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Football Mania Grips England - 2002-05-31

Football mania is gripping England, as its national team prepares for its World Cup debut Sunday against Sweden.

The English are throwing off their typical restraint and reserve as World Cup fever sweeps the country.

Adding to the excitement, English fans got some good news just days before the team's first game against Sweden. That was the announcement that English team captain and star midfielder David Beckham has been cleared to play.

Beckham had been sidelined for weeks by a fracture in his left foot that he suffered while playing with his professional team, Manchester United.

On the news of his return, he got a special greeting from Queen Elizabeth, who is marking 50 years on the throne with a nationwide, four-day celebration.

Beckham says he would love to contribute to a win over Sweden as part of the festivities. "It would be nice for the whole nation," he said. "You know, it's going to be a great weekend hopefully, you know, starting on Saturday, or Friday night even, and carry on through. There will be a few parties, and, hopefully, there will be a party on Sunday night as well."

Across London, football fans are flying the English national flag - a simple red cross imposed on a plain white field. The flag is the emblem of St. George, England's patron saint.

England is the only team from Britain to qualify for the World Cup finals. Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland were eliminated during European qualifying rounds.

In London's Chapel Market, Lorraine and John Petworth say business is booming at their stall, where they sell English football souvenirs. Lorraine describes their hottest-selling merchandise. "All sorts of memorabilia, particularly England flags, makeup, red-and-white wigs, everything to do with England, really," she said.

John Petworth says customers are stocking up ahead of next Friday's match with England's arch-rival, Argentina. "It's picking up all over the country now," he said. "I've had people buying, like, 10 and 20 shirts at a time, working on building sites for next Friday, for the Argentina game. Just letting the lads have the day off. Because, like, it's a big game, and everyone's just up for it."

British business leaders are forecasting nearly $5 billion will be lost due to worker absenteeism during the month-long tournament.

But pubs and bars are preparing for a surge in business, as they have gotten special permission to open early for the morning matches, broadcast from Japan and South Korea.