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Maybe we could keep our flags up after the World Cup

PUBLISHED: 08:00 07 July 2018 | UPDATED: 10:13 07 July 2018

The England Flag flies over Norwich City Centre. PHOTO:SONYA BROWN

The England Flag flies over Norwich City Centre. PHOTO:SONYA BROWN

Archant

Steve Downes talks football, Brexit and national pride.

By this evening, England will be coming home - or football will be coming home.

(For the uninitiated, the former follows World Cup defeat against Sweden, the latter victory).

In either event, something will have changed.

Just as happened in 1990 and 1996 when England reached tournament semi finals, a wave of pride has been unleashed.

People are proud to be English - publicly proud. It heralds a change for many of us, who have in recent years been a little embarrassed by our nation: a bit timid about confessing to where we come from.

The vote to leave the European Union has played a big part in this. When I’ve been in Europe, I cringe when conversation turns to: “Why do you want to leave us?”

I just shuffle awkwardly and shrug, which is easier than admitting the uncomfortable truth that casual racism and narrow-mindedness triumphed.

Despite the immense financial, social and cultural implications of Brexit, I think football actually plays a bigger part in how it feels to be English (I say English because that’s what I am - English first, Norfolk second, British a distant third). Italia 90 and Euro 96 unleashed millions of smiles, unbridled joy, increased spending - and national pride.

I don’t mean the poisonous pride that identifies England with empire and superiority. Nor do I mean that pride which grows like a boil, with racism the foul pus that weeps from it.

I mean a healthy pride that brings us together to celebrate the performance of a group of young, focused, hardworking footballers who have flown our flag with honour.

In fact, they have given us our flag back, enabling us to reclaim it from the racists. In many countries, the national flag is everywhere. It’s part of the - literal and metaphorical - fabric of society in places including the USA, India, France and Brazil. It represents freedom, national identity, uniqueness and pride.

In England, the flag of St George makes many of us uncomfortable because it has so often been draped over the shoulders of English football hooligans, idiots abroad on holiday and white supremacists.

Right now, that has changed. Billions of people have seen the best of English on the pitch (and off it) in Russia. They have seen our nation in a positive light.

And so, we can fly our flag and be healthily proud without feeling shy - for now.

For the problem is, the wave of enthusiasm will ebb and we will revert to apologising for being English and putting away our crosses.

Unless we don’t. Maybe we could keep our flags and bunting up after the World Cup.

Maybe that could be the beginning of a renaissance in positive pride in England, obscuring and drowning out the more unsavoury Brexiteers, racists and bigots.

I’d love to see thousands, if not millions, of flagpoles in people’s gardens, flying the flag of St George to show off a gentle, warm pride in our country.

And I’d love to see shops making some of their red-and-white paraphernalia permanent.

Could all of this really happen long-term without negative perceptions, though? Sadly, I doubt it.

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