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Something to Celebrate: An Anatomy of the ‘Three Lions’ song

Three Lions song flag England
Image via Flickr in accordance with the Creative Commons license.

In the hours before England’s match against Denmark, News Editor Samuel Teale Chadwick analyses the iconic “Three Lions” song.

“Give one ball to each side and they will have nothing to fight over.” This was the cynical interval quip of a Lithuanian rav (teacher) invited to watch a game of football. In this “apocryphal” anecdote, included in the introduction of Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety: How Jews Changed the World, he “offers a solution which, while irrelevant to the game of football, has a certain angelic elegance and ethical rightness.” His remark defeats the very point of sport, which I understand to be a combination of Schadenfreude and in-group joy. It is a group of people competing over the flip of a coin, whilst performing to even greater group of supporters following its twists and turns as it falls to the final whistle. 

I vicariously support Chelsea because my father and half-brother do. However – like Moss in The IT Crowd (“Hooray, he’s kicked the ball, now the ball’s over there, that man has it now, that’s an interesting development” etc.) – my eagerness is in the league of the Lithuanian rabbi’s more often than not: even a quarter-final of international football, with its enhanced drama and passion, can only occasionally take my eyes away from spontaneous wordsmithery inspired by it. 

The “Three Lions” of a chromatic melody, magnetic walking bassline, and optimistic lyricism have reared their heads again. In the Evening Standard of 29 June, David Baddiel — who wrote the “Three Lions” song with Frank Skinner and the band Lightning Seeds — wrote that “Ian [Broudie]’s extraordinary musicality created a melody that was already full of yearning and sadness and hope, and Frank and I went in the same direction… Three Lions is a song about loss: about the fact that England mainly lose. We as fans — as English people — invest an enormous amount in the idea of England, and then, as experience suggests, England let you down.” The effect is a song that is stoic and anthemic, yet habitually hubristic, for at least the song is guaranteed to hit the back of the net. It recognises that we are flawed and imperfect, and reflects this sceptered, and sceptical, isle.

As this leonine “band of brothers” march towards the Euro trophy, there is a communal distraction from the humdrum of daily life, shown in an increased propensity to buy. In early July of 2018, the latest year in the national catalogue of oh-so-close knock-outs, the Centre for Retail Research reported that the boost would have been £2.7 billion had England made it to the finals. The derivative economic winners are the junk-food retailers and beer gardens across the nation, from Berwick-upon-Tweed to Brighton. We can guess this consumption boost surpasses the inevitable loss of productivity from the morning following a match. As Shakespeare’s first earl of Westmorland lamented in Henry V, “O that we now had here/But one ten thousand of those men in England/That do no work to-day!”

What interests me particularly about “Three Lions” is the idea of longing for some imagined home-coming. ‘Home’ — I say, the sheer complacence! In the case of football, was the sport even invented in England? The Chinese game cuju (literally “kick ball”) dates back to the civilisation of the great Han Dynasty over 2000 years ago. Yet as chronicled by monk and artist (not the contemporary Times writer) Matthew Paris, anglophone football was popular in the towns and villages of the medieval shires, presumably as an amateur pursuit involving more libation than athleticism. The core paradox of “Three Lions” is that Albion is the perennial underdog which yearns for years to emerge victorious at a game that it thinks it began and begat. “Rightfully so”, Roar’s Sports Editor Alfie Wilson points out.

Had England won more often, the song would lose its core resonance. Forged in the crucible of the European Championships, hosted by England in 1996, the self-effacing and self-aware lyrics perhaps make facing losing a little easier, as if part of a long, self-reinforcing tradition. “Three Lions” epitomises the essence of the aspiration. If Queen wrote “We are the Champions” in 1977, “Three Lions” is essentially “We Are the Losers” when read between the lines. It’s as if to say, one day. It may not be the most poetic, biblical, and greatest song of songs, yet it holds out a glimmer of hope, that soon it may be time to jump. Whatever happens on the horizon, it’s almost – yes, almost – enough to make you feel patriotic. 

In spite of the nature of sport, the timeless song “Three Lions” is about belief. It gives England an enduring advantage irrespective of the slings and arrows of the game, where nothing is given or in the bag. On a serious note, we can congratulate the whole England men’s football team for sterling deliveries at Wembley, Rome, and across the European continent so far. 


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