Malta

31 Jan

28 January 2012

Bank of Valletta Premier Division

Birkirkara FC 00  v  Floriana FC 01

Sliema Wanderers 00 v Valletta FC 00 (att 1,585)

Ta’Qali National Stadium, Malta

Pre-match warm-up. Well, another jolly away from South London but with a spate of midweek postponements and general lack of activity around the unblogged grounds of South London, I’ve been forced to stick up another tales from afar.

This week, I was convinced to visit the land of my father and home to multiple relatives. After 72 hours of visiting over 17 of the extended Masini tribe, I was reduced to a moment of stubbornness befitting of my status as an only-child and demanded some well researched ‘me time’. The kind of me time that meant my darling wife and less darling family could officially bugger off for an afternoon whilst I went to the football.

Team(s) talk. Malta is a football bloggers haven. Every weekend, you can get a look at all twelve teams in the Bank of Valletta Premier Division with two games played back-to-back on each of Friday, Saturday and Sunday across the Ta’Qali in the middle of the island, the Victor Tedesco Stadium in the upmarket Valletta suburb of Hamrun and the Hibernians Stadium in Paola. Consequently no team is really ever ‘at home’, even Hibs and Hamrun Spartans play home games at the other grounds.

Last Saturday saw four of the top five sides in the league meet in the Maltese equivalent of Super Sunday at the National Stadium in Ta’Qali.

Birkirkara are somewhat pretenders to the throne having only won their first league title in the 1999/2000 season. That said, they won a further two titles, most recen tly in 2009/2010. Their performance in this 2010’s Champions League was also an unheralded success. Not only did they accomplish the impossible and progress from the 1st qualifying round, but they even had Czech (former conqueror of Rangers) Zilina on the ropes after a 1st leg 1-0 win at Ta’Qali. Despite this, a fourth league title looks a wee way off as the Stripes sit some way back in 5th.

Their opponents were 3rd placed Floriana, a side who despite having one of the most successful histories in Maltese Football, haven’t won a league title since 1993. They are, I suppose, the Liverpool of the league, perhaps without the irritating scroat of a manager or northern pony-tails…but probably just as many racists.

Floriana are probably my least favourite team in Malta due to their green and white hooped kits and all that those colours represent. Founded by the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1894, Floriana were so keen to build on their Irish connections that they turned to former League of Ireland journeyman and Carlisle United manager, Roddy Collins which was swiftly followed by a partnership agreement with Shamrock Rovers. Neither relationship with the Emerald Isle lasted very long and Collins was back in Ireland quicker than you can say “Ryanair hidden surcharges”.

The second match saw two of the powerhouses of the Maltese game face off. Reigning championsValletta have twenty league titles to their name (and that of their pre-merger incarnations: Valletta Prestons, Valletta St. Paul’s and Valletta United) and currently sit atop the league. The Whites have been able to attract a number of higher profile Maltese and international players (well, Jordi Cruyff) in recent times. Currently former Coventry City midfielder Michael Mifsud has returned to the island of his birth to play for Valletta and is seen as some sort of prodigal son despite never previously playing for Valletta and turning out for Sliema Wanderers in nearly 100 games. Disappointingly, former Macclesfeld Town goalie and the only Rosbif on any of the four rosters, Matt Towns, was on the bench.

Sliema Wanderers have won more titles in Maltese football than any other side. A whopping 26 titles have come their way but they haven’t tasted success in over 5 years. Currently sitting 4th and some way back, they look unlikely to challenge again this year.

Park the bus.  Travel in Malta is always pretty easy and hopping over to Ta’Qali is no different. The 52 or 53 bus from Valletta takes 20 minutes and will drop you a few hundred metres from the ground. Alternatively, a taxi will set you back around 15 euros (or less than 10 if you speak Maltese).

The Empire Strikes Black (and white)...sorry

Homefield advantage. There’s been a stadium in Ta’Qali since 1980 when the charismatic Maltese Prime Minister (and fan of belts), Dom Mintoff, requested a stadium be built to replace the outdated Empire Stadium.

Herein lies the long and chequered history of Ta’Qali and in many ways, Malta’s development as a whole. Whilst the stadium opened for business in 1981, it was far from complete and the works to complete the ground were stunted for the next 20 years by parliamentary wrangling and an ever-changing party-political landscape where single-seat parliamentary majorities are the norm. Viewed as a signature of the Malta Labour Party, the Malta Nationalists refused to do very much to improve the stadium. I recall seeing Malta lose 6-0 to Holland in 1995 in a storm that turned the unsurfaced car park into 4 foot of mud, the result of obdurate politicians who refused to complete another party’s project.

However, common sense comes to all men…eventually, and in 1999 a wholesale renovation of the ground was ordered by Nats Prime Minister (and fan of waxwork popes) Fenech Adami. This led to the opening of the Millennium Stand a stand that hasn’t actually changed on the inside of the ground, but housed a new office for the Maltese Football Federation.

Inside, the Millennium Stand is basic but provides adequate shelter from both the sun and rain and features a small corporate hospitality area on the upper tier. The Millennium is probably the closest thing to a Pigeon Stand that Ta’Qali can offer, although there wasn’t a pigeon in sight; instead there was a baffling array of thrushes, flycatchers and warblers. Alive, a rare sight in Malta. Dead, sadly very common.

The new West Stand looks decent. It wouldn’t look out of place in any normal stadium and was the busier area at the game with all the ‘Ultras’, bar those supporting Birkirkara, favouring it’s ample shelter. Birkirkara sat through the drizzle with a voice of general surly discontent. They were ace.

Both the North and South Stands were closed and remain so unless there’s a big international. The ground’s 17,000 capacity is rarely threatened.

Tickets are purchased from a series of windows next to the turnstiles. Because I was running a bit late I didn’t have time to scope out the busier West Stand and headed for the Millennium where I purchased my ticket. Just 6 euros for 2 games.

Merchandising was restricted to a table full of Valletta swag: Two types of wall clocks, a calendar, FOUR types of tracksuit, not to mention the usual hats and scarves. This was a bounty that almost rivalled the Sutton United club shop and made the merch table at Champion Hill look rather spartan (good job Dulwich have a new merch shed).

Blurry merch heaven

Prawn sandwiches. Refreshments in the Millennium Stand are served from a tiny hatch in the tea coop: A prison of beverages and stacks to rival the great Leatherhead beer cage at Fetcham Grove. A pint of locally-brewed (and mighty fine) beer will set you back less than 2 euros but a chilly afternoon called for 80c coffee, served black; for you see, in Malta, milk is for pussies. Various crisps and chocolates were retailing around the standard 50c to 90c mark and whilst there we no pies to be had, a large slice of pizza (probably about 10 by 7 inches) was yours for 2 euros. Had it not been for a big lunch, I’d have been on it quicker than an Arsenal-supporting prison rapist on Harry Redknapp’s soon to be incarcerated behind.

UNLEASH THE SNACKS!

…and the game(s). Two games, one goal. Not ideal but nevertheless a pair of interesting games interwoven with the sounds of Jurassic Park: The Official Soundtrack at half-time and between matches. The first game was a lot more free-flowing with both sides having a go right to the end. Floriana were clearly the better side and look like the most competent of the four teams on show. Floriana striker Ivan Woods caused problems for the Stripes defence throughout the game and was rewarded with a goal 20 minutes before the end with a well worked breakaway goal to send the Floriana support away happy.

At the conclusion of match one, there was a quick turnaround. In less than 10 minutes, flags and banners were removed and new ones erected. There were nods of mutual respect between the clubs supporters as they got to work fastening/unfastening their respective signs from the North and South Stands.

On the pitch too, there was a speedy rotation. Within minutes of one set of 22 men disappearing, another 22 arrived. Seemingly, the players in the second game warm up on the pitch next door, that or they go about it like real men and do a couple of half-hearted lunges before bossing an entire 90 minutes.

Valletta and Sliema played out a relatively uneventful 0-0. Michael Mifsud was orchestrating throughout and the pocket rocket was visibly frustrated by the quality of the admittedly poor service. In the end it was Mifsud who was at fault after missing a late penalty with a weak effort that was easily turned away by Wanderers’ keeper, Henry Bonello.

Man of the match. Super Sunday at Ta’Qali. A sell out, no? No. Sadly, football in Malta revolves around Serie A and, more prominently, the English Premier League. So on a day when millionaire mercenaries of the Liverpool Red Sox and Manchester Buccaneers did battle at Anfield, finding anyone willing to go and watch their local Maltese teams was a struggle. Yet those who turned out were largely vocal and had a heck of a time. Half English cheering support, half Italian chanting, it was an interesting mix. I particularly enjoyed the ESL version of “When the Greens Go Marching In” by the Floriana loyal.

However, my man of the match has to go to Valletta’s ‘Beltin Ultras’ trumpeter. A rare honour bestowed by me as I hate musical accompaniment on the terraces. That England band that got free tickets for years, Portsmouth John, Manolo El Del Bombo: They can all fuck right off. It’s gimmicky nonsense. However, the Valletta trumpeter is a rare and beautiful talent. Instead of a 90 minute barrage, the lad picked is moments launching into a dazzling array of hits: the Lambada, Ob-la-di-ob-la-da, the match of the day theme, Rivers of Babylon and a classic blast of “here we go, here we go, here we go”. Outstanding stuff.

Ultras Beltin. Passenger seat advice that we call learn from

Post-match rubdown. Malta isn’t exactly renowned for its football but there are still plenty of opportunities to take in a game or two (or six) if you find yourself on the island. Tickets are cheap and readily available and on a nice sunny afternoon, it’s highly recommended. Maybe less so on a chilly January afternoon. That said, it’s live football and if you prefer to sample a bit of local sub-culture instead of sitting in a bar watching the Premiership. You’ll be assured of a warm welcome and four hours of tolerable sport.  

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One Response to “Malta”

  1. David 6 February 2012 at 5:15 pm #

    Maybe I should start supporting Floriana while I’m over here…

    Great post all the same, I plan on checking out a couple of games but will probably take your advice and wait for the weather to pick up a little. The dictionary definition of a ‘fair-weather fan’!

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