In 1998 I only owned one CD. It was the only CD a 9-year-old boy could need that summer — the re-released, re-recorded version of ‘Three Lions’. That was the summer I contracted what those in the medical profession term ‘football fever’. It is a disease as common as it is incurable.
Prior to June 1998, I didn’t really give a fuck about football. It wasn’t that I disliked it, I was just barely aware of it. It was for the older kids, or the cool kids who all wore replica shirts on mufti days. I wore embroidered waistcoats, because I felt I wasn’t quite being bullied enough.
But on June 15th 1998 something began to change. Although she was Scottish, our teacher let us listen to England’s first World Cup game on the radio during art class. I remember my little hands being covered in PVA glue that peeled off like dead skin when it dried. As I was heading off to the toilets, Paul Scholes scored an 89th minute goal. I ran to the toilets, where the cool kids were bunking off even though they liked football. ‘It’s 2-0!’ I shouted, whilst not really understanding what that meant. I just knew it was a good thing. We celebrated, together. I felt what every football fan feels. It’s the thing that makes football so special to so many people. I felt part of something.
A few days later I asked permission to stay up past my bedtime, so I could watch England v Romania. I had seen bits of football before, but this was the first game I ever watched and paid attention to. England lost in the last minute, but it didn’t matter. At some point during those 90 minutes I became a football fan. It was in the aftermath of this game that the Three Lions CD was purchased, along with all the other assorted commemorative tat that gets sold during World Cups. There was the France 98 FiloFax, the knock-off polyester shirts, and the coins Sainsbury’s released. You could collect them and put them in a special cardboard book. The coins were minted before Glenn Hoddle announced the final squad, and I ended up with a stack of Rob Lee coins. He wasn’t included in the World Cup team, so I had no idea who Rob Lee was. But there he was, gurning an engraved smile that proved to be premature…
I listened to ‘Three Lions ‘98’ repeatedly at that time. I had no interest in music, making Three Lions my favourite song by default. Although there were two other tracks on the CD — the original version of ‘Three Lions’, and the exotically titled ‘Tout est Possible’.
‘Three Lions’ is impossible to avoid during international tournaments. It is to football what Merry Xmas Everybody is to Christmas. There are many football songs, but ‘Three Lions’ is the football song. This summer it became a national running joke as the idea of football coming home became more and more realistic. But it was still always a joke — the burden of past failures weighs to heavily for any England fan to become a sincere optimist.
‘Three Lions’ succeeds as a football song because it manages to be optimistic, defiant, triumphant, and pessimistic all at the same time. It captures the flailing mood swings of the football fan. And it also remains rooted to a specific time and place — a time when England were good at football, when we had reason to be optimistic and failure was heart-breaking rather than predictable.
The ‘98 version also took on a strange and particular poignancy. It begins with England fans singing Three Lions during the Euro ‘96 semi-final, and England’s fifth and final penalty of the shootout. Jonathon Pearce’s commentary kicks in. The crosses of St. George are flying all around me. Gareth Southgate… the whole of England is with you. The penalty is saved. That moment defines Southgate’s career in football — even when, twenty years later, he is appointed England manager.
And twenty years on from my first World Cup, I felt like I’d grown up and grown out of football. Not completely, but after two decades of disappointment and cynicism I didn’t think it was possible to ever completely lose myself in the game again. I was never going to feel the way I felt as a naive nine-year-old boy who had no idea that England had no chance of winning a penalty shoot-out. The older you get, the more real life begins to get in the way, the harder it becomes to feel any real emotional investment in football.
But then something strange happened. Southgate was an underwhelming appointment as manager — a caretaker, a stopgap. After the embarrassment of the previous three tournaments, the bar was set at simply getting out of the group. But England won. And they won again. They didn’t need to win the final game. And suddenly it was fun to watch England again, it was exciting. And people started to love Gareth Southgate…
And as I got swept up in a sort of schoolboy excitement, I began searching through Spotify, trying to find the exact single I had in 1998. It was important, because the song I wanted to hear wasn’t ‘Three Lions’.
As a B-Side to ‘Three Lions ‘98’, Baddiel, Skinner, and the Lightning Seeds recorded ‘Tout Est Possible’ (Anything is Possible). Music can transport you to a particular time or place. And nothing transports me back to the summer of 1998 like that song. It never gets played. Unlike ‘Three Lions’, it never gets tarnished by cameo appearances at other tournaments. It is uniquely and specifically for France 98. The song begins with stereotypical accordion music, as a seductive French voice purrs la coup de monde before being cut off by La Marseillaise played on car horns, a jangling guitar riff, and Barry Davies crying ‘England such a happy place, Wembley such a happy spot’.
The song proper is pure optimism, with the refrain of out there, all things are possible/if we’re you’re there, all things are possible/we say, anything is possible/on the day, anything is possible backed by a chant of they look like a winning team, they play like a winning team!
There are also verses, which feels more like a typical Lightning Seeds song but filtered through the borderline-novelty songwriting skills of Ringo Starr. It is no masterpiece, but it was never intended to be. They just needed something to use as a B-Side.
But I have fonder memories of this song than ‘Three Lions’. The song was recorded long before Beckham’s red card, or Campbell’s wrongly disallowed goal, or Batty’s penalty miss. It was recorded at a time when there was hope and optimism and belief. It differs from the A-Side because it feels no need to temper its optimism. ‘Three Lions’ is wistful about chances wasted, and the thirty years of failure following England’s World Cup win. There is a touch of cynicism that would seem contradictory to the defiance and optimism of the song for anyone who doesn’t love football. ‘Tout Est Possible’ is pure optimism, and pure nostalgia.
This is the song I listened to after England won their first penalty shootout since 1996. It’s the song I listened to after reaching the semi-finals. It was in my head, on a constant loop. I hadn’t felt such sheer joy from football since I was a child, and I needed music to match that feeling. The only difference as a 29-year-old was an awareness that it was stupid to feel so excited by something so objectively trivial. But I didn’t care. I had yet to develop the power of speech in 1990, so I had never before been able to say ‘England are in the World Cup semi-final’ and I was saying it to pretty much anyone would listen, forcing it into conversation. Oh, sorry. I can’t go out on Wednesday. I’m watching England’s World Cup semi-final…
On the 11th July 2018 I put on my red England shirt, and blasted ‘Tout Est Possible’ on loop at full volume for as long as I could before heading to a bar to watch the game. By this stage I was beginning to convince myself that my optimism was well-founded. Maybe football really was coming home… Gareth Southgate, the whole of England is with you…
I left the bar 120+ minutes later. England had lost, but this was different because nothing, not even defeat, could take away the memories of that summer and all the emotions that came with it. For the first time following an England defeat, the joy and the pride of all the team achieved remained. And there is a perfect song for this feeling, for this strange brew of conflicting and contradictory emotions of joy and heartbreak and pride and disappointment and hope. It is the football song.
And so I walked home alone, in the rain, singing ‘Three Lions’ under my drunken breath.