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England’s Homecoming

A clueless American tries to discern what England fans mean when they say “It’s coming home” 

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Football’s coming home. Let’s say it a few times and see how it feels. Football’s coming home. “Football’s coming home.” Hey, football, where are you off to? Oh, I’m just headed home, Sarah, thanks for asking. Come on, football! It’s 9 o’clock, have another drink, stay out with us! No, no, I’ve got an early start tomorrow, better get home. Not as young as I once was, you know!

Every time I hear it—and as England has battled its way through the Euro 2020 knockout rounds, I’ve been hearing it more and more; it’s been to this tournament what the drone of vuvuzelas was to the 2010 World Cup—I replay it a few times in my head. This confounding sentence! What is it doing? Football’s coming home. What does it mean?

I am football. I live at Buckingham Palace, in a tiny room under the stairs. I have not been home in a long time. Every night I light a candle for my mother, Queen Elizabeth II. I miss her. I hate living abroad. The food is so spicy, and the buses are so low. Please, Harry Kane, score a goal so that I may end my long exile, return to my beloved cupboard, and resume my day job as a docent at the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Sorry. Sorry! I don’t mean to dwell on this. But as England have emerged—first in the British media, and then in the British media’s occasional long-distance correspondent, reality—as the team to beat in this tournament, it has become clear that this profoundly weird refrain might actually come to fruition. England might really beat Italy in Sunday’s final; football might really “come home.” Home? England is where the rules of association football were codified, back in the late 19th century. The form of the symphony was perfected in Vienna; music is widely thought to belong to everyone, but maybe that’s not how Austrians see it in the heat of a Eurovision campaign.

I’m sorry. You’ll have to forgive me. I’m only an American, and I’m so clueless I still think Gareth Southgate always should be starting Jadon Sancho and Jack Grealish. I guess “coming home” with Sancho would be like driving a Jaguar to your high school reunion—people might think you were putting on airs. Football’s coming home, in a sensible Kia Sorento. So take this for what it’s worth, but to me, the fascinating thing about “football’s coming home” is that it seems to draw exactly the wrong lesson from English football’s current golden era—maybe even the wrong lesson about English football culture itself.

I don’t mean anything complicated by that. It’s not a secret that English football culture has a bit of a split personality. On the one hand, it can delight in acting out a very parochial and proprietary relationship to the game. We invented this, it’s ours, you all got it from us; for England to win is therefore not only personally desirable to us as fans, it’s the one just and true outcome for the universe. This can be an annoying attitude if you’re not an England fan, but there’s nothing terribly wrong with it (at least, not if you overlook the colossal specter of imperialism lurking in the middle distance). I get it, I think? As sports fans, we take pride where we find it. If the U.S. went 55 years without winning a major basketball trophy, I’d probably be more emotionally invested in the fact that James Naismith, while tragically Canadian by birth, invented basketball in Massachusetts. Parochialism is easy to mock; it’s also, in some ways, the essence of fandom.

Where the split personality comes in, though, is that England has also developed by far the most open and cosmopolitan club-football culture in Europe. The vast majority of the current England team play professionally in the Premier League, where clubs routinely have foreign owners, foreign stars, and passionate foreign fan bases. If England can be more parochial about the game than other countries in some contexts, it’s wildly less so in others. Consider: Most of the major domestic leagues in European soccer—including Serie A, the top league in Italy—have strict quotas that limit the number of foreign players (or at least non-EU players) teams can sign. A major purpose of these quotas is to guarantee playing time for homegrown talents, which is why they tend to become heated topics of discussion when a big European team suffers a disappointment. After Italy failed to qualify for the 2018 World Cup, for instance, local anxiety about the development of young Italian players spiraled into a movement to restrict the number of non-Italians allowed in Serie A. These debates are always dispiriting, and you already know how they sound, even if “these foreigners are taking our jobs!” doesn’t usually carry the implied meaning “… as world-renowned attacking midfielders!”

England, though? England has embraced internationalism, sometimes over the objections of its own fans. In 2010, after years of frustration over the national team’s underperformance at major tournaments, the English Football Association did throw a crumb to parochialism by imposing a variant of the Homegrown Players Rule that operates in UEFA competitions—but it stipulated that homegrown players had to account for just eight slots on a 25-player club roster, and “homegrown” players are defined as players trained in England or Wales from an early age, not English players per se. This was less a way to limit non-British players than a way to make sure a bit of English could always be heard on a Premier League bench. In other domestic leagues, regulations also tend to cap the number of non-homegrown players who can start a match; in Spain’s La Liga, teams are allowed to have five non-EU players, but only three can be named to a matchday squad. There are, as a cursory glance at a Real Madrid teamsheet will tell you, several ways to circumvent rules like this. Still. The Premier League doesn’t have them in the first place. It’s not uncommon for the starting XIs of top English clubs to include no English players at all.

The Premier League is the most popular soccer league on the planet, and it owes a colossal share of its popularity to the fact that its clubs, hugely greedy and free to sign international players to their hearts’ content, have assembled the most intense concentration of talent. With the exception of Kane, Grealish, and one or two others, the players on the English national team aren’t the biggest stars on their club teams. Even a phenom like Raheem Sterling, arguably England’s best player during the Euros, spends most of his weekends as a somewhat lesser light. (Granted, Sterling plays for Manchester City, where he shares time with a roster of talent so otherworldly that he sometimes warms the bench.)

When Mason Mount takes the pitch for Chelsea, or Harry Maguire for Manchester United, they’re typically among, at most, a few English players in their sides. In other words, English players don’t enjoy the built-in playing-time advantage they might have if they were Italian or Spanish. But this also means that they’ve spent their whole careers with no choice but to prove themselves against the stiffest competition on earth. They’ve never been protected from having to compete against the best players; at the same time, training with teammates from every corner of the world, they’ve been exposed to the widest variety of perspectives on the game. The Premier League has sometimes been accused of contributing to the homogenization of football tactics, but from an individual player’s perspective, it does so only in the way that mixed martial arts homogenizes fighting tactics. That is, instead of cultivating football as a set of discrete folk disciplines, a German way of playing versus a Brazilian way and a Korean way, it forces you to try everything against everything else, and see what works.

And it’s not hard to see the legacy of these high-stakes histories in England’s unspectacular, but deeply assured, path to the final. Southgate has gotten most of the credit for taking a historically skittish and gaffe-prone England team and helping them relax and trust themselves. Southgate deserves the credit; but isn’t it also possible that, nearly 30 years after the formation of the Premier League cracked open the old domestic game, a generation of young players who grew up without the luxury of entitlement has simply developed a different relationship to pressure?

With past generations of England stars—think of the so-called Golden Generation, David Beckham, Steven Gerrard, and Michael Owen—you always had the sense that the players saw themselves in metaphysical crosshairs. They were burdened by a special destiny. They had to win in order to prove that they were the chosen ones, born to right the great wrong of England’s trophy drought. Those older players grew up in a football culture far more tilted toward parochialism, within touching distance of the old First Division and 1966 and starting XIs made up exclusively of men named Ian; to be an English player on a Premier League team, for them, was to be charged with keeping a flame alive.

I don’t see that outlook or that air of burden in today’s younger stars. It’s been replaced by something more pragmatic, more broad-minded, less sentimental. They don’t act like nervous chosen ones, or like they’re charged with righting a mystical wrong. They just lace up and play. Early in the tournament, annoyed by what I thought were Sterling’s unimaginative runs, I yelled, “They’re just a bunch of super-talented utility players!” at the TV. Later, in the knockout game against Germany, watching them keep their composure in moments when I knew past England teams would have folded with prejudice, I said, with dawning appreciation, “Oh—they’re a bunch of super-talented utility players!” They’re not trying to be the Knights of the Round Table. They know what they can do, they know what will work, and they’re doing it.

There’s more than one way to assemble a winning national team, of course. But England’s emergence looks, to me, like a massive vindication of the internationalist model of player development: surround your young stars with the biggest talents you can find, from a wide variety of backgrounds, and let them learn everything they can. What’s most impressive isn’t that England looks like the best team in the tournament—I don’t think they do. But they keep managing to win while the teams I think look better (France, Spain, even Denmark for long stretches) keep losing. What’s most impressive, in other words, is that England looks reliable. The players aren’t awed by the moment. This is not something you could say about many England teams since—well, since their manager was a young lad scuffing his penalties in Euro ’96.

Football’s coming home. That’s a phrase that dates back to Euro ’96, too, by the way. Back then, it referred to the fact that a major tournament was being contested on English soil for the first time since the 1966 World Cup. This year, the finale is once again at Wembley, but the phrase seems to mean a little more than that. It’s a way of saying England is going to win the tournament. I don’t know whether they will; Italy is a lot better than anyone realized a month ago, and showed against Spain that England doesn’t have a monopoly on steely nerves. But after repeatedly convincing myself that the Three Lions wouldn’t last another round, I’m done picking against them.

It’s coming home. But football is full of mansions. I might wish England fans had chosen an anthem that stressed the worldliness and openness of the football culture their players actually inhabit, rather than falling back on a vaguely Brexit-tinged, right-little-island fantasy of ultimate ownership. But life is short, lads; sing it anyway. Just don’t forget that the home football might come back to includes the wing Theirry Henry and Didier Drogba and Sergio Agüero built, and not just the one Geoff Hurst and Bobby Charlton and Gordon Banks made.