For a nation known as the birthplace of modern soccer, England has seen very little international success since their only World Cup victory in 1966. Despite their struggles on a global scale keeping up with rival countries like Germany or Italy, the sport remains a unifying factor and an important staple in England’s culture and history.
Football’s persistent popularity over the years borders on obsession. The sport has long been present on a domestic league scale in their English Premier League, a competition that sprouted and grew over a century after England first installed a league in 1888 that involved 12 teams. Now with four professional leagues across the country, football is an average piece of daily life in England with a club to represent just about any population.
5 o’clock Wednesday night at a pub in Marylebone would see a steady flow of patrons coming in as work gets out, but on the occasional Wednesday night, it culminates to much more; the vibe is rowdier, the room fills up with energy, whether it’s anticipation or a sigh of relief. A clash of two of England’s London-based clubs Chelsea and Arsenal guarantees a night of heavy business. A group of obnoxious men all donning blue suits just rolled in from work for a few pints and to support Chelsea, while a group of adjacent Arsenal fans sit at the table in the center just beside them. It’s clear that they know each other; at times it seems they’re friendly and then moments later they aren’t. This anomaly eclipses the entirety of the nation as the English Premier League constantly takes it by storm. London itself is a hotspot, home to five top-flight football clubs and an additional eight lower-level professional ones. The sport has the cities and towns of this nation always buzzing.
At the international level, however, England has been much less successful in the sport, despite their passion and belief that they were its creators. While simpler games of football can be traced years and years back all over the world, the English see their formation of the original English league in 1888 – making it the first ever national football league – as the creation of the modern game as it is seen today.
Despite being the self-proclaimed creators of the sport, England’s international squad has never reached the heights of some of the top competitors in international football history. European rivals Italy have four titles to their name in the tournament’s history and eliminated England from the quarterfinals of the European Championships in 2012.
Only once, in 1966, did England win the World Cup, and it was even sweeter than imagined having been against historical rivals West Germany. “They had street parties,” said BBC broadcasting veteran Stuart Hill. “The whole country was on fire.” Twenty years after England withstood the destruction of over 70,000 buildings from Germany's blitz, their international football team delivered revenge in the form of a victory on the pitch. In a World Cup where “the standard of football was exceptional,” according to Hill, “the most boring team until we got to the final was England.” With all the high-level competition and the poor track record that preceded England’s team, they beat the odds. That victory in 1966 is England’s landmark achievement in football and sport history, and it remains their only major international tournament to their name.
The World Cup victory is immortalized in an everlasting shrine that is Wembley Stadium. While the structure itself is the main attraction, Wembley’s stadium tours take visitors down memory lane and tell its story. Displays show the memories of England’s one-time conquering of international football, and depict “The Wonder of Wembley,” the existence of such a venue that “evokes memories of tears of joy and pain and holds a special place in the nation’s hearts.” Brazilian football legend Pele said that Wembley is “the church of football… It is the capital of football and it is the heart of football.” The venue is recognized all over and immortalized in the grand scheme of football’s history. In other words, Wembley is the headquarters for the home of football. The original Wembley, or the Empire Stadium, is where the ‘66 final was played on July 30 in front of the Queen — and the whole world — hailed in the exhibit as “the greatest event in British sporting history.”
Legendary captain of the winning team Sir Bobby Moore is immortalized in a 20-foot-tall statue at the stadium's entrance. At the end of the match, Moore led a victory lap; fans say the team “brought football home,” as it is a “trophy for the fans” more than anything. It was a time where these professional athletes were nowhere near superstar status—they were just people of England. Without any prior success, Moore and the rest of the team wrote their names in the history books during a time where their names weren’t even on the backs of their jerseys. Manager Sir Alf Ramsey was knighted for his contributions to winning the cup.
Players and fans alike all enjoyed the victory together: as depicted in The Illustrated London News (1967), “It seemed as if the entire country cheered when the final whistle blew.” Sociologist Chas Critcher recounts that this victory “seemed to set the seal on the resurgence of Britain in the 1960s.” It was a period for England that was transitioning out of hardship and resilience during World War II and transforming back into a prosperous nation, meaning this trophy marked more than a victory on the pitch, but a victory as a collective, an uplifting symbol of British resurgence.
That legendary victory against German rivals in ‘66 remains England’s only World Cup success story, and thus is still celebrated and memorialized as the sacred victory. More than 50 years later, England reminisces about that same joy of a July day, while surrounding European countries and elsewhere have been writing their own football memories—including Germany, who would win three World Cups as West Germany and its fourth in 2014 as a united country. According to Christopher Young’s article in Sport in History, “When West Germany played Argentina in the 1986 World Cup final, a survey of the English public showed that support for the South Americans over Germany rated at 75:15.” The support of Argentina in this scenario came in spite of the fact that Argentina was the country to knock England out earlier in the tournament (with a controversial handball known as the “Hand of God” incident). Although English fans remained bitter about their failure to advance, they’d still choose to support those behind that failure rather than their old German rivals.
Anthony King references the England fans’ general “passionate belief in England’s right to win” in his article for Sport in Sociology. Not only did they want to win, but “they believed they should win,” he wrote. England was a non-factor in the international scene and one of the more boring national teams, yet after 1966, the fans felt entitled to it. Perhaps it’s because that first victory ignited some belief within them, or because they still hold pride in being the first to establish the game as it is known today.
The idea of the sport returning to its motherland came up again in 1996 when the band The Lightning Seeds released the song “Football’s Coming Home” for England’s campaign in the European Championships. It marked the first time England hosted a football tournament since 1966. First a harmless bit of excitement to host again after all these years, the statement evolved into a wide belief that because they were hosting it, they would win it as well. King wrote the message behind the song was “because England had invented the game, it deserved to win the tournament.” David Baddiel, one of the song’s writers, told the BBC that the song was about “how we’ve lost so often—and yet it’s a song we want to sing.”
This idea of football coming home blew up again on social media as a reaction to England’s surge in the later stages of the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Now instead of the tournament taking place “at the home” of football, fans supported “it’s coming home” to indicate that they’d win it and bring the trophy back home. Despite one of their best efforts in recent years, England’s side went out against Croatia in the semifinal.
Regardless of how much time passes by, or how many losses they accumulate, “it’s coming home” is a testament to the will and resilience of the whole nation. No matter how often Britain has lost, it’s still the song they want to sing—one of hope, pride, and cherished memories.