It may surprise many to know that Maltese football has long had a strong connection to Australia. Stop raising those eye-brows! It’s simply matter of history, despite Melbourne (arguably the home of Australia’s large Maltese community) being some 9,721 miles (15,644 km) from Valletta.
As I mentioned in my article on Maltese football here, it is said that as many Maltese live outside of the country as in it. After World War II, many Maltese moved to the UK, Canada and the USA, but a great number moved Down Under to Australia, where they settled and formed a strong community. Much of this community was formed around football clubs which also acted as social clubs for the expanding number of expats and their Australian-born children.
Whilst Melbourne became the centre of the Maltese-Australian community, Sydney was also a popular choice for migrants and, today, one can see established Maltese community-based clubs such as Sydney’s Parramatta FC and also Sunshine George Cross and Green Gully Cavaliers in Melbourne.
Parramatta play at the aptly named Melita Stadium in the western Sydney suburb and also host the national Maltese Rugby League side. The club was formed in 1956 when two local Maltese clubs – Malta Eagles and Melita Soccer Club – merged to form what was known as Melita Eagles. The club was a mainstay in the News South Wales state leagues and even managed promotion to the fledgling National Soccer League (formed in 1977) in 1983. Following relegation in 1984, the club returned to the National Soccer League in 1989 and remained there until 1995 when they were relegated. The club was also forced to change its name and identity by the old Soccer Australia administration, as ethnic names and badges were banished. The club has since been competing in the New South Wales state leagues and is now a member of the NSW Super League, the highest level in the state under the nationwide Hyundai A-League.
By contrast, the two Melbourne-based clubs have remained a focus for the Maltese community in their cities. Green Gully Cavaliers were actually formed in 1955 as Ajax Soccer Club by Maltese immigrants. They adopted the green and white stripes of their favoured Floriana club back in Malta and still play in green and white today, although no longer stripes. In 1966, the club was renamed Green Gully to mirror their new home suburb. Ajax was dropped from the name in 1982 and the club competed in the National Soccer League from 1984 to 1986 inclusive. The club has since been competing in the Victoria State League.
In addition to Green Gully, Melbourne also has Sunshine George Cross which is a sister club of Green Gully. The suburb of Sunshine is the hub of Australia’s Maltese community and even lays claim to being home of the only Bank of Valletta branch in the Oceania region.
The club was formed in 1947 as George Cross Football Club by Maltese immigrants in the area. It was renamed Sunshine George Cross when it merged with Sunshine City in 1983 and competed in the National Soccer League from 1984 to 1991 inclusive. As of 1992, the club was relegated to the Victoria State League and suffered further relegation to Victoria State League Division One for the 2000 season. The club has since fluctuated between the Premier and First Divisions since then and currently sits in the latter. Despite this, the club is still well-supported and at the centre of Melbourne’s Maltese community, producing many players of Maltese descent. Such players to have represented the club include former Socceroo, Crystal Palace and Glasgow Rangers defender, Kevin Muscat, as well as Malta international, Manny Muscat, who grew up in Melbourne and played for both the Georgies and Green Gully.
Over the years, there have been many well-known Maltese-Australian players. Besides the aforementioned Kevin and Manny Muscat (not related), there has also been the likes of striker, Joe Spiteri. Capped by Australia, Spiteri spent a season with Parramatta Eagles in Sydney and also embarked on a career overseas with clubs such as Sturm Graz (Austria), Lierse (Belgium) and IFK Norrköping (Sweden) before returning to Australia.
Kevin Muscat, who I mentioned earlier in this article, is probably the most well-known Maltese-Australian footballer. The tough and uncompromising full-back carved out a very successful career for himself in England and Scotland and also won 46 caps for Australia. He began and ended his playing career with Sunshine George Cross and, besides Crystal Palace and Glasgow Rangers, he also represented Wolverhampton Wanderers (close to 200 appearances) and Millwall, before returning Down Under. He has, since 2013, been in charge of Hyundai A-League outfit, Melbourne Victory, whom he guided to Premiership and Championship glory in only his second season in charge.
But what about players who have decided to represent the country of their parents and grandparents? Yup, there are a few players who have decided to pass on the Green and Gold and find honour in representing Malta through their family ties. One of the first to do so was Peter Pullicino (left).
Born and raised in Sydney, Pullicino was a midfielder who actually played his club football in Australia with Eastern Suburbs, Sutherland Sharks and Fraser Park, before moving over to Malta in 2000 to sign for Hibernians. He spent 5 years with the club and, in his final season there, won his first call-up to the national side in the first of what would be 22 caps. His debut was against Germany, a 7-0 loss for the Maltese. Pullicino also turned out for Msida Saint-Joseph and Marsaxlokk in the Maltese Premier League.
Since retiring from playing, Pullicino has also been the Assistant Coach for both Marsaxlokk and Birkirkara. He currently coaches the Malta national Futsal side.
Current Malta Under-19’s and St. Andrews coach, Wayne Attard, is another Australian-born and raised player who has moved to his ancestral homeland. The Melbourne native also had spells with Sunshine George Cross and Green Gully as a player before moving to Malta to play for Rabat Ajax, Hamrun Spartans, Sliema Wanderers, Mosta, Marsa and Birkirkara. Attard is now in his second spell as coach of Premier League side, St. Andrews, and combines his role with the national Under-19’s management. For those interested, you can even find a video of some of Wayne Attard’s goals in Malta on YouTube. Click here.
The Current Breed
So what of today’s crop of players that mix the heritage of Malta and Australia? Well, 24-year-old full-back, Jacob Borg (left), arrived in Malta in August 2012. Of Maltese heritage but raised in Wollongong, Borg began his career with Gold Coast United’s youth setup.
The moneyed club, owned by billionaire mining magnate, Clive Palmer, were among the glamour sides of the Hyundai A-League when they entered the competition in 2008. However, with poor crowds and differences between Palmer and Football Federation Australia (FFA), the club ceased operations in 2012. Borg was therefore forced to look elsewhere to play his football and returned home to his native Illawarra region of New South Wales, where he joined up with Illawarra Premier Division side, Dapto Dandaloo United.
Still yearning to play at a higher level, and with opportunities in Australia limited, Borg decided to look to the country of his parents to progress. He took off for Malta and joined Balzan Youths, a club he was put in touch with by an agent in Sydney. He then spent the next season with the Premier League side, during which time he received his first call-up to the Maltese national squad courtesy of current coach, Pietro Ghedin. With dual Maltese-Australian citizenship and, having only been capped at Under-20 level by Australia, Borg jumped at the chance to represent his new homeland. He was duly capped on 14th August 2013 when coming on as a half-time substitute in Malta’s 3-0 loss away to Azerbaijan.
After one season with Balzan Youths, Borg joined one of Malta’s biggest clubs in Sliema Wanderers. He was later joined at the club by his brother, Daniel, who also arrived in Malta from Australia. However, after a season with Sliema, Jacob Borg moved on again. This time to Żebbuġ Rangers, but his first campaign with the club wasn’t to be the stuff of dreams as they finished bottom of the Premier League and have begun their first season back in the First Division this campaign. A pre-season trial with English Conference South side, Gosport Borough, lead to positive noises about a contract, but ultimately none was forthcoming. Borg is believed to still be with Żebbuġ at the current time.
30-year-old Emmanuel (Manny) Muscat is another player who grew from the humble surroundings of Melbourne’s Maltese State League clubs, Sunshine George Cross and Green Gully, to go onto forge a career for himself in the red and white of Malta’s national side.
Although Manny never played in Malta (to date), he has been a mainstay of the Wellington Phoenix defence. The Hyundai A-League club snapped up the full-back in 2008 and he has remained with them ever since.
Born in Melbourne’s western suburbs, a hotbed of Australia’s Maltese community (also the home to the only branch of Bank of Valletta in the Australasian continent), Manny’s parents are Maltese. When the Phoenix were approached by the Maltese Football Association (MFA) in an attempt to find overseas-born Maltese players to strengthen the national side, Muscat says he had no hesitation in joining the cause. He was subsequently to make his debut in a 1-0 friendly defeat in the Czech Republic. He has so far gone on to win a further 7 caps for Malta but has not been involved with the squad since a 3-1 loss to Croatia at Ta’Qali on 2nd September 2011.
Curiously enough, Manny Muscat’s debut in the Czech Republic in June 2009 saw him play alongside another Australian-born debutant in John Hutchinson. The Morwell-born central midfielder was drafted into the setup by the MFA by virtue of a Maltese grandmother. He had even been involved in a Socceroo training camp and played for Olyroos (Australia’s Olympic side) but was eligible to declare for Malta.
A stalwart for the Hyundai A-League’s Central Coast Mariners at the time, Hutchinson went on to win 11 caps in all. This would surely have been more but for logistical problems. Due to Australia’s distance from Malta itself, travelling for Hutchinson and Muscat became a lengthy process. Also, because of the difference in continent, the A-League very often were not on an international break when Malta’s qualifying games fell. It meant a stark choice between playing for their clubs or country a lot of the time. As a result, Hutchinson’s last game in the red and white of Malta was a 2-0 home loss to Israel on the 11th October 2011. He has now since retired from playing and is currently the Assistant Coach with his beloved Central Coast Mariners back in Australia.
But the most recent Maltese-Australian arrival to Maltese shores is another Melbourne-born player. This time it’s striker, Adrian Zahra (right), who had a very brief but successful spell in the Maltese capital with Valletta.
Signed at the beginning of the 2014/15 season, Zahra moved to Malta after his contract expired with the Hyundai A-League’s Perth Glory. He had also previously turned out for Melbourne Heart and Victoria State League side, Melbourne Knights, before his arrival in Valletta. He managed 2 goals in 6 appearances for the Lillywhites but decided to head home to Melbourne after financial cutbacks were enforced on the Maltese club.
Upon his arrival back in Australia, Zahra stated that he had indeed enjoyed testing himself in the Maltese league but that Valletta’s board had deemed cutbacks necessary when it became clear a Champions League place was no longer possible. Zahra is now back in his native Melbourne and playing once again for Port Melbourne in the Victoria State League. But aged just 25, the striker has high hopes of securing a move to a higher level in the future.
It remains to be seen whether Australian-born players will continue to make their way to Malta to play their football. The promise of a place in the Champions League or Europa League certainly acts as a pretty strong pull for some players, but questions are often raised by some of those players when they arrive to find the BOV Premier League standard weaker than at home. Adrian Zahra was one such player who was not wholly convinced by the standard of play and facilities in the league.
One player who has made the trip currently is Richard Cardozo. The 29-year-old journeyman striker signed for Naxxar Lions this season after turning out for a number of clubs in Australia, New Zealand, Austria and Switzerland. He has represented Australia at Under-17 level but, being of Argentine and Uruguayan descent, is not eligible to represent Malta.
Which leads us onto the national side. Do the MFA see their experiment with capping Australia-born Maltese as a failure? Manny Muscat and John Hutchinson failed to make 20 appearances for Malta between them. Jacob Borg has won a sole cap. As mentioned, the logistics and costs certainly don’t help. But with Malta’s ageing squad and another qualifying campaign of finishing bottom of the group, as with the European Championship Qualifiers for 2016, a new injection of talent may be necessary. Much of this will depend on which direction the MFA take. Pietro Ghedin may decide his second spell ends here. He has certainly not used Maltese-born players aggressively. But the if the MFA decide to cast their nets Down Under again, they may just find a few players worth taking a chance on with Melita blood flowing their veins…
For those interested, further reading can be found at the following sites: