LONDON—It says a lot about England’s state of soccer fandom that its unofficial anthem is a paean to dreaming through disillusionment. “Three Lions,” a single recorded in 1996 by the comedians Frank Skinner and David Baddiel with the Lightning Seeds’ Ian Broudie, acknowledges the eternal disappointment of rooting for England in bald terms. “So many jokes, so many sneers,” Baddiel sings in the second verse. “But all those oh-so-nears wear you down through the years.”
That was then. This is now. Qualified though it might be, the quixotic refrain of “Three Lions”—“football’s coming home”—has finally reemerged from its decades-long hibernation. On Saturday, England beat Sweden 2-0 to advance to its first World Cup semifinal in 28 years. And in the wake of the England team’s completely unpredictable failure to, well, fail, fans are getting to grips with an unfamiliar emotion: hope.
This was not supposed to happen. Since 2006, England’s performance on the world stage has been lamentable, a comedy of errors marked by group-stage evictions, racism scandals, and grifters. In 2016, after the abrupt departures of two successive managers, the former England player and manager of its feeder under-21 team Gareth Southgate was given temporary charge of the national team, a decision that seemed safe, if uninspired. Expectations for Russia 2018 were muted, to say the least. “Before the tournament started, I could not make a case for us winning it,” the former England captain Alan Shearer wrote, Eeyore-ishly, in a column for the BBC. “I just wanted to see some signs of improvement.”