This article first appeared in Malta Today (before semi-final match)
I’m really not into football.
Although I have tried, I somehow never manage to watch a full match without getting distracted and bored and moving to another room. I will come out when I hear the sound of clapping and the roar from the TV set when someone scores a goal, but I eventually go back to what I was doing until I hear another commotion.
But I admit that the World Cup does have its thrilling moments, mostly because of the football fever which grips everyone. By the time you read this we will know whether England has made it through to the finals, and while I am not a fan of any particular team (refer back to opening sentence), I confess that I have been carried away by the passion and emotion of England supporters.
From snippets of overheard conversation and the bits and pieces of information I have gleaned over the many years of living with a football fan, even I have realized that this is a momentous time in football history, and how much coming this far means for the Three Lions. You see? I even know that they are called the Three Lions and why (thank you Google). And while all teams have their anthems, I think there is something about the opening notes, the chanting and the lyrics of Three Lions (Football’s Coming Home), which is quite like no other football song. It’s spine-tingling.
There is also something about the affection coupled with hopeless despair expressed (and suffered) by England fans over the years which is unlike anything else. Recalling the one and only win (to date) of 1966, the lyrics speak of “30 years of hurt, never stopped me dreaming”, which really encapsulates the heart-stopping anxiety which accompanies the experience of watching England when they are playing. Some supporters cannot even bear to watch because they get too stressed. When it came down to the penalty shoot-outs against Columbia, I joked on my wall that defibrillators were on stand-by, but I think that it was not too far off from the truth. Even I got caught up in the excitement.
Describing how the song was received when it first came out, James Hall in The Telegraph wrote that “Three Lions worked for two reasons. Firstly, it was in tune with the cultural zeitgeist of the time. In the blazing hot summer of 1996, Britpop and lad culture were at their zenith. In pairing The Lightning Seeds with comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel, Three Lions combined both elements. The Lightning Seeds – effectively a solo vehicle for Ian Broudie – played Merseybeat-inspired guitar pop, the general cheeriness of which was flecked with just a smidgeon of melancholy. It was the perfect blend for long-suffering football fans.”
The significance of it all could be seen in the pre-match programme on BBC One before the England-Sweden match hosted by Gary Lineaker. The interviews with former footballers plus the archive footage were mixed with clips of well-known faces such as comedians Michael McIntyre and Russell Brand singing “It’s coming home”. It was both fun and moving as it swept you into the mood which has been prevailing in England over the last few weeks, and among all England fans all over the world: a mixture of joy and patriotic pride underlined by a fear of jinxing it: could it finally, actually happen?
A lot of the feel good factor is undoubtedly thanks to the football manager Gareth Southgate. With his hipster beard and iconic waistcoat, this sharply-dressed man has captured the imagination of viewers, not only for his style but for his low-key, gentlemanly approach. The memes by both men and women professing how much they love him, have gone viral. Inspired by his nice guy image, one person started a Twitter hashtag #GarethSouthgateWould and thousands joined in:
#GarethSouthgateWould let you go in front at the checkout with a full trolley when he’s only got a pint of milk
#GarethSouthgateWould Pay an equal share of the restaurant bill, even though he didn’t have a starter and only drank the tap water.
#GarethSouthgateWould explain what he actually does with the data he collects enabled by the cookies on his website.
He is also reported to have single-handedly revived the fashion for Marks & Spencer’s waistcoats, who are reporting records sales. Yesterday (Wednesday) was even dubbed #Waistcoat Wednesday ahead of the crucial England-Croatia semi-final, with fans sharing photos of themselves sporting a waistcoat.
At a time when there seems little to be happy about in this world – Brexit is a shambles, Trump’s America makes me shudder, there is no solution in sight to the immigration crisis and Maltese authorities are willfully decimating the environment at the altar of the mighty Euro – we need to find happiness where we can find it. The rescue of those 12 Thai boys and their coach is one of them. A likeable football coach who has inspired his team and his nation is another.
And then there is this blessed sport of football which, I am finally starting to realise, represents something much bigger than the game itself. In a world where the Internet has eliminated the concept of anticipation and you can binge-watch entire seasons of a show in one weekend, the World Cup still has the capacity to clear the roads of traffic and unite supporters on a global scale, as they simultaneously share the agony and the ecstasy of their beloved teams.