Dave Hill: Let's hear it for the fans (until the riots begin)

I think the more attractive kinds of Englishness will prevail

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After all the anticipation and offering up of prayers to Metatarsal, God of Toes, we're off. The defeat of Paraguay was not a dazzling victory but good enough. If our hopes are disappointed, it won't be for want of support from the stands. An estimated 50,000 England fans are in Germany, and most were in the stadium yesterday.

In fact, they dominated the occasion: their customised flags of St George showed that they'd come to Frankfurt from everywhere to bask in sunshine every bit as bright as here and witness the fulfilment of their dreams. A stirring sight for many, not least the former England striker Ian Wright, a patriotic member of the BBC's pundit team. "You have to say we've got the best supporters here," he enthused. "There's no one else like us."

Well, there are the Brazilians, the Dutch and a few more but Wright might be forgiven his partialness. With the caveat that booze, long opening hours and football are bound to give rise to the odd flare-up (such as those yesterday at Canary Wharf and elsewhere), England's fans abroad are gradually shaking off the "xenophobic mob" tag they used to have. The cheery pictures of English fans in Germany, including a notably exuberant Freddie Flintoff before yesterday's game, have fuelled a well-founded optimism, whatever may have gone on at home.

In past decades any such summer exodus to continental Europe stirred understandable foreboding. The majority never looked for trouble but a hard core of thugs and a general air of negativity meant that trouble had a way of finding them. The difference this time has been the more striking, given that the host nation is still perceived by many here as the enemy. The last time Germany staged a major football competition was in 1988 when the European championship was held there. I was among the travelling fans who witnessed at first hand the version of Englishness that dominated at the time.

Before a match against Ireland in Stuttgart, a bunch of "our boys" took possession of some steps in the town centre, gave a few beered-up renditions of "God Save the Queen", chased a black boy down the street, then chanted "Sieg Heil" until the riot police moved in. Later, in our heavily policed segment of the ground, a Mexican wave came crashing our way, but we didn't join in. "We" were the English and "we" didn't do that kind of thing.

Things have improved since then. Yes, there have been further clashes involving England supporters in mainland Europe (Marseille, 1998 and Charleroi, 2000), but the real turning point had already been reached back with Italy 1990. That tournament ended up being about Gazza's tears and England fans singing about having a disco drowning out those still spoiling for war.

These days our travelling support is both bigger and friendlier. On Friday in Frankfurt England fans were shown on television drinking and mingling cheerfully with local Germans. "It's fun to make party with the Englands," one of them smiled. This was good to see. And I am fairly confident that the more attractive varieties of Englishness will prevail on the pitch and off.

I write this in the sunshine. England has had a satisfactory start in the World Cup. By the time you read this, dear reader, I may have been horribly embarrassed. We may have had news of mobs running amok, stabbings, fights in bars, goose-stepping and the like. Yet, I insist, they will relate to a small minority. Let us dare to hope than whatever befalls David Beckham and his team-mates, those cheering him on continue to personify a kind of Englishness that all England can live with happily. The trend is away from loutishness. Really.

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