In the first of a series of articles looking at how the tournament was received at home, Al Needham strokes his chin, sifts through the discarded plastic flagpoles and wonders where all those crosses of St George came from. And does it mean anything anyway?
It’s good for a country and its people to take stock and re-evaluate its sense of identity every now and then, and I did just that in a bus shelter last month, sitting next to an elderly Jamaican woman, watching the endless procession of cars with plastic white flags with red crosses clipped to their windows. Where had they come from? It wasn’t this bad in 2002. Had a giant sandcastle firm been made bankrupt, or something? Was it just a local thing? And what did it all mean? “Look at these fools,” said the Jamaican woman, all of a sudden. “They don’t know what it means to be patriotic. In Jamaica, we have the flag up all year round, not for some... pussyclaat football game.” Then she sucked her teeth. For a very long time.
Yes, just like everywhere else in the country (apart from Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland) Nottingham was well and truly under the spell of Eng-er-land mania by the end of May and we’re still trying to decide what it all meant. Was it – boo! – a portent of doom, ushering in a sinister rebirth of nationalism not seen since the National Front used the Union Jack in the mid-1970s? Was it – rayyy! – good old salt-of-the-earth Johnny England feeling at ease with his national identity once more and taking back the flag from the forces of darkness? Or could it be – strokes chin, raises eyebrow – a bunch of knob-ends in white vans showing off a bit?
As it turned out, it wasn’t a local quirk. It was happening all over the country. A couple of days later, a friend in London excitedly rang from a garage to tell me he had just been overtaken by a car sporting a flag in each window, two mounted on broomsticks thrust through the sunroof and a massive Three Lions badge on the bonnet. He didn’t know who the car belonged to, but he had a suspicion it might have something to do with the bloke on his estate who had painted his roof – and his lawn – with the cross of St George. Next thing you knew, Bobby Charlton was standing on a bridge on the telly, beaming with glee as an army of zombies with red and white faces lumbered about in a compulsive lust to buy England cakes with their credit cards.
Naturally, newspaper columnists and their ilk were parachuted in to tell us what it all really meant. And it wasn’t only the Sun who put out the obligatory space-filling England flag centrespread – even the Guardian got stuck in with one of their own, albeit with a series of small-print caveats – “By wearing this flag I would like to show my support for the England team but: 1. Wholeheartedly reject any connotations of xenophobic nationalism; 2. Dissociate myself from anyone who removes his shirt in public; 3. Salute the rich contribution made by my Celtic cousins to British life; 4. Reaffirm my commitment to the European Social Chapter.”
On a more poignant note, Sarfraz Manzoor wrote about how it took him 30 years to be able to buy an England T-shirt without fear of resentment or mockery, after the Argentina game in 2002. “That night, as Asians, blacks and whites joined together... I remember thinking: this is what patriotism could be like if we could defang it of its nastier elements... But I also remember an Asian friend laughing at the sight of us all singing for England. When I asked him what he found funny, he replied: ‘It’s as if, by wearing the flag, we’re saying, “See, we’re not that different from you, please don’t beat us up”.
The Tory papers were even more chuffed. “Something remarkable is happening. The reticent English middle classes, having long been queasy about flag-waving, are rediscovering – reclaiming – their national flag,” wrote Quentin Letts of the Sunday Telegraph, who has obviously never been to see Tim Henman at Wimbledon or heard about the Last Night of the Proms, on the eve of the France game. Still, it’s a lot more savoury than the bad old days, when “rat-faced youths with swastika armbands and skinheads would stick flags on the walls of provincial lock-up garages and strike clenched-fist poses”. More amazingly, there was a distinct absence of stories about loony left councils banning the flag for fear of drivers blinded by aggressively nationalist symbols running into bus queues – the only note of caution struck throughout the month came from Top Gear magazine, which pointed out that English motorists were wasting 4.5 million gallons of petrol through the drag caused by England flags.
If all this is a sign of Albion arising once more, it has to be said that we made a right pig’s arse of it. For starters, flags should be attached to flagpoles and not bamboo canes purloined from the garden. And they most definitely shouldn’t be trapped in someone’s upstairs window. Do the Americans sing “O say does that star-spangled banner yet hang out of Dave’s back bedroom”? No, they don’t. Secondly, why did most of them need to have ENGLAND printed on them? Are the English that ignorant of their own national flag? Have you ever seen a maple leaf flag with CANADA written on it? Or a swastika bearing the legend THE NAZIS? Were we going to assume otherwise that the Red Cross had organised a flag day for cars?
It seems that everyone has their own theory about the proliferation of England flags at football tournaments, so here’s mine: ever since the decline of the druids, the British have consistently received the fly-encrusted, smelly end of the stick when it comes to summer celebrations. While the Americans and French put aside a special day to let off fireworks and wave the flag, all we get is a barbecue in the rain and Wimbledon. However, every two years there’s an international football tournament and England are usually in it. You only have to look at what happened to the national rugby side last year to work out what would happen if the football team won something.
As we all know, though, England are the original Little Boys That Santa Claus Forgot. So what do we do? We have our celebrations in advance, adopting the triumphalism of post-match celebrations in Italy, Argentina and Brazil, without ever needing to win anything. It’s probably the only legacy Ally McLeod has bestowed on British football. See the bloke on your street who put three England flags up? He’s probably the same one who sticks a 12-foot inflatable snowman on his garage roof at Christmas.
Of course, after England lost their quarter-final to Portugal, the vast majority of flags were wrenched from their moorings long before Tim Henman had a chance to get knocked out of Wimbledon and the ones that remain hang limp in the rain like condoms thrown into a bush. The extreme right have approximately two years to reclaim it, but I don’t fancy their chances that much. The next time I get a BNP pamphlet through the door and see it festooned with the cross of St George, I won’t be wondering if you can be truly patriotic without being a moron – I’ll be thinking of my three-year-old nephew on the bus, pointing at hunks of plastic attached to cars and bellowing “Football flag! ROOOOO-NEEEE!” while everyone else falls about laughing, as I chuck it in the bin.
From WSC 210 August 2004. What was happening this month