BY MARK KOHN-HEATON
Malta is a small island nation in the Mediterranean with a rich culture and a turbulent colonial past. Located just 60 miles from Sicily at their closest points, you would be forgiven for thinking Malta was an Italian island: the native people look Italian; they have a cuisine which features local pasta; Italian architecture abounds and even the language sounds somewhat Italian.
Yet, despite most Maltese being able to speak Italian at a reasonable level, were you to attempt to converse in a very rusty Italian (such as mine), they would most probably switch to a perfectly-spoken English with their typical, melodic Maltese inflexion. You see, Malta hasnâ€™t been ruled by Italy (despite Mussoliniâ€™s attempts to convince otherwise in the 1930s) â€“ or rather, the Kingdom of Sicily â€“ since the early 1800s when it was under the joint protection of Sicily and Great Britain. The French had invaded two years prior. However, the Maltese in typical, fiery southern European spirit, rebelled against Napoleonâ€™s troops with the Sicilians and British coming to their aid.
The British decided to outstay their welcome (at least according to the 19th Century French), controlling the Maltese islands till 1964 when the Maltese voted for independence. To this day, you can clearly find remnants of Maltaâ€™s British past in the Royal Mail style post boxes; the few Victorian-style houses that havenâ€™t been knocked down in place of obnoxious-looking flats; the fact that cars are driven on the left-hand side of the road; the British style electrical plug sockets; the British-sounding first names of Maltese people; and naturally, the variant of English that the Maltese learn at school. Iâ€™m sure you could find even more examples. Despite all this though, there is also a kinship with Sicily and by extension, Italy.
So where does this kinship originate from? The Maltese are very proud of their history, particularly of the fact that they had been ruled and protected by the Knights of St. John (a religious order then based in Sicily) for nearly 300 years before the French and British arrived. The cross-symbol (unrelated to the George cross found on the national flag which was awarded by King George VI of the UK for bravery during WW2) used by those very knights still survives as the national emblem of Malta and, importantly, the Knights of St. John helped re-established Malta as a Roman Catholic nation after a Norman rule that found itself with a Muslim majority after the Arab conquest of Sicily and Malta.
Undeniably then, there is a religious factor which intrinsically links Malta to Italy. Malta is one of the most Catholic nations on Earth and on average, has 1 or more churches per square kilometre. Its neighbour, Italy, is home to the Pope and millions of Catholics more. The United Kingdom, on the other hand, is de facto spiritually represented by its largest religious group and the official state religion of England which is, well, the Church of England; it isnâ€™t quite totally Protestantism but it definitely isnâ€™t Catholicism, either.
Nevertheless, if thereâ€™s one thing in this world that I believe can match the passion and fervour of religion, itâ€™s football. Malta is no different in that respect. One can be a dedicated Catholic, Maltese man (or woman) and still be absolutely mad about watching very wealthy young men kick a ball around for 90 minutes. The Maltese have enjoyed watching football for over 100 years since the formation of the first Maltese league in 1909. However, Maltese fans are under no illusions about the quality and reach of their football.
When it comes time to support the national team in the European and World Cup qualifiers, none of it matters â€“ they just want the team to give its all and they will get right behind them. The Maltese unite. Only when itâ€™s crunch time and the tournaments start, do people start loosening their grip on their interlocked hands; itâ€™s not out of bitterness or anger that Malta didnâ€™t reach the main event (although that is a side issue and a longstanding dream for many), itâ€™s out of a choice that can divide family and friends â€“ do you support England or Italy?
Historically, Italy has without a doubt been more successful than England, boasting 4 World Cup, 1 European Championship (Euros) and 1 Olympic Games wins. Englandâ€™s solitary major tournament win is, of course, the 1966 World Cup won on home turf. However, in recent times both teamsâ€™ performances have declined, and particularly Italyâ€™s within the last 4 years, most notable in their absence from the World Cup this summer â€“ Italyâ€™s first failure to qualify in 60 years â€“ whilst England, on the other hand,Â had their best finish in 28 years.
Itâ€™s curious how some records can sometimes synchronise with polarising results, but is the footballing fanbase in Malta just as polarised? In a recent online poll conducted in a Malta residents Facebook group, â€œFeel@Homeâ€, participants were given a choice of selecting who they support, whether it be: â€œPost-World Cup: Still Italyâ€, â€œPost-World Cup: Still Englandâ€, â€œPost-World Cup: Now Italyâ€, â€œPost World-Cup: Now Englandâ€, â€œOtherâ€. Out of the choices, â€œPost-World Cup: Still Italyâ€, â€œPost-World Cup: Still Englandâ€ tied for 1st place, followed by â€œOtherâ€ and 1 result for â€œPost World-Cup: Now Englandâ€.
Looking at the totals including â€œNow Englandâ€, it appears England has the slight edge for support from the Maltese, however, there is obviously still considerable support for Italy, tied for 1st place in â€œStill Italyâ€ vs â€œStill Englandâ€ and Italy didnâ€™t even participate in the 2018 World Cup. Whilst this isnâ€™t a definitive analysis by any measure, it does give a rough idea where Maltese loyalties currently lie on a national level â€“ simply put, some people root for England, whilst others root for Italy. It comes down to personal opinion, rather than something about which we can make a blanket statement saying one team is more loved than the other.
Definitive or not, itâ€™s clear that from the horns blaring in traffic every time England won a game this summer; from the people who pass you by wearing an Italian club or Italian national football shirt; from the â€˜benvenutoâ€™s to the â€˜welcomeâ€™s as you sit down for dinner; Malta is a small nation of many tribes with a big heart that beats as one. Their blood, sweat and tears coursing through every street of this island, given willingly for their â€˜imÄ§abbaâ€™ (love) of the beautiful game.
FOLLOW MARK ON TWITTER @MarkKHwords