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Thursday, 1 June, 2000, 17:34 GMT 18:34 UK
Maltese mad keen on England
By Chris Green in Malta.
Kevin Keegan and his team are assured a warm welcome when they step out to play their final warm-up game before Euro 2000 in Malta this Saturday.
This sleepy Mediterranean island may not be noted for its footballing prowess - but its supporters are among the keenest in the world - and they are particularly passionate about English football.
"It's our colonial past," says John Buttigieg, chairman of the 1,000-strong Maltese Manchester United Supporters Club.
"When the European Championships start, every time England win, we'll be in the streets hooting."
"'We're split 50-50 between England and Italian supporters," Buttigieg adds.
I was in Malta the night secured their passage to the 1998 World Cup finals thanks to a dogged 0-0 draw in Italy.
The streets of Sliema, Malta's second largest town, were gridlocked as cars crawled through the streets, their drivers waving flags, hooting their horns, playing Baddiel and Skinner's Three Lions at full blast on their stereos.
"We do it to tease each other," says Valletta FC fan, Joe Scicluna, who sides with Italy.
When we meet he sports an Italian team shirt - deliberately to wind me up because the Azzuri had just beaten England in the Under 21 championships.
Most Maltese support an English or Italian club or both - and not just the big teams.
I have met Blackpool, Derby County, Stoke City and West Brom fans who knew the intricate workings of their club.
"I think they will back Malta at the start and then cheer England later in the game," says Henry Brincat, the sports editor of the Malta Independent newspaper.
He remembers England's last match here - a narrow 1-0 win in 1971.
"The atrmosphere was laid-back, but there was a slight edge because the English press referred to the Maltese as a team of waiters," he recalls.
"Some fans sang 'We may be waiters - but you are bastards'."
England can expect a warmer welcome on Saturday. Tickets were snapped up in record time.
"For England it will be like playing at home," says Henry.
But some, like Radio Malta presenter Ray Calleja, hope the fans won't turn against their own country.
"I'll be the first to condemn anyone who supports England," he said.
"There's been a lot of debate about the extremes we go to when we celebrate other nations' victories. Some say it makes us look stupid."
Heaven knows what might happen if Malta, who are ranked 117th in the world, manage a result against England.
Their best hopes rest with the slender figure of the Maltese League's top scorer, 19-year-old Michael Mifsud, dubbed "the Maltese Michael Owen".
If England are warming up for Euro 2000 - so are the Maltese fans.
"We'll back Malta for this game - and then get behind England for the European Championships," says John Buttigieg.
There will be no noisier corner of Europe.
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