2018 World Cup guest-edited by Joshua Jelly-Schapiro.


“It’s coming home,” a young man told me as we passed in the street in South London after our 2-0 defeat of Sweden in the quarter-finals of the World Cup on Sunday afternoon. He was heading toward Clapham Junction railway station, where later that day a man jumped off the roof of a double-decker and crashed through the awning of a bus stop—landing unharmed, as it turned out, amid a large crowd of revelers.

In Stratford, East London, some England fans entered a branch of IKEA, that reliable Scandi surrogate, and wreaked good-natured havoc on the home furnishings, sending cushions flying and assistants in hijab scattering for cover, as the fans waved their shirts over their heads and murdered the chorus of “It’s coming home.” According to a subsequent statement from the company, “We were on the edge of our seats during the game and we would like to say ‘grattis!’”—adding “(that’s congratulations in Swedish).” This is the sound of a corporate sigh of relief. It was IKEA’s good fortune that England didn’t lose.   

“It’s coming home,” the lifeguard greeted us when he opened the doors of my local swimming pool this Monday morning. “It is, too!” boomed a fellow swimmer, a Jamaican evangelical Christian whose bonhomie faltered recently, at the death of his wife, but now seems fully restored.

They were all referencing a song, “Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home),” that no one in England can get out of their heads at the moment. It dates back to 1996, when two comedians, David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, teamed up with the English band The Lightning Seeds to mark the European Championships, which that year was held in England. “Football’s Coming Home” was the result, a cocktail of presumption and self-deprecation rendered palatable by a catchy, Brit-poppy chorus. (Too catchy, as we are now discovering.) 

The rest of the news has been put into proper perspective by the goals of Harry Kane, England’s captain (six so far, putting him on target for the tournament’s Golden Boot award), and the goalkeeping heroics of Jordan Pickford, who not only made several crucial saves against Sweden, but also—with his big left glove—single-handedly won for us the penalty shootout against our previous opponents, Colombia. Even the puns flow better when it’s coming home. 

As a nation, England has to concentrate on the task at hand and ignore peripheral distractions. On July 9, the foreign secretary, Boris Johnson, and the Brexit secretary, David Davis, resigned in protest at the government’s policy toward getting Britain out of Europe, which last weekend was steered by Theresa May into a more conciliatory, pro-European course than they would like. Nine months before the UK leaves Europe, the terms of our disengagement have gone from unclear to opaque, and the government is vulnerable to internal revolt. The previous day, a woman in Wiltshire died from exposure to Novichok, the nerve agent that poisoned a former Russian double agent and his daughter in the same county in March, precipitating a crisis in relations with Russia. And Mothercare, one of a legion of ailing British retailers, has announced that it is to close sixty stores.

But the good news eclipses the bad, doesn’t it? In the serenity of their hotel somewhere we haven’t heard of, England’s lads have been following a program of muscle stretches, ice baths, foam noodles, whatever they are, and prolonged exposure to the computer game Fortnite. Waistcoats of the kind worn by Gareth Southgate, the England coach, are selling well. Footage of Neil Rowe, an England fan who has followed the team to Russia, and is an apparent replica of Southgate (down to the wonky nose, five-day facial growth, and striped, middle-manager’s tie) has been widely enjoyed on social media. Marks & Spencer, supplier of the England team’s suits, including Southgate’s waistcoat, has declared a “national waistcoat day.” No abasement is too abject for our brilliant British corporates.  

Talking of social media, Harry Maguire, who headed home the opening goal against Sweden, was photographed after England’s earlier match against Colombia speaking to his fiancée, across a pitch-side barrier. He looked for all the world like a suburban geezer chatting to an attractive neighbor over the garden fence. His teammate Kyle Walker tweeted the photo along with the caption “Yeah so a good header doesn’t hurt. I mean the moment you head it proper, you feel it’s a good one. Know what I mean love?” To date, that tweet was liked by 274,000 people, almost as many as voted for Brexit. Give or take. 


But seriously. Some 20 million Britons saw the Sweden match on telly. The penalty shoot-out against Colombia, earlier that week, was watched by 23.6 million people. Viewing figures of this kind belong to another era, before the Internet punctured the idea of nations’ watching the same thing at the same time. What is going on? 

The national mood has a lot to do with “it,” and how nice it would be if “it” came “home.” As for coming home, no one would seriously suggest that people in England were inflating bladders and kicking them around before they did in, say, Africa, but what we did do, in the nineteenth century, was decide on some rules, write them down, and impose them on the rest of the world. If writing down the rules for something means you invented it, we invented not only football, rugby, and cricket, but also Hinduism and skiing. All the same, in 1996, it could just about be argued that football came home. Ish. 

England didn’t win then, but we reached the semi-finals, in which Germany knocked us out on penalties. A center-back named Gareth Southgate failed to convert a vital spot kick, a trauma for which he compensated by taking a role in a Pizza Hut advert containing many puns on the word “miss.” Southgate’s penalty nightmare was that of the nation as a whole. Between 1990 and July 2, 2018, England was knocked out of six major competitions (the World Cup or the European Championship) in penalty shoot-outs. Iceland didn’t need penalties to dump us out of the European Championship two years ago; the shocking 2-1 defeat that tiny country inflicted on us, mere days after the shocking vote that gave us Brexit, was of a different order of humiliation, fated by nothing but our own uselessness.

The Colombia match on July 3 finally laid our spot-kick bogey to rest. Now, “it” means 1966, the first (and only) time England won the World Cup, an achievement that mocks us all the sharper the further it recedes into the past, the more it seems like an unrepeatable one-off. 

At London’s Wembley Stadium in 1966, the flag held by the England fans was the Union flag; in their eyes, Britain and England were coterminous. No longer. Nowadays, it’s the cross of St. George that one sees, notionally a symbol with racist overtones, now the banner of a team featuring not a few black immigrants’ kids who join those fans in spirited renditions of “God Save the Queen,” increasingly an English national anthem.

There is no pretending that our odyssey to the semi-final, and potentially to the final, is any more romantic or special than it would have been for Colombia or Sweden, or that among the Scottish and Welsh people who have swollen the TV viewing figures, a majority were actually cheering for us English. But all that—and Boris Johnson, and the Brexit question of what is to happen to the Irish border, and the future of our blight-ravaged high streets—is marginalia. Come on, football, you know you want it.

Subscribe and save 50%!

Get immediate access to the current issue and over 25,000 articles from the archives, plus the NYR App.

Already a subscriber? Sign in

© 1963-2024 NYREV, Inc. All rights reserved.