Last night’s victory by the Maltese national football team against Georgia was special. But not because of the huge crowd – which is always difficult to attract for a mid-summer friendly at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium. This time though, the few who were there made their presence felt, with banners dedicated to the former Malta manager Dusan Fitzel who resigned last month to battle against a serious illness.
The game was special because Malta won. That’s news. The Maltese lads fought like lions, superstar Michael Mifsud slammed home two wonderful goals to give us a famous victory in a game which was friendly only in name. When heading to the stadium, I had decided to focus on taking photos … but I got so immersed in the atmosphere of the game itself that I failed to shoot Michael’s stunning first goal – I was too busy jumping up and down and screaming!
Football competes with waterpolo as Malta’s most popular sport, and I’m one of those who’d happily watch a game anytime. Needless to say, I’ve been following the Maltese national football team – who played their first official game in 1957 at the old (now dilapidated) stadium in Gzira – ever since I was old enough to catch the bus to Ta’ Qali on my own (and before that, I’d drag my dad or mum – whoever was available at the time – despite the fact that they don’t quite love the game). When living abroad for extended periods of time, my regular outings to Ta’ Qali to see the boys in red is one of the things I miss most.
Following Malta invariably has more downs than ups. Yet, from time to time, there are moments of sublime joy – not necessarily for a victory as much as for a moment where the Maltese team shows a fighting spirit which makes you feel so proud to be Maltese. I still remember almost crying with joy when Malta scored a goal against Italy back in 1992. We lost that game 2-1 but there’s no doubt as to who were the moral winners of that game.
Some highlights of my years following the National team are a famous 2-1 victory against Hungary in 2006 and the 1-0 victory in 1994 against a World Cup bound Belgian side, with my childhood hero Carmel Busuttil scoring the winning goal against the country where he played professional football (with K.R.C. Genk). That year, also thanks to a 5-0 thrashing of Azerbaijan, Malta was actually ranked number 66 in the world! Another win I’ll never forget is a victory under the rain against Latvia back in the 1990s. What made that so memorable for me, despite the fact that it was a friendly game, is that we were only literally a handful of people battling the terrible weather and I was still barely more than a child who had gone to the stadium all on his own. I hadn’t seen Malta win a game in ages and it was so rewarding to finally get that victory. I felt that I had earned it too!
Being a Malta football supporter means that you have plenty of nightmare moments to contend with. I remember a loss against Luxembourg which hurt badly. Or those times when we are so outclassed by our opponents that we suffered humiliating defeats (too many to mention!). Sometimes, in those defeats, at least I got to admire some of the best players of our time – such as Marco Van Basten – who scored 5 goals in the same match, Swedish star Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Frenchman Thierry Henry.
One defeat which continues to haunt me and many other Maltese (though I was too young to remember it – and it occurred away from our shores) is the 12-1 loss against Spain in December 1983. You can watch the nightmare here. Every Spanish person I meet loves to mention it. Many commentators suspect foul play in that game anyway so I wouldn’t be so proud of it if I were Spanish (or Maltese, for the matter!) But then for every few batterings, there are games where the Maltese fight like lions and make up for the suffering – such as the 2-2 2007 draw with Turkey which Malta deserved to win.
Maltese support has been on the rise recently, mainly thanks to the inception of the South End Core: a group of Maltese supporters who are ever present singing along, often bringing drums and other instruments to the stadium creating a unique atmosphere. Nevertheless, the stadium only tends to full up when a famous opponent comes to town. Many people would generally be attracted by the big name players of our opponents rather than to cheer on our own players. It’s a pity that many Maltese football lovers seem to have more passion for their adopted teams (generally England or Italy – though there are also supporters of Germany, Brazil, etc.) than their own team. Admittedly, as most other Maltese, once Malta gets eliminated from a competition (which always happens at the qualifying stage, I too support another team – in this case Italy since my mother’s family is of Italian origin). But until Malta is out, chances are that whenever they play at the Ta’ Qali National Stadium I am either there cheering them on or following them from abroad, whatever the case may be.
For more information on football in Malta visit the website of the Malta Football Association.