Maltese people’s innate need to stand out and express pent-up feelings of anger generated by competitive envy may be at the root of the football rivalry that comes to a climax today as England and Italy battle it out for glory in the Euro 2020 final.

The roots of this rivalry go way back to a time when Malta was governed first by the Kingdom of the two Sicilies, then by the British – with the Great Siege and French occupation in between, among other invasions.

Malta became a British colony, although the presence of Italian culture and language remained strong. The Italian language was the official language in Malta for about four centuries – until the British took control and demanded “English and English only” in 1880, says historian Henry Frendo.

“When the British came, they tried to change a lot and purge the Italian language. This created a lot of resentment, but also lots of opportunities,” Frendo explains.

 As the years passed, Malta’s political landscape evolved to the one we recall in recent history. Many were employed with the British services or the drydocks and supported integration with the UK, a movement led by Labour leader Dom Mintoff. Then there were those who resented forced Anglicisation.

Eventually, Malta gained independence in 1964 and the British forces withdrew from Malta in 1979. But this did not spell the end of the Anglo-Italian rivalry that became ingrained in the blood of a nation known to love dichotomies.

From colonisation to football

Frendo explains how we are seeing a transfer of those loyalties and sympathies in the political sphere to the sportive one. This happened in a country which does not have a big football team but where there is the wish to associate ourselves with a big team.

“People still feel that rivalry even though the younger generation does not recall where it started from and its deep historical roots.”

Peter Paul Gauci, football enthusiast and collector of memorabilia, explains that as the Maltese started following the game, those who supported England would listen to the matches on Rediffusion while Italian fans followed them on Rai, the Italian television channel.

The rivalry re-emerges whenever the two teams play against each other.  Since 1933 this has happened 27 times. The first meeting between the two was back in 1933, when the teams drew 1-1. The same result was achieved in their last meeting in a Wembley friendly in March 2018.

As the two teams meet in their first final against each other, the stakes are high.

Gauci expects a tense match: “I have been following football for 50 years and there was never such a match. Us Maltese love to taunt each other. There will be one side celebrating victory and, in many cases, I suspect they will celebrate the opposing team’s loss more than their own victory.”

Why are we still obsessed?

But the question that begs to be asked is: Why still today? Surely the Maltese must be over the fact we were dominated and colonised centuries ago.

Anthropologist David Zammit explained that people’s relationship with football is similar to their relationship with village feasts and politics. 

“In all these fields you see people forming parties to support a club, saint or political party. These factions then engage in ritualised warfare, filled with creativity, energy and barely concealed violence. In football this violence is channelled and ritualised so as not to cause problems most of the time,” he says.

In the case of football, these rituals involve carcading, singing one’s own praises and taunting adversaries.

“For a few hours they can be the victorious warrior triumphing over their rivals, who they fantasise they want to be, but cannot be in everyday life,” he says.

In a  small society like Malta – where people usually are on their best behaviour and try not to antagonise others because they know they need to live with them – football provides an outlet to vent the pent-up emotions generated by the competitive envy characteristic of a small homogenous society that we call pika,” he says.

This involves engaging in a kind of prolonged feud which requires you to observe the conduct of your rival constantly and to seize any opportunity to outsmart him. It is born from the fact that Maltese people have traditionally been very similar to one another culturally, ethnically and socially.

“Pika breeds rivalry and this causes emotions – a sense of injustice, jealousy and the idea that I need to show others what I am worth and that I am better. And because of COVID this takes a different dimension.

“For a long time we have been denied the opportunity to celebrate. Tensions have built up. I think there will be a lot happening.”

Who will you be supporting during the Euro 2020 final and why? Send us your anecdotes or photographs at

Sign up to our free newsletters

Get the best updates straight to your inbox:
Please select at least one mailing list.

You can unsubscribe at any time by clicking the link in the footer of our emails. We use Mailchimp as our marketing platform. By subscribing, you acknowledge that your information will be transferred to Mailchimp for processing.