England-Italy fever: only in Malta?

A hardcore of football ‘ultras’ still exist on both sides of the England-Italy divide in Malta.

English football fans return this compliment by openly admiring the Italians’ natural flair for the game: as well as their extraordinary record in international tournaments.
English football fans return this compliment by openly admiring the Italians’ natural flair for the game: as well as their extraordinary record in international tournaments.

ALSO James Debono's football demographics for Italy vs England

This may come as an earth-shattering surprise to many local soccer enthusiasts, but... England and Italy rather like each other when it comes to football.

Attesting to this mutual respect are generations of Italian TV commentators, who have always waxed lyrical about 'lo stile anglo-sassone del calcio classico inglese'... which (according to this rather romanticised stereotype) is characterised by a combination of no-nonsense stoicism and a traditionally British sense of 'fair play'.

And English football fans return this compliment by openly admiring the Italians' natural flair for the game: as well as their extraordinary record in international tournaments (being four-time World Champions, and all that).

So, given the manifest lack of mutual hostility between these two footballing nations... why does the prospect of an England-Italy quarter-final tend to mean so much more in Malta than it does in either Italy or England?

As it happens, the answer turns out to have surprisingly little to do with football.

It is a fact almost lost in the annals of Maltese history that many of today's political realities - among them, the Nationalist Party - were born directly out of the tensions that existed locally between English and Italian cultural influences in the late 19th century.

When Fortunato Mizzi founded his Anti-Reformist Party in 1880, the 'reforms' he opposed involved gradually removing Italian as both language of instruction and of bureaucracy, to be replaced by English.

And when his son Enrico Mizzi - the official founder of today's Nationalist Party - was court-martialled for his pro-Italian sympathies, he openly declared himself an "irredentist":  i.e., a believer in that Malta 'belonged' to Italy on a cultural plane - and therefore, by extension, should also be part of its sovereign territory.

This same political dichotomy formed the bedrock upon which Malta's early political dualism would be built. The Constitutional Party, led by Lord Strickland, favoured a continuation of the status quo, with Malta firmly anchored into the British identity. Mizzi's PN, on the other hand, strove for greater cultural affinity with Italy... an affinity that would spill over into the realm of treason in the late 1920s, as Britain eyed Benito Mussolini with increasing suspicion.

Such was the tension at the time, that a resurgence of the so-called language question in 1930 almost plunged the country into full-scale civil violence. Strickland himself was targeted by an assassination attempt, while Mizzi was eventually arrested and - with the outbreak of World War II - deported, along with several other 'troublemakers', to Uganda. Even at this early phase of the England-Italy divide, football occasionally found itself dragged into the controversy. In May 1933, a number of staunchly pro-British local football supporters travelled to Rome to support England in a friendly against Italy. In recognition of this unexpected show of support, the English FA donated a trophy - now known as the U Bet FA trophy - to the local football association.

With the demise of Italian fascism following World War II (and more specifically, the disbanding of Strickland's Constitutional Party at roughly the same time) the ancestral England-Italy divide that had underscored Maltese politics for almost a century eventually faded into the background.

Indeed the rivalry between those two countries' football teams is practically all that is left to show for it today: and even here, the actual demographics of support for those two countries has likewise changed.

In years gone by, support for England was a badge of identity that might associate one with the (formerly Royal) Malta Dockyard - and to date, English flags tend to be seen in greater numbers in the Three Cities than any other part of Malta.

Likewise, support for Italy was formerly associated with the professional classes (mostly lawyers) that were traditionally aligned with the PN.

In recent years, however, these sub-divisions have all but disappeared. As younger generations tend to rebel against their forebears in most things - football included - it is by no means uncommon for the children of staunch England supporters to switch their allegiance to Italy - and vice versa - while others migrate to other allegiances altogether: opting to support Germany, Brazil, Spain or Holland instead.

But a hardcore of 'ultras' still exist on either side...and they still respond to the same ancestral impulses of the pre-war era... though whether they are aware of the connection is something else entirely.

Football demographics: Italy or England?

By James Debono

Nationalist voters, those aged under -34, professionals and university-educated people are more likely to side with Italy tonight.

On the other hand, Labour voters, white and blue-collar workers, those aged over 55 and those with a secondary education are more likely to side with England.

This emerges from surveys conducted by this newspaper before the 2006 and the 2010 World Cups.

The 2010 World Cup showed that England supporters slightly outnumber Italy supporters (34% vs. 31%), which confirmed a similar three-point gap registered in the 2006 survey.

Judging by the latest survey among the 16-34 age bracket, 44% would have supported Italy while 32% supported England. Back in 2006, 46% supported Italy, while only 24% supported England.

On the other hand, among those aged over 55, 37% side with England while only 22% side with Italy. Those in the middle age group are equally divided.

Unsurprisingly, the pre-war generation which remembers Italian planes bombing Malta, along with those born in the post-war colonial times, have a different perception of Italy than those who grew up watching Italian TV, which gives provides exposure to Italian football.

Clearly, although England is still on top, demographic trends favour Italy in the perennial 'old firm' struggle between the former colonial masters and our Latin neighbours.

But this favourable trend for Italian football could still be reversed with the rise of satellite and cable TV, which has eroded the dominance of Italian TV and increased support for UK clubs like Manchester United, which have styled themselves as global brands in the past decade. In fact, the 2010 survey showed that the latter are the most popular club in Malta. In fact, surveys seem to suggest that support for England among under-34 year olds increased between 2006 and 2010.

Sympathy for Italy or for England also runs parallel to the lines of the political duopoly; with the majority of Nationalist party voters supporting Italy and the majority of Labour party supporters supporting England.

While 37% of Nationalist party voters support Italy, only 20% of Labourites do likewise.

The pique between Anglophiles and Italianates dates back to the early days of Maltese politics, when the ancestors of the modern Nationalist party yearned for unification with the Italian patria and the forerunners of the Labour Party striving for closer ties with the United Kingdom.

The pique between supporters of the two rival teams stands out as the most long-lasting legacy of the language question, which pitted Italianates against Anglophiles.

Another interesting phenomenon is that university graduates and professionals are also more likely to side with Italy than with England.

On the other hand, clerical workers and skilled labourers tend to support England.

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A well exposed, historically related point of view, that I would say has some merit. OR is it simply, that we do not have any team worth talking about, and we try to show our our football expertise using someone else's excellence, hoping that some will rub off.