My first memory of hearing it was in June 2006 at the Frankfurt airport. It was early in the morning, and several England fans who had just gotten off a plane on the way to that year's World Cup opening round quietly (and tunefully) began to sing:
"It's coming home
"It's coming home
"Football's coming home"
The lyrics made no sense in context. They had been written for the 1996 European Championship, hosted by England, which has a legitimate (if not undisputed) claim to be the birthplace of football, aka soccer. But the "coming home" refrain was catchy, evocative and somehow familiar - I must have heard bits of it on the radio and/or TV while living in London in 2000 and 2001.
The rest of "Three Lions," as the song is titled, is even better, a wry, loving commentary on the futility that has marked England's international football efforts since it won the World Cup at home in 1966.
I bought it on iTunes as soon as I got back to New York in 2006, and I have happily played it pretty much every time the England football team has appeared on my TV since. And yes, I cranked it up Saturday morning after England beat Sweden 2-0 to make it to this year's World Cup semifinals.
I'm not English, and among national football teams, England ranks at best third (behind the U.S. and the Netherlands. If it ends up being England versus Belgium in this year's final, I'm really not sure which I'll want to win. But I do love "Three Lions," and with more and more of the world becoming familiar with it, thanks in part to an explosion in "It's Coming Home" Twitter memes.
It's now 52 years since England hoisted the World Cup — or any other major — football trophy. But apart from that, little about the song feels dated.
There were many attempts to oust the anthem, including an overwrought 2010 remake of "Three Lions," featuring comedian Russell Brand, pop star Robbie Williams, an opera singer and a gospel choir, has also mercifully faded away.
And so, with no official or unofficial competition during this year's World Cup run - the fact that one can no longer make much of any money off a novelty hit single has probably cut back on supply - the original 1996 "Three Lions" is back at No. 1 in the U.K. charts and all is right with the world.
This is not just a song for English football supporters. That is, there are multiple England-specific references in it, but it doesn't feel particularly nationalistic. It's a wistful ode to the joy and pain of sports obsession that can be appreciated by fans everywhere. If this year's England team goes and ruins it by winning the World Cup, maybe the rest of us can adopt it.