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David Baddiel On England's Soccer Anthem

DANIELLE KURTZLEBEN, HOST:

Tomorrow, for the first time in 55 years, England's long underachieving men's soccer team will be playing in a major title game. England will face Italy in the highly anticipated final of the European Championship tournament known as Euro 2020. The tournament was supposed to be played last year but was postponed because of the pandemic. To give some context to our listeners who aren't soccer die-hards, it's hard to overstate what a huge deal this is for English fans. England is considered the home of modern soccer or, as the English call it, football. And so for fans, a victory in the final - which will, by the way, be played in London - would be like football coming home. And that's why this song is the top viral song in the U.K. right now.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE LIONS (FOOTBALL'S COMING HOME)")

DAVID BADDIEL, FRANK SKINNER AND THE LIGHTNING SEEDS: (Singing) It's coming home. It's coming home. It's coming. Football's coming home.

KURTZLEBEN: The song is called "Three Lions (Football's Coming Home)," and it was co-written by our next guest, British writer and comedian David Baddiel. He wrote the song with comedian Frank Skinner and the Liverpool band The Lightning Seeds. David Baddiel joins us now from London. Hello. And we should say congratulations.

DAVID BADDIEL: Thank you very much, Danielle. Yeah. I'm not sure - are you congratulating me on the song or you're congratulating the England team on their success?

KURTZLEBEN: You know, now that I think about it, a bit of both - more of the team, I suppose, because you were at Wednesday's semifinal match against Denmark, which England won 2-1 in extra time, as you know.

BADDIEL: Yeah.

KURTZLEBEN: But this was happening in London, in front of a home crowd. That must have been just thrilling after waiting so long for a title match. What was it like for you?

BADDIEL: Well, it was, yeah, marvelous. I mean, the thing about the song, if anyone listens to it, is a strange anthem. I mean, it has become the default anthem of the England football team. And there is a sort of wider sense of it sort of representing a certain type of Englishness. And one of the things that if you listen to it is that the lyrics are very vulnerable. They're actually quite an odd sporting anthem in that they're mainly about losing or at least about, you know, nearly achieving success, but then failing to do so and the magical thinking that, as a football fan, you somehow imagine this time you'll get over that. And I mentioned all that because all that is involved in the experience of being at an England game and seeing them finally break, as it were, the semi-final hoodoo and get through to the final of a major tournament.

And sometimes I don't know if American listeners can quite - maybe who aren't into football or soccer appreciate what a big deal this is, not just in sport, but culturally. It breaks out completely from the sporting pages and becomes a thing that the whole country is talking about and rejuvenated by a - particularly after the pandemic. And for reasons that are complicated, the song seems to track with all that. And so it's always great to be there. It's always sung when the team have won. And it always feels like an enormous release.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And you talk about sort of the conflict in the song about how like, on the one hand, when I listen to it, the song is very bouncy musically. It kind of made me think of The Monkees, quite frankly. But the lyrics are pretty melancholy. At one point, you hear an announcer saying England isn't creative enough or positive enough. Did you write this thinking, we're going to write an anthem? Because it's not necessarily a celebratory song.

BADDIEL: Well, England have had football pop songs written for them for a while when we got asked to do this. Like, from 1966, when we won the World Cup, there was a song called "World Cup Willie." And I grew up with songs called things like "This Time More Than Any Other Time" (ph). And without fail, they were written before the tournament. And they were about how England was going to win the tournament. And what I realized - and me and Frank Skinner realized when we wrote the song lyrically, because we wrote the lyrics, not the music, which was totally done by The Lightning Seeds and Ian Broudie - was that that is not a real experience of being a football fan an England fan in this country.

The real experience is that you have enormous expectation which comes with this idea that England somehow own football. But in fact, we get let down over and over again. And so we wrote that, we wrote that real experience. But what it is is it's not purely melancholy because it actually goes, you know, England's going to throw it away. You're going to blow it away. But I know they can play.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THREE LIONS (FOOTBALL'S COMING HOME)")

DAVID BADDIEL, FRANK SKINNER AND THE LIGHTNING SEEDS: (Singing) That England's going to throw it away, going to blow it away, but I know they can play 'cause I remember.

BADDIEL: So it's a song about breaking through your sense of disappointment with the prayer that all sports fans have at this time. You know, we are going to do it. And so I think that's why it really chimes with sports fans.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. And we should say you helped write this ahead of the 1996 European Championship, which England also hosted, hence coming home.

BADDIEL: And we went out in the semi-final of that tournament. Yeah, yeah. I mean, let me tell you - can I tell you a story?

KURTZLEBEN: Absolutely.

BADDIEL: So as I say, this is mid-'90s. Brit Pop was a massive thing at that point in time. Me and Frank Skinner were doing a comedy show on BBC about football, which had never been done before. And then when Ian Broudie got asked to write the music, he came to us and said, can you write the lyrics? You're kind of the nation's football fans. So we did. And we wrote these quite vulnerable lyrics that spoke to football fans, but we didn't particularly know whether or not it really spoke to people. And then the second game of that tournament, England played Scotland. And in the second half, England started playing well.

And the song is always tied to how England played. It's such a weird thing. And the deejay at Wembley Stadium put on the song. And suddenly - and it's completely unknown that this was going to happen to me and Frank, a total spontaneous moment - the whole crowd joined in. It's literally - it remains the most extraordinary moment of my life. And I've had two children. And it's like literally - it was unbelievable to suddenly feel that something you've done has been so taken to the popular heart.

KURTZLEBEN: Right. Well, that song has stuck around for 25 years. Does it surprise you that it still resonates in 2021, that it's still being sung?

BADDIEL: It is quite surprising, although it was so successful and continues to be so successful that it did kind of kill off the football anthem. I mean, others have been written since then, but none of them made any kind of impact. What people compare it to is Christmas songs now. So, for example, I mean, you have Christmas songs as well, but there's a band called Slade here who do a song called "Merry Xmas Everybody" that gets in the charts every Christmas. And people say that "Football's Coming Home" or "Three Lions" is the footballing version of that, but they miss out one thing about that, which is that Christmas does happen every year - the England football team playing well certainly does not.

KURTZLEBEN: A quick question about you. You have this successful career as a comedian, a writer, a TV personality and the No. 1 viral hit in the U.K. I'm curious, when you look at your career, how does this song that everybody knows fit into it? Do you feel like a pop star in a certain way?

BADDIEL: No, I don't feel like a pop star. But I have come to terms with something. I'm 57. And occasionally, when you are my age, you think about your obituary and if you were a person of note how they might talk about it on the news. And I know without fail, even though I have actually done really a lot of things in my career, that they are going to say best known for - everybody else has died - best known for his anthem, "Three Lions," the football song. And I'm at peace with that. I'm not going to be knocking on the door of my coffin saying, what about my novels? What about my stand-up tours or whatever?

So I remember when they were singing it in Euro '96. We were beating Holland 4-1. And I was with my manager, who's a very showbiz person. And he turned to me, and he said, if you win an Oscar, it won't be better than this. Now, I haven't won an Oscar, so I don't absolutely know. But I know what he meant. What he meant was, you know, when you win an award or you get your peers' appreciation, it's lovely, but it's not grassroots, popular people's embrace of something you've done, like 78,000 people singing it spontaneously in a football ground. So I remain incredibly proud of "Three Lions," even though it might overshadow everything else I've done.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. Well, final question. Tomorrow's match, England versus Italy, Wembley Stadium in London. Will you be there? And what's your prediction? Are you feeling some hope about it?

BADDIEL: I will be there. I hate predicting football scores that mean a lot to me, because even though I'm an absolute materialist and don't believe in anything superstitious, I get superstitious. I think we are the underdogs because I would say Italy are overall the best side in this tournament in terms of the way they played. Having said that, just for you, I'm going to say, yes, that England are going to win - hopefully not on penalties and extra time, because that will give me a heart attack.

KURTZLEBEN: All right. You heard it here first, everyone. That was David Baddiel. He is a writer and comedian and helped write the English soccer anthem, "Three Lions (Football's Coming Home)." David Baddiel, thank you so much for being with us.

BADDIEL: Thank you very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.