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Last Updated: Friday, 9 June 2006, 09:12 GMT 10:12 UK
Proud patriots or just football fans?
By James Clarke
BBC News, England

Car with 10 England flags
The sort of sight which would raise eyebrows at most times of year
There are few things that seem to make people as proud of being English as a major football tournament.

Whether it is the World Cup or the European Championship, England seems to become a sea of St George's Cross flags.

At the same time, football appears on the front page of every newspaper as well as the back, and people who show no interest in football at any other time of year suddenly care deeply about the health of England's finest metatarsals.

But are these really signs of patriotism or just a love of football - or bandwagon jumping?

'Bonded together'

Mark Perryman, football author and England fan, says it is impossible to separate football and Englishness.

And there is a growing idea that England's biennial festival of football-induced patriotic fervour is establishing itself as a regular event.

How can you talk about Englishness without football? It's impossible to separate them
Mark Perryman, football author and England fan

Just as placing a decorated pine tree in your living room would seem ludicrous in any month other than December, yet is regarded as an integral part of Christmas, so covering your house or car with England flags seems to have become acceptable every other June.

And just as Christmas comes with its own songs, when it is time for the World Cup or European Championship the airwaves tend to fill up with songs about football in which England is a three-syllable word.

John Williams, head of the Centre for the Sociology of Sport at the University of Leicester, said: "I'm not sure if the World Cup makes people feel more English but it makes them feel more bonded together.

'Completely absurd'

"There's a feel of a kind of collective project and there's a rhythm to the weeks when the matches are on as people go through the build up together.

"All of these things have become more pronounced over the last few years and that's why more people who have traditionally not been football fans have become more involved.

England fans in England shirts with England flags
Red and white become the colours to be seen wearing

"I think it works differently for different people, some will put flags on their cars because they are patriotic, other people do it because their kids think it's exciting and they feel involved somehow.

"We may have some problems in the World Cup from fans, from a small and destructive group, but there's been a general unbundling of that in recent years - hooliganism no longer has that sort of central place and football has lost some of that baggage it had in the 1980s."

Among those flying the flag are Prime Minister Tony Blair, who revealed a St George's Cross will fly in Downing Street on England match days.

He said: "The idea that it's wrong to put the England flag up - come on. Why not? It's the flag of England. It would be completely absurd."

Even Scottish National Party leader Alex Salmond told the BBC he welcomed the growing sense of English identity shown by the flying of the flag of St George.

Mr Perryman, author of Ingerland: Travels with a Football Nation and a leading member of Englandfans, the official England supporters group, said: "How can you talk about Englishness without football? It's impossible to separate them.

A car with England flags drives past a house with the St George's Cross painted on it

"If you want a moment when you see the St George's Cross flying almost everywhere, it's got to be for the football.

"Every two years for the last decade there have been flags flying everywhere.

"The only team competing in the World Cup that doesn't represent a nation state is England and that makes us different.

"If you go back to Italia 90, the most successful World Cup in recent times, all the flags you saw were Union Jacks, you didn't really see the St George's Cross, it's a very recent phenomenon."

Mr Perryman said the tide turned at Euro 96, hosted by England, when the team played Scotland for the first time in several years, and was heightened with the subsequent devolution of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

'A good summer'

He said both events left England fans feeling the need to use the St George's cross to show their pride in being English rather than British.

John Clemence, chairman of the Royal Society of St George, which promotes itself as "the premier patriotic society of England", said he felt the public's World Cup-related enthusiasm was mainly due to a love of football but could bring a boost in national pride.

Sheep with a St George's Cross painted on it
Patriotic football fever need not only be for humans

He said: "It's primarily because people are following their football team but in doing so they know that their flag is the flag of St George and in my view it's a totally appropriate use of it.

"A lot of people use the flag for the football, and they used it for the rugby, the cricket and the Commonwealth Games.

"The World Cup is a major event and a lot of people are going to have a good summer because of it, unless England get knocked out early.

"People who sneer at the flags all the time and officious officials who try to stop them being displayed could even encourage the type of bad behaviour that none of us wants to see.

"But I think we may well find that attitudes have changed and that although our fans in Germany will be rumbustious it will be no more than that, out of respect to the host country and for the reputation of their own country."

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