The first time I heard ‘Three Lions’ was at Wembley. It was a warm-up game for Euro 96 and my university’s football society ran a minibus from Yorkshire down to London so we could go to the game. At half time England were winning comfortably and the tannoy played Baddiel and Skinner’s new song. It would go on to define the tournament, but on a first hearing the England fans were nonplussed.
Thirty years of hurt. The phrase always seemed a bit overblown to me, but it has come to embody the experience of being an England fan. Since the win on home turf in 1966 it had been a story of disappointment, gallant failures and ‘oh so nears’. Euro 96 by contrast generated a great deal of optimism about English football, which was improving in quality and becoming likeable again after years of hooliganism and European bans.
In 1996 it would have been unthinkable that, a quarter of a century later, England fans would still be waiting for their second major tournament win. How on earth should we explain it?
The answer could be history. One of my favourite football books is David Winner’s Those Feet: A Sensual History of English Football (2005). Winner argues that the shortcomings of the English game date back to its birth in the Victorian period, and boil down to national identity and sex.
Football as we know it was invented by the Victorian public schools. The games ethos was an important part of their regimen, which sought to produce young men of strong moral and physical character. The riotous football games of the Georgians were tamed into a highly structured and disciplined game, and the schools came up with a common set of rules so they could play each other.
Victorian football was supposed to be character building. It taught teamwork and self-discipline, and privileged effort and strength over guile or skill. These were the manly qualities that boys would need in order to flourish in public life, in business or the empire. Moreover, it would wear them out, so they would not be distracted by deviant sexual urges.
Winner argues that these attitudes persisted into the twentieth century and beyond. Football may have been England’s gift to the world, but Brazilians, Hungarians and everybody else took the game and turned it into something different: a game that was sexy, clever and exhilarating. So England teams that continued to huff and puff found themselves bested by players that were not held back by the weight of tradition.
Do you agree? I’m not sure this was true when the book came out, the heyday of Beckham and Rooney. I certainly feel that the current crop of players have moved beyond a lot of these attitudes, having grown up with a very international Premier League and sophisticated training methods. They seem more comfortable in their masculinity and – given the stand they have taken on Black Lives Matter – their national identity too.
Maybe the fifty five years of hurt will come to an end this summer?