As I write this piece, I’ve been back from the beautiful Mediterranean country of Malta for a day. I had originally planned to pen this article while I was on the island but time and beautiful scenery meant my plans had to be altered slightly.
For those not familiar with Malta, the island archipelago is a small speck (roughly 122 sq miles / 316 sq kilometres) in the southern Mediterranean Sea. Sitting roughly 50 miles south of the Italian island of Sicily, the Maltese Islands consist primarily of three masses – Malta, Comino and Gozo. Whilst Gozo does actually have its own unofficial national team and FA (affiliated to the NF-Board), the island does actually count as Malta in the eyes of UEFA and FIFA.
Malta is a mecca for tourists keen to feed their addictions to sun, culture and excellent cuisine. Rarely though, has the country been mentioned in a football sense off its own shores.
I first visited Malta in 1989 and, as a football-mad 9-year-old, decided I was going to try and find out as much as I could about the game on the islands in a 2 week stay. Staying in Sliema (part of the major conurbation on the island of Malta), it naturally happened that I was a visitor to the Sliema Wanderers supporters club. The club had just won the Maltese Championship that season and the town was full of pride for its side of dark and sky blue. T-shirts, posters and a replica shirt were included in the suitcase by the time of my return to the UK.
This time, some 26 years later, I decided to return with my partner, Julie. Prior to departure, I made sure there was either a national team or league game on, and marked it in the iCal as a must see. I have, over the years, developed a fondness for Valletta FC when it comes to Malta. The side from the capital are arguably the best followed side in the country and recently visited British shores after being drawn against Newtown AFC of the Welsh League in the Europa League Qualifiers. The Citizens were however beaten over two legs – 2-1 in Wales and 2-1 again back in Malta.
Match Day (Birkirkara v Valletta)
After seeing that Valletta were “away” to potential title-challengers, Birkirkara, on the Sunday evening, we made our way to the national stadium at Ta’Qali. The reason I have referred to the game as being “away” is because Malta is a little different to most countries. The vast majority of clubs do not have access to their own stadiums. In one word, this is down to “size”. Malta simply does not have the land to accommodate countless stadia and, as such, many play their home games at the same stadiums. One such stadium is the national team’s ground in Ta’Qali, which is also the headquarters for the Maltese Football Association.
Upon arriving at Ta’Qali on a warm and sunny Sunday evening, we could hear a lot of shouting and the sounds of collective groans and sighs as chances were missed. We decided to circumnavigate the stadium and found there was in fact another game going on at the stadium next door, Centenary Stadium. Although we couldn’t see who was playing, it wasn’t a BOV (Bank of Valletta) Premier League game, which lead me to deduce that it was a 1st, 2nd or 3rd Division fixture being played out.
Eventually we found a ticket booth, on the other side of the National Stadium and, upon seeing my Valletta FC home shirt which I had just purchased in the capital, we were politely told to use the ticket booth at the far end of the stadium. This booth was only for Birkirkara supporters. So off we trundled, past the Birkirkara entrance, past the VIP entrance and eventually to the next ticket booth. A modest €7 gets you entry to a top-flight game in Malta so we gladly parted with our collective €14 and then made our way through the security searches and barcode-operated turnstiles that are so common worldwide these days.
The National Stadium is a tidy ground. An all-seater arena that holds some 17,797 spectators, it has all the mod cons you’d expect from a national stadium. The two ends are open seating but the two sides are covered (for the best part) with plenty of leg room between rows – something that is sadly lacking from most English grounds these days. And so, after buying an ice cold pint of Cisk (Malta’s local lager – I can highly recommend it), we took our seats behind the mezzanine section.
As an added bonus, we took our seats to find that a Premier League game’s 2nd half was about to begin. As the stadium is shared between many club sides, the 5pm kick-off still had 45 minutes left to play and so we settled down to watch Balzan v Tarxien Rainbows. There were a few supporters from both clubs on either side of the VIP section, and they all displayed their colourful banners and flags. Sadly the enthusiasm in the stands was not matched by the players on the pitch. A pretty dull 2nd half saw no goals and so it ended 0-0, with Tarxien’s goalkeeper, Andrea Cassar, pulling off 3 superb saves to keep his side level.
During the aforementioned 2nd half, the Valletta and Birkirkara supporters began turning up in numbers and sharing the halves of the stand with Balzan and Tarxien Rainbows fans respectively. It was fascinating to watch the Valletta fans in our section erect their banners on all available fences, but so they were underneath the Tarxien banners until their game had finished. I doubt whether we’d ever see that kind of co-operation between fans of rival clubs in England, but it was great to see.
By the time Birkirkara v Valletta kicked off at 7pm, the sun was setting on a stunning evening and the crowds were gathered at either end of the stand. Birkirkara’s fans made a lot of noise as well as Valletta’s and painted their end of the stand in red and yellow banners. Valletta fans did likewise with our end in red and white. And make no mistake, there was a grudge-like quality to this game. Both clubs are successful rivals in Malta and have won the league title 7 times in the last 10 seasons between them. Valletta have the edge 4 to Birkirkara’s 3. An added plot line was Valletta’s coach, Paul Zammit, whom he joined this summer from none other than Birkirkara.
Far from being given a hard time by Birkirkara’s fans, Zammit was actually given a standing ovation by them prior to kick-off. Birkirkara’s coach on the other hand is Italian, Giovanni Tedesco, who had played for Fiorentina, Genoa and Palermo, among others, in his native country.
Despite going out of the Europa League to Newtown AFC at the first qualifying round, Valletta had actually won their first 2 games of the league campaign, including a 1-0 win against heavyweights, Sliema Wanderers. Birkirkara, on the other hand, had won and drawn a game. Both sides wanted to remain unbeaten and not to give up any ground to each other at this early stage. In the 2014-15 campaign, Valletta and Birkirkara had finished 2nd and 3rd respectively, so they wanted to set an early marker for their title credentials this time around.
It’s fair to say that Birkirkara started off the stronger of the two sides with Malta international midfielder, Rowen Muscat, pulling the strings. A regular for the national side, the 24-year-old covered what seemed like every blade of grass for his side and looks a real talent. I had seen him previously playing for Malta and, despite having only just extended his contract with Birkirkara, a betting man would put money on him moving abroad soon. This would be despite a 7 game spell with Hungarian club, Dunaújváros, during the 2014-15 season.
Birkirkara deservedly struck first through Brazilian striker, Liliu, on 39 minutes and it looked as though The Stripes (as Birkirkara are known) would be heading into the break in front. However, Valletta hit back on 44 minutes through Argentine striker, Federico Falcone, as he bravely connected with a 50/50 to lob the ball over Birkirkara’s on-rushing goalkeeper, Justin Haber.
In the 2nd half, it was again The Stripes who started the stronger of the two sides. A draw may well have been a fair result over the 90 minutes but it was an inspired substitute by Paul Zammit that saw Cameroonian winger, Njongo Priso, introduced on 76 minutes that changed everything. Now in his second spell with the club, Priso darted into the Birkirkara box, skipped a challenge and fired hard and low past Haber to give the Citizens the points and condemn Birkirkara to a first defeat of the season.
The official crowd was listed as 2,883. This may sound like small change for some readers perusing this article, but the atmosphere created by both sets of supporters was absolutely outstanding. The colour and noise generated by both sets of fans was better than the majority of English Premier League fans. This is primarily because the game in England has sold its soul and everything is banned from stadiums these days. For instance, the National Stadium had a reasonable police presence, but they were quite happy to let fans do their thing and back their sides so long as there was no trouble. Fans were openly standing a drinking beers in the mezzanine to watch the game but, you know what? It made for a fantastic atmosphere that everyone could enjoy. Kids and women were numerous in the crowd too and it made me wonder if the English game could actually learn something from this tiny country.
Having watched one-and-a-half games of top-flight football in Malta, I’d say that the standard of play is probably equal to the higher reaches of Conference South / North and the lower reaches of the Conference National in England. This is not intended as a criticism – Malta is a small country with only 450,000 inhabitants. But a good barometer to help with that conclusion, would be Birkirkara defender, Joseph Zerafa, who played against Valletta this past Sunday.
Zerafa spent 9 years with Birkirkara up until the beginning of last season when he moved to Grays Athletic in England’s Ryman Premier League (one of the league’s below the Conference South in the pyramid). He played a dozen games for the Essex side before joining his boss Jody Brown at Conference National side, Welling United. However, he failed to make an appearance for the Kent side and returned to sign for Birkirkara this season.
That said, there were some players on show who could easily play at a higher level. Birkirkara’s Rowen Muscat, whom I mentioned earlier, is definitely capable of performing at a higher level again. He was superb against Valletta and also performed well for Malta the previous weekend against Azerbaijan in a European Championship Qualifier. He was named Man of the Match by Malta’s popular English-speaking daily newspaper, Times of Malta, and rightly so in my opinion.
As the profile of the game in Malta rises, and more bigger names are attracted, the game will surely flourish more and more. The national side were unlucky to lose 1-0 in Italy in the last round of Euro Qualifiers, before earning a 2-2 draw with Azerbaijan in their second game. More and more Maltese players are seeking their fortunes abroad too. Goalkeeper, Andrew Hogg, now plays for AEL Kalloni in the Greek Superleague. Defender, Steve Borg, is now with Aris Limassol in Cyprus, while André Schembri – a striker – is now with Omonia Nicosia, also in Cyprus. Also, the likes of experienced veteran striker, Michael Mifsud, has returned to the country after a long career abroad in Germany, Norway, England and Australia.
Malta also has the luxury of being able to call on players from a large diaspora. It’s estimated that as many Maltese live abroad as live in Malta itself, and this is never more evident than in Australia. Melbourne-born, Manny Muscat, and Gippsland-born, John Hutchinson, have both been capped by Malta through parentage or ancestry. And the fact that Maltese-based clubs in Australia such as Sunshine George Cross, Green Gully and Parramatta FC all produce players of Maltese descent, means that the diaspora is an avenue that could continue to be open to Pietro Ghedin in his national side selections.
Birkirkara gave West Ham a real game over two legs in the Europa League qualifying rounds this season, losing only 1-0 in the two games. That said, many feel that Valletta should have progressed further in the same competition. Losing over two legs to a team from the Welsh Premier League was a hammer blow. Balzan also went out of the Europa League first qualifying round to Bosnian side Željezničar. A 2-0 home loss and a second away loss by 1-0 was enough to see the side eliminated.
Hibernians represented Malta in the Champions League this season after winning the BOV Premier League title last season. They beat Maccabi Tel Aviv of Israel 2-1 in the first home leg in July. However, they were then comprehensively beaten 5-1 in the second away leg, ending Maltese interest in the competition.
The standard of the game is improving and is attracting more and more players from foreign climes. Gone are the days when only little known English imports made up the foreign-born rosters of Maltese clubs. Players are joining from all four corners of the globe and one coaching arrival this summer raised eyebrows. Luís Oliveira, the ex-Belgium international, was appointed the coach of Floriana. The Brazilian-born former striker won 31 caps for his adopted nation and represented some major clubs such as Anderlecht, Cagliari, Fiorentina and Bologna and brings a wealth of experience to the league, having also managed in Italy.
Exciting times ahead for Malta and all players and fans alike. And I would like to say that all Valletta and Birkirkara fans can be proud of the game they served up on Sunday. The fans too produced an absolutely fantastic atmosphere and a great night out. This writer will definitely be back again soon, and I will shortly be posting some advice on how to get information on attending games in Malta for any tourists out there who are visiting the islands. Stay tuned to this website for that.