Football in Malta: England fans vs Italy fans. But how did it all begin?

We are slap into the Euros with matches taking place at scattered stadia, rather than in one country, thanks to COVID-19. And the Maltese population, with the exception of the odd few, will hold their breath to see how far the Italy or England National teams will advance, many hoping for a heart stopping final with these countries facing each other in a historic final.

This Maltese support phenomenon is as unique as it is interesting. With our local teams thus far failing to qualify for international championships such as the EUROs or the World Cup, the Maltese football lover has had to find solace in supporting foreign teams. Now, although some would fancy Portugal because of Ronaldo, Argentina because of Messi, Spain because of Bousquets, France through Mbappe, the bulk still opts for either the Red Cross or the TriColore. And there are very valid reasons for this to happen.

By nature, we are a bipartisan society where everything is steered into a two-horse race. This abounds in politics, religion (two band clubs in the same parish; two titular saints in another; Our Lady split in two, and at times, more titles with all the paraphernalia of sacred and profane rituals,) and finally the two official languages. Following the Language Question of the last century, all things English and Italian were always at loggerheads, locally. This happened more so in football where the masses were now involved with or without academic or other qualifications.

By nature, we are a bipartisan society, where everything is steered into a two-horse race.

Initially the support for England was very well pronounced. The presence of the British, who had invented the ‘glorious’ game, influenced the average Maltese football supporter to lean towards the English/British Flag. Teams would be tagged with an additional noun to the locality’s name, hence Hamrun Spartans, Sliema Wanderers, Hibernians, Lija Athletics, to name a few, while the services had their own football teams. The English football results were on BBC Radio every Saturday at 6.45pm local time and Pathe News featured highlights of matches at the cinemas. Visiting teams for local tournees were predominantly British, while children would battle it out in the narrow streets (thankfully empty of traffic) or on the Table Soccer tables where the names and colours of the teams for sale in shops were mostly British.

This supremacy was challenged and eventually levelled off with the arrival of television in Malta in the late 50s. A forest of TV aerials sprouted all over the island and with the single Maltese channel and the two Italian RAI channels, the football lover could now follow not only English football but more so Italian football. Transmissions were very frequent, debates ‘a l’Italiana’ became very popular and the Maltese viewers became familiar with Sivori, Corso, Facchetti, and Mazzola. Eventually, the Vecchia Signora and the Inno di Mameri became household names. Add to this that the English National team reached a peak by winning the 1966 World Cup in Wembley, while the Italians had already won the trophy twice thus winning a total of 4 World Cup titles.

A forest of TV aerials sprouted all over the island and with the single Maltese channel and the two Italian RAI channels, the football lover could now follow not only English football but more so Italian football.

English football fans in Malta have had to suffer one inglorious World Cup after the other, with the Italian supporters being regaled with more successes. In contradiction, at club level, English teams have had quite a successful history bolstering the never fading belief that the English National team would emulate these successes. That this is short-sighted is putting it mildly, when one considers the fact that now English teams arm themselves with the best talents available from around the world, ending up with an English club team fielding a first eleven with not even one English player making an appearance. Naturally this has had a disastrous effect on the English National team’s performances. But the Premiere League spins money and global interest through fans, merchandising, media and a whole army of people and resources involved.

The Italian scene is quite different where the league structure has always produced the three regular top table contenders, year in year out, making it a more family-like competition except for the traditional derby matches where fully armed riot police always appear on duty to curb the over enthusiastic Ultras. The Maltese followers always keep a safe distance from these performances, however they have created a culture based on the Parish feast model with carcades, fireworks, enormous flags, horns tooting and loud music. We have instances where streets are awash with people parading either the Red Cross or the TriColore, whilst dressed in White or Blue.

We are still in the preliminary stages of the EURO Finals and things promise to be quite intense for the soccer fans in white or blue. Although both teams are committed to move on to the next round, the Italians seem to be more disciplined on the field. Things are heating up if one follows the banter on social media which later on will undoubtedly change to invective, hopefully not abusive.

Is it too unrealistic to hope for an England vs Italy Final this time round?

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