You might have heard by now about football coming home.
An unheralded team bounding deep into the Fifa World Cup, well clear of anything anyone predicted. A country riven by its differences finding a common cause. An England that for once had barely expected somehow daring to dream; inhibitions cast into the haze like so many plastic pint pots, St George’s Crosses breaking out like sunburn on pale skin.
After years of glossy underachievement by distant megastars, and grottier failure by disparate rabbles, fans have hungrily embraced this England squad, an affable, diverse and articulate bunch with a singular bond and purpose. TV audience shares for matches have approached 90 per cent. Ever more esoteric memes have flooded social media. Britain’s political class may be in no state to capitalise on the national mood but sponsors, inevitably, will be eager to find a way soon enough. A tarnished, discarded brand will draw them close again.
There is sound reason for that. Research conducted for the POWA Index suggests that Tottenham Hotspur striker Harry Kane, the closest thing this team had to a superstar going into the tournament, was the subject of more online searches than any player in the world last week other than Neymar, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Behind him, a crop of now internationally recognisable, digitally savvy young men are commercially underexposed.
Manager Gareth Southgate, star of an infamous Pizza Hut ad after missing the decisive penalty in a home semi-final at Uefa Euro ’96, will have his own suitors. If nothing else, his clear-headed, empathetic leadership will be the template for a new misguided wave of business manuals.
And on top of that, whatever point is hit this time on Southgate’s redemptive arc, football will be coming home – at least for a little while. Just under two years from now, London’s Wembley Stadium is hosting seven games of the pan-continental Uefa Euro 2020.
Those are the conditions for an absolute free-for-all; a can’t-miss opportunity that will be far harder to exploit successfully than most will appreciate. Even in an era where fans have grown used to being sold to, it can be hard to follow up this kind of buoyant spontaneity without it seeming tawdry or desperate. Getting it right will be a delicate exercise.
Harry Maguire scored the first goal in England's 2-0 quarter-final victory over Sweden
There is the sense, firstly, of a moment passing. This competition induces powerful temporal dislocation – a month stretching into a lifetime. With the world in motion, a mood can seem like a new order. But that all changes when it stops. A beat for beat retread of this summer would be cloying and futile – Bill Murray sidling pitiably up to Andie MacDowell in the snow in Groundhog Day, his attempt to reconstruct their perfect date a dismal failure.
And the other danger is in misunderstanding what this summer has been about. For many of those watching, the joy has come not in the prospect of imminent glory but in the rediscovery of something precious and long buried.
For brands to make sense of this, and what part they could now play, it pays to look at the origins of the 22-year-old song whose refrain has been used to define an English summer, first ironically and then with unguarded gusto.
‘Three Lions’ connects with supporters because it was made by them. Lightning Seeds frontman Ian Broudie’s track breaks major key through minor to evoke the defiant yearning of soccer fandom; comedians David Baddiel and Frank Skinner, whose raucously irreverent Fantasy Football League was the closest 90s media got to modern meme culture, put words to it that more precisely defined what it means to follow England.
For many of those watching, the joy has come not in the prospect of imminent glory but in the rediscovery of something precious and long buried
In the original song, breaking from cheesy soccer-pop convention, no member of the contemporary side is name-checked. In fact, where the Euro 96 squad appear in the video, it’s to reenact great feats from England’s past: to play at being the fans they were as kids. Many team anthems are rooted in entitlement or expectation but Three Lions is about hope, and those euphoric moments where anything seems possible. Even as a prelude to disappointment, it says, hope is a thing to cherish and to share.
Perhaps because of its source, some overlook the fact that this was an official release. Not the tournament anthem: that was Simply Red’s rote and forgettable ‘We’re In This Together’. But it was the England team’s official song, commissioned by the Football Association (FA), and its breakout, terrace-ready hook was based on the tagline for the event: ‘Football Comes Home’.
It doesn’t feel like a marketing exercise because it wasn’t built like one – or, at least, not a bad one. There is no cynicism or calculation in it. A rights holder identified creative people who deeply understood the subject matter, then trusted them to find a truthful message and set it free.
In some of the better promotional activity that already exists around this England team, there are signs of the same thinking at work. Two blue-chip brand campaigns involving Harry Kane at this World Cup – for Nike and Beats By Dre – have centred on his hard-fought journey from obscurity, rather than his later prowess. FA sponsor Lidl showcased the easy-going charm of the team by having them upstaged by extroverted children.
David Baddiel and Frank Skinner's 1996 song 'Three Lions' has become the unofficial anthem of England's 2018 World Cup
And the FA’s own marcomms unit, who have shown an admirable grasp of what it has in these players and prepared them as diligently as the coaching staff, set the tone with an infectious squad reveal video where young supporters from across the country called out the names of their own local champions.
Those England fans who feel they’ve got their team back won’t enjoy the sense of them being taken away again, so any sponsor will be wary of engendering remoteness. Traditional icon-style campaigns might do that but something grounded in the backgrounds and the motivations of the could be more compelling. It is a chance to set something apart from the high polish of the Premier League.
Savvy brands will be sensitive to what is happening in English soccer away from their extraordinary performance in Russia. This is a time where England’s youth teams are rampant, its women could win their own World Cup in France next year, and where the sale of Wembley is being countenanced to fund unprecedented investment in grassroots facilities. This could be a time to emphasise the ties between the lucky few who represent their country and the children playing in communities all around it.
Not because, one day, those young hopefuls could be just like their idols but because, deep down, they know their idols are just like them.