World Cup 2018: England fans urged not to fly St George's flag as it may be seen as 'imperialistic' and 'antagonistic'

Sean Morrison
England fans have been urged not to fly St George's flags at the World Cup this year: Getty Images

Police have urged England fans heading to the World Cup in Russia not to display St George’s flags because it could be seen as “imperialistic” and “antagonistic”.

Deputy Chief Constable Mark Roberts, the head of football policing, said the flags were the trophies of choice for hooligans from rival countries.

The warning comes after Russian hooligans attacked England fans in 2016 and posted pictures of “captured” St George's flags.

Supporters travelling to host cities such as Volgograd, formerly known as Stalingrad, have also been warned to be "culturally aware" and not provoke locals by singing antagonising songs.

Up to 10,000 England fans are expected to travel to the country next month but demand for tickets is lower than previous tournaments, with only one of England's Group G games selling out its FA allocation so far.

Deputy Chief Constable Roberts said thousands of Russian officers, who are routinely armed, will be deployed on match days as part of a huge security operation.

"As you approach the stadiums there is an overwhelming presence and I think the chances of disorder in any of those environments is pretty remote," he said.

Chief Inspector Joe Stokoe, who will travel to the cities hosting England games, added: "People do need to be aware that the levels of policing and military is probably going to be off the scale to what we particularly see in the UK."

Mr Roberts, who will oversee the small number of UK police who will travel to Russia to assist the Russian authorities, said the majority of fans who travel were genuine and law-abiding but he had concerns about supporters who may drink excessively and become anti-social.

He criticised previous behaviour of fans at away games, including singing songs about Gibraltar in Spain and the war in Germany, as "stupid" and called for it to stop.

About 1,750 people are subject to football banning orders, including 91 over the disorder in Marseille that marred Euro 2016, meaning they cannot go to the World Cup.

A further 30 to 35 are under investigation and could face similar travel bans following disorder in Amsterdam before the Three Lions' friendly against the Netherlands in March, which Mr Roberts said was a setback in police attempts to reassure Russian authorities over fan behaviour.

Mr Roberts said he believed police had been "very successful" at stopping the English hooligan element but admitted there were those who might have been caught up in bad behaviour who slipped through the net.

He said: "We can't say we got everyone - we got 91 banning orders after the Euros, we have currently got 1,751 so it's the most rigorous legislation anyone's got anywhere.

"There's a distinction between those who go seeking to actively engage in violence and those who get drunk and act in an anti-social manner - that's a lot harder to control.

"The key thing is those supporters who might drink too much, engage in anti-social behaviour - that would really be my concern for this tournament, that that might not be well-received locally and provoke a hostile response.

"We've seen previously English supporters go to Spain and sing about Gibraltar, go to Dortmund and sing songs about the world war - I cannot emphasise how stupid that would be to do in Russia.

"Supporters need to act with respect, they need to be good guests, seek to make friends and not engage in anything that's antagonistic in its nature and which may provoke what they consider to be a disproportionate response but would actually put themselves at real risk."

Mr Roberts said he has not seen a blacklist of Russian football hooligans, which Foreign Office minister Harriett Baldwin told MPs was believed to be held by Russian security services, but had been assured of a commitment to tackle the issue.

The tournament kicks off amid heightened political tensions between the UK and Russia, in the wake of the Salisbury spy poisoning, and Mr Roberts said it was "difficult to gauge" the impact.

And he urged England fans to respect the patriotic feeling and national pride felt in places such as Volgograd, which was the site of heavy Red Army casualties during the Second World War.

He said: "We wouldn't expect people to come across to this country, get drunk and drape flags on the Cenotaph so we need to extend the same courtesy when we go abroad and treat places with due reference."

Police referred fans to the Foreign Offices' Be on the Ball website for more travel advice.

Additional reporting from the Press Association.