Construction company Joseph Portelli Projects is the main sponsor of at least seven sports teams, one boċċi competition and three band clubs in Malta and Gozo, outspending by far any other construction or property-related company.
These include the Bormla Regatta Club, Ħamrun Spartans FC, the University of Malta Futsal team, St Julian’s waterpolo club; and Nadur Youngsters FC, Qala Saints FC, and Żebbuġ Rovers FC in Gozo.
Until the recent past, banks, insurance and beverage companies and even tobacco producers were among the main sponsors of most sport competitions and feasts, but that baton appears to have been passed on to Portelli and other contractors, most of whom sponsor their local team.
The Gozitan construction mogul has garnered the most popularity in Ħamrun. During his tenure as president, Ħamrun Spartans FC won the premier league in the 2020/21 season and recently managed a historical run in Europe, becoming the first local team to reach the play-off round of a UEFA club competition.
Arriving from a triumphant win in Europe, fans chanted Portelli’s name first as the Spartans squad passed through the airport arrivals gate.
Club songs have also been written in his honour, including a remix of Inti Djamant (You are a diamond).
The Ħamrun Spartans president is also honorary president of the Ħamrun band club Għaqda tal-Mużika San Gejtanu.
Across the channel, in his hometown Nadur, Portelli was even fielded by the village football team, Nadur Youngsters, coming on as a substitute and scoring a penalty last April.
Portelli was president of the club before resigning in October 2020 to concentrate on the Spartans. His son Tristen has taken over as club president since then.
"His purchase power is a way into institutions and traditions"
A Gozitan boċċi competition also carries the company’s namesake ‘J. Portelli Projects Knock Out Competition’, however the last reference to the competition was through a Facebook status two years ago and the competition is no longer taking place.
Portelli is also a patron of village festas in Ħamrun and Żabbar in Malta and Nadur in Gozo.
In Nadur, an image of Portelli was controversially used to depict St John the Evangelist on a festa banner for the feast of St Peter and St Paul.
In Żabbar, a J.P Projects flag was seen flying during the traditional morning march last Saturday on the Blue side, associated with the band club Soċjetà Filarmonica Maria Mater Gratiæ.
'I give because I enjoy others enjoying themselves'
Asked about his motivations to sponsor so many entities, Portelli said: “I give many sponsorships, but I do not do it to advertise myself. I give because I enjoy watching others enjoy themselves. They advertise my company out of respect and nothing more.”
But activist and writer Wayne Flask believes Portelli’s intentions might not be so pure, and warned “beware of developers bearing gifts”.
“I think Portelli believes in all his investments, and surely thinks of clubs in the same way. Through his sponsorships, he is buying up sympathy: his purchase power is a way into institutions and traditions for whom local communities carry a deep affection. This means that communities may find it hard to mobilise against any of his monstrosities,” said Flask, a regular critic of Portelli and other construction moguls.
Sociologist Michael Briguglio said that there are several reasons why a wealthy person or company might want to sponsor a sports team or organisation.
A successful developer could be giving back something to the community as a form of corporate social responsibility, and this happens in many places, Briguglio said.
However, there might always be more malignant intentions, he said.
“He might be trying to buy legitimacy. Portelli is responsible for several controversial projects and so, sponsoring different sports clubs and organisations can be a way to improve his public image,” the sociologist said.
The culture of patrimony is part and parcel of the Maltese way of life.
A 2019 paper titled ‘How Smallness Fosters Clientelism: A Case Study of Malta’ by political scientist Wouter Veenendaal, emphasises how Maltese politics is dominated by patron-client relationships.Similarly, sociology professor Mario Vassallo said that to understand Malta, the parish and parochialism must be considered. Entrepreneurs and politicians often sponsor and pay for many initiatives in their hometown.
For example, Żaren Vassallo and Anġlu Xuereb are known for donating a lot of money to their respective parishes in Mosta and Naxxar, he said.
Band clubs usually have honorary presidents who are either politicians or entrepreneurs form the village, Vassallo said.
While first sponsoring their own hometown out of a genuine intrinsic affinity, entrepreneurs like Portelli might expand to other areas to expand their corporate image, this is a political move but not necessarily negative, said Vassallo, who specialises in public policy.
This is seen internationally as multinational companies buy and sponsor big teams like Manchester City or Liverpool, he said.