Football takes a U-turn on its way ‘home’

It’s the B-grade horror flick most of the world never asked for. A lousy 1996 pop anthem returning to haunt us — to weasel its way into our brains.

Football’s Coming Home has morphed into a completely different animal to what it once was. It’s a song-cum-phrase-cum-gospel that’s been dogmatically adopted by the rowdy Three Lions cohort in Russia. Their fervour quickly spread and spilled on to our timelines and homepages.

England is finally better than rubbish in a major tournament and their supporters want you to know it.

Still, the initial reaction of many has been to gawk at their arrogance for claiming an entire sport as their own. But if England had decided to spit in the face of the script and lift the World Cup, would there be any truth in the phrase?

The English aren’t necessarily alone in the assumption. Fifa credits a meeting at a London tavern in 1863 as the moment the rules were put into writing. That’s the version we know today, however. Yet for centuries before that, myriad cultures had played ball games that resembled crude versions of football. Chinese and Mesoamerican societies, for instance, held competitions more than a millennium before 1863. Is their existence enough to discredit the history books’ claim?

“I read an enormous amount of nonsense on this subject,” says football historian David Goldblatt. “The game that is played today is clearly the descendant of the 1863 rules created in England … If China had industrialised first and globalised before England in the 18th century when they had the opportunity, no doubt we would all be playing a version of cuju. But they didn’t. England is the place [where] football was invented.”

Goldblatt, author of The Ball Is Round and current host of podcast The Game of Our Lives, has dedicated much of his career to understanding the roots of football. As a scholar, he’s happy to acknowledge the arrogance that often permeates the circles of those who wave the St George’s flag.

The invention of football, however, is historical fact. Still, even though he is an Englishman, he would condemn anyone who tried to assert ownership of the sport or suggest that spiritually it belongs to them.

“Now, what do we mean by ‘it’s coming home’?” he asks. “That we own it? That it’s ours in a way that it isn’t anybody else’s? No. Football is a cosmopolitan gift to the world. It’s great that everybody plays it and we can just be quietly pleased that a bunch of ridiculous schoolboys came up with this in the 1850s and the 1860s … We are very, very lucky that we have something in this fragmented world that most of humanity can agree on.”

The irony of the sudden ubiquity of the phrase is that it began as a joke poking fun at an endless run of failure. The comedians behind it wrote the original lyrics as an appreciation that Euro 1996 was being hosted on local soil, but the punchline was that that was the only way football would be returning “home”.

There’s a decent argument to be made that it’s that lack of egotism that got Gareth Southgate and his players so far in the World Cup in the first place. Yes, after the round of 16 the nation ratcheted up their belief that this was their year but going in no one gave them a pie’s chance on Wayne Rooney’s dinner table.

The opportunity had come and then faded as Steven Gerrard, Frank Lampard and David Beckham grew old. It was that often chastised golden generation that was supposed to chart a path home, not a Sheffield kid like Harry Maguire. But pressure, and the lack of it, can be a funny thing.

Of course, the joke now is that England are going home themselves. Before Wednesday’s semifinal loss to Croatia, Southgate, in his typical self-effacing fashion, admitted he could finally bear to listen to Football’s Coming Home. It’s almost poetic that, in the year the song was penned, Southgate missed a penalty that ultimately booted his side out of the Euros. He’ll cry now for a missed final opportunity, but he can depart from Russia with pride.

Although, secretly, most of the world is surely glad it has been spared the festivities of a Three Lions cup win: no one really wants to live in a world with Sir Harry Kane. 

Luke Feltham
Luke Feltham

Luke Feltham runs the Mail & Guardian's sports desk. He was previously the online day editor.

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