Euro 2020: Malta’s dream final between Italy and England hangs on 180 minutes of play

Malta's football rivalry between supporters of Italy and England has deep roots that go beyond the beautiful game. Karl Azzopardi speaks to football experts on whether an Italy-England final in Euro 2020 is a realistic prospect

Every time international footballing competitions approach, the age-old questions crops up: who will you be supporting, England or Italy?

This historic footballing divide stems from something deeper than football, that has since contributed to the country’s political landscape.

Maltese working class individuals employed with the British services and docks supported integration with the United Kingdom until 1958, and so were inclined to support England.

Nationalist voters on the other hand, had long historical links to Italy, which they regarded as a natural ally – the so called ‘italianità’ as a culture of Maltese.

They were also anti-colonial, and therefore against the UK.

Italy players and coaching staff celebrate their win over Belgium
Italy players and coaching staff celebrate their win over Belgium

This historical background may be of little relevance to today's generations but it continues to colour the football debate every time a Euro competition or World Cup approach. And this year's Euro 2020 edition has the added bonus of both teams being one game away from the final.

MaltaToday reached out to football pundits for their views on a potential Italy versus England Euro 2020 final.

Maltese Premier League winning coach with Birkirkara and Valletta, Paul Zammit said both teams have been tactically “very prepared”. They both have a very compact defence and strong attack.

Zammit also said they have individual players that can turn the game in their team’s favour.  

“In my opinion, a final like this can go both ways, although I am convinced that whoever scores first will be very difficult to break,” he said.

Stephen Azzopardi, also a championship winning coach with Birkirkara, who did his UEFA coaching course with Italy manager Roberto Mancini, said both teams would have a single advantage over the other.

Stephen Azzopardi (right) with Italy coach Roberto Mancini
Stephen Azzopardi (right) with Italy coach Roberto Mancini

“England as the home nation with all its benefits, Italy as the team tactically better prepared,” Azzopardi said.

He said the secret to both team’s success in this year’s competition lies in their trust in youth development.

“England started from their youth development which even brought them successes in the FIFA Under 17 and Under 20 World Cups in 2017, together with the capability of Gareth Southgate to bring the England game closer to the continental one,” he said. “Mancini trusted the new generation without excluding a few useful senators, and changed the mentality and aspired to have a team playing attractive football.”

England captain Harry Kane
England captain Harry Kane

The sentiment was also shared by Zammit, who said the squads’ strength lies in their collective mentality. “They managed to create a group of players where everyone can start games or be a game changer, knowing precisely their roles and jobs within the team.”

Sports journalist Sandro Micallef said the Italian centre back pairing of Leonardo Bonucci and Giorgio Chiellini would give the Italians an edge over the English should they face-off in the final. “It’s still very difficult to predict.”

On the other hand, sports journalist Clinton Buhagiar said England would emerge victorious.

“It's hard to say as a final is always a final but my feeling is that this time round it will be England who will lift the trophy. They didn't play the best football but they improved a lot after winning against Germany,” he said.

The last four

England will be facing a resilient Denmark on Wednesday, while Italy play Spain later today.

Paul Zammit and Clinton Buhagiar both said the Azzurri face the hardest semi-final opponents.

Spanish players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout against Switzerland which put them in the semi-final
Spanish players celebrate after winning the penalty shootout against Switzerland which put them in the semi-final

“Spain is a very technical team, with a high percentage of passes completed and possession during their games. They have become more effective, but can be fragile in their defending phase and can concede,” Zammit said. “Italy must suffocate Spain's possession game and be ready to hit whenever given the chance to counter attack.”

“Although Spain is not the same team that won trophies during the last years, they are still far better than Denmark,” Buhagiar said.

Azzopardi said both opponents have merited arriving to this stage of the competition. “Denmark for the passion and determination, apart from having many talented players in their ranks, Spain for their shrewdness, pragmatism and collective play.”

Should England reach the final, they will have played six of their seven games at home, but the pundits said that while this could prove to be advantageous, it does not guarantee success.

“It surely will be a boost but many home nations faltered at the latter stages, a case in point France in the final of Euro 2016 and Portugal in the final of EURO 2004,” Azzopardi said.

Denmark players celebrate their quarter-final win over the Czech Republic
Denmark players celebrate their quarter-final win over the Czech Republic

“It will help England, but it will not be the winning factor either. More British supporters will be present at Wembley so the support for the Three Lions will be more,” he said.

Previous meetings

In their previous meetings, England won eight of their games against Italy, drawing eight times and loosing 11 times.

Italy forward Mario Balotelli heads in the winning goal against England in the 2014 World Cup
Italy forward Mario Balotelli heads in the winning goal against England in the 2014 World Cup

The last time the two teams met in an official tournament was in the 2014 World Cup group stages, with Italy emerging as winners thanks to a Mario Balotelli goal in the 50th minute of the match.

Italy had opened the score thanks to a Claudio Marchisio goal in the 35th minute, with Daniel Sturridge equalising just two minutes after.

England’s last win in an international competition against Italy came in the 1977 World Cup, with goals from Kevin Keegan and Trevor Brooking giving the Three Lions the victory.

England also won a 2012 international friendly against the Azzuri, with goals from Phil Jagielka and Jermain Defoe.

Who enjoys the most support in Malta?

A 2016 MaltaToday survey held in the week during which England and Italy were eliminated from the European Cup showed Italy leading England by 10 points in football support in Malta.

The survey showed a gender divide, with 49% of women siding with Italy compared to 40% of males. Among males the gap in support between the two teams amounted to just six points while among females the gap rose to 13 points.

The survey also showed support for England lowest among 13- to 17-year olds and highest among 55- to 64-year olds.

England was the preferred team among 55- to 74-year olds but support for Italy was higher in all other age groups. Support for Italy was highest among 25-to 44-year olds.

The experts felt that this attraction to Italy and England’s national teams stems from the support of teams which play in their respective domestic leagues.

“The passion for the Italian and the English national teams is derived through the loyalty that Maltese have for top teams such as Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal, Juventus, Inter, Roma and Milan,” Sandro Micallef said.

The sentiment was also shared by fellow sports journalist Clinton Buhagair.

“We have a lot of local supporters that follow British and Italian domestic teams. Most of them end up supporting the country as well. In fact, you have more supporters following teams like Juventus, Milan and Inter in Italy and Manchester United, Liverpool, Chelsea, and Arsenal in England,” he said.

So, will we have an Italy-England final on Sunday? Well, that dream final for Maltese football fans is just 180 minutes away.

Euro 2020

Tonight on TVM 2 at 9pm: Italy vs Spain

Tomorrow on TVM 2 at 9pm: England vs Denmark