History ‘repeating’: Why England vs Italy in Euro 2020 is truly a Maltese clash

The historical battleground of lasting British influence and the pull of Italian culture for Maltese football fans comes together in an epic Euro 2020 final

The polarisation between England and Italy football fans in Malta which culminates in today’s final, may be rooted in the long-forgotten language question pitting traditional, pro-Italian elites against an emerging pro-English middle class back in the 1920s.

But it also has a lot to do with the cultural legacy of post-war Italian TV that was broadcast in Malta, which is now challenged by the globalisation of club football and television rights and the fragmentation brought by Cable TV and streaming.

Archbishop Charles Scicluna’s tweet lamenting on the blocking of RAI transmissions of Italy games in this Euro tournament, due to PBS rights, resonated with a generation whose football commentary was delivered by such legendary veterans as Bruno Pizzul.

Scicluna may have echoed the sensibilities of ‘traditional’ elites which hark back to a bygone era where the church hierarchy cautiously identified with the pro-Italian side in the language question: a political issue which dominated Maltese politics till the 1930s until it was settled once and for all by universal resentment against Italian bombs falling on Malta during World War II.

Past surveys by MaltaToday on football sympathies indicate a degree of historical continuity. A survey during the 2014 World Cup showed that Italy was more popular among the university-educated and PN voters, while England remained more popular among Labour voters and over-55s.

But compared to previous surveys from 2006 and 2010, it showed that while support for Italy had grown among 35-55s (8pp) the generation that grew up following Italian TV support for England was rising among those aged 18-34 the generation which grew up with cable and satellite TV and the commercialisation of club football dominated by brand names like Manchester United, the most popular club in Malta according to the same surveys.

Although overall Italy supporters were found to be slightly more numerous than British fans, demographic trends which previously favoured Italy in the perennial ‘old firm’ struggle between the former colonial rulers and our Latin neighbours, may be turning in England’s favour as a new generation largely untouched by Italian TV takes over.

Yet this may well change again due to the influx of Italian migrants in the past few years, who are bound to leave their mark on the Maltese football landscape as they settle here.

Football and politics

The 2014 survey showed that while 47% of Nationalist voters support Italy, 46% of Labour voters support England. While 34% of Labour voters support Italy, 33% of PN voters support England. But while among PN supporters support for England was slightly less than it was in 2006, support for Italy among Labour voters had increased by a remarkable 13 points. This probably reflected the massive shift which took place in the 2013 general election, which saw a massive chunk of Nationalists drifting to Labour.

Sympathy for Italy or for England also runs parallel with the lines of the political duopoly, with a majority of Nationalist voters supporting Italy and the majority of Labour supporters supporting England. This resonates with the origins of the respective parties in the opposing sides of the language divide: the PN’s origins were in irredentism, its own leadership exiled to Uganda during WWII due to fascist sympathies, while Labour was born in the British-run dockyard where knowledge of English was indispensable.

International football itself was heavily politicised with England beating Italy in the gruesome ‘battle of Highbury’ in 1934, billed as the “real World Cup final” because England had not participated in the World Cup tournament that Italy had just won. On that occasion Benito Mussolini had reportedly offered each Italian player an Alfa Romeo if they beat the English, mirroring the Italian dictator’s aspirations to supplant Britain as the master of the Mediterranean.

But irredentism was dealt a fatal blow in World War II.

Under Mintoff, Labour became more assertive in confronting British colonial authorities. His nationalism lacked the cultural dimension of pre-WWII politics. Instead, it was utilitarian, so much that in 1956, 77% of referendum voters voted for Malta to be integrated into the UK. Nationalist voters boycotted the plebiscite in opposition to integration, and Mintoff’s anti-colonial belligerence ended up driving the British middle-class to the PN.