Thursday 02 July 2020, 07:13

Malta’s long history with the beautiful game

  • Malta has a lengthy association with football dating back to the 1880s

  • The small Mediterranean island nation is a regular in UEFA competitions

  • The Malta FA celebrated its 120th anniversary this year

Malta may be one of the smallest nations in the world, but it boasts a long and rich football history unmatched by many.

The Malta Football Association [MFA] was born in 1900 - prior to the formation of FIFA - and is pre-dated by only ten European national federations. Fast forward to the present day and the country now boasts a progressive football association, one that is intent on making the most of its assets among the congested Mediterranean island nation. Their sparkling recently-renovated 17,000 capacity national stadium at Ta’Qali, which is also houses the MFA, is a symbol of their growth.

But travel a few kilometres out of the beautiful capital Valletta and one arrives at what is left of the once mighty Empire Stadium. Also known as the Gzira Stadium or simply just 'The Stadium', the long superseded national venue has the feel of an ancient Roman ruin, with nature having long reclaimed much of the once-famous sand-based pitch and its sun-warmed stone walls. But if the structure could talk, there would be thousands of stories to share, tales that reflect Malta’s football history.

There was the nation’s first international back in 1957, a 3-2 defeat against Austria. Or the ‘Match of the Century’ as local media termed England’s visit in 1971 for a UEFA European Championship qualifier. Malta’s part-timers were far from disgraced, losing by a single goal against the side crowned world champions just five years earlier. It was the first visit by a professional British team to a nation whom they had introduced football way back in 1882.

Then there were numerous visits by some of world football’s greatest clubs side to face local opposition in European competition. Manchester United, Juventus, Internazionale, Celtic, Real Madrid and Barcelona were just some of the teams to visit during the stadium’s 1960s halcyon days.

Line-up for Malta's first official international in 1957

Since becoming a UEFA and FIFA member in 1960, Malta have competed in every qualifying competition for the European Championship, and every FIFA World Cup™ campaign commencing with the 1974 edition.

Malta's first two competitive victories were against Greece and Iceland in 1975 and 1982 respectively, two nations which subsequently have qualified for the World Cup.

There have been many memorable qualifiers since on the island. West Germany’s all-star side could only manage a 3-2 win in front of a national record crowd just two years after finishing runners-up at the 1982 World Cup. Portugal had to settle for a 2-2 draw in 1987, while England relied on a late penalty save to save their blushes for a 2-1 win in a pre-UEFA EURO 2000 international.

More recently, the Reds 2020 UEFA EURO campaign included a victory over Faroe Islands, while Norway had to work hard to take a 2-1 win home from Ta’Qali.

Building new pillars

Malta’s women's football and futsal competitions are both growing rapidly in popularity. The women’s national team debuted in 2003 and progressed past the first round of qualifying for the first time during the FIFA Women’s World Cup Canada 2015™ campaign. Malta's futsal teams are now representing the country at national team and club level.

Despite obvious limitations in the densely population island nation, the Malta FA, under the guidance of MFA President Bjorn Vassallo, is undertaking a series of technical projects aimed at raising the level of the national teams and football as a whole.

An ambitious project which the MFA has embarked upon with the financial backing of UEFA is assistance to clubs to improve their playing facilities around Malta and the island of Gozo. The Mini-Pitches project has helped enhance multi-sport playing facilities in many localities as the MFA look to add another prosperous chapter to their long history.

This article is part of ‘The Global Game’ series which focuses on football away from the spotlight. Next week, our journey takes us to Madagascar.

Malta Football Association celebrate 120 years