Love Letters To The European Union: Malta Smile 75

On the 29th March 2019, the United Kingdom is (currently) scheduled to exit the European Union. To celebrate forty-six years of peacetime and prosperity in Europe, this season we’ll be profiling the footballing history of each remaining member of the EU, looking at some of their most iconic matches and the players that have left a lasting impression on the game. Once again we’ve got a minnow in our sights, as we head to the country with the second lowest win ratio in UEFA. On the plus side, it’s a nation steeped in history, heroism and honey, home to three UNESCO World Heritage Sites, honoured for its bravery in the Second World War, and habitat of a unique species of bee. Enough of the teasers – this is Malta. 

 

The Player: Michael Mifsud

Mifsud

What links Tony Barras, Darren Ambrose, and Michael Mifsud? No, it’s not that they all sound like people you’d hire to sort out a leak in your kitchen. They’ve all silenced Old Trafford with goals that helped knock Manchester United out of the League Cup. What makes Mifsud so special? Well he’s the only Maltese player to have ever scored at the Theatre of Dreams. Born in the coastal town of Pietà just outside the nation’s capital, Mifsud soon became one of Maltese football’s hottest properties, signing with Sliema Wanderers shortly after turning 16. One goal in six appearances in his debut season was followed by a regular spot in the first team, as Sliema challenged at the top of the Maltese Premier League.

His emergence led to the offer of a trial at Manchester United, just weeks after Alex Ferguson’s team had won their historic treble. Though he would return to Sliema after failing to earn a transfer to the English giants, his chance to shine in Manchester would come in good time. Instead, Mifsud continued to tear up his native top flight, banging in sixty goals across four years with Wanderers, though failing to win any silverware.

Manchester United’s loss was FC Kaiserslautern’s gain, with the former Bundesliga champions prising the striker away from Sliema in 2001. Sadly, despite proving a hit in the German’s reserve team, Mifsud would return to Malta with his former club for a season, before heading off to Norway with Lillestrom. In his second season at the Åråsen Stadion he finished top scorer with eleven goals and was voted the best foreign player in the Eliteserien, which was enough to convince Championship side Coventry City to snap him up on a free when his contract expired.

After an impressive first six months at the Ricoh Arena, in which he won Coventry’s Goal of the Season award, Mifsud began perhaps the best season of his career. Having hit a brace against Carlisle to seal the Sky Blues’ place in Round Three, the Maltese striker’s dream of playing at Old Trafford was finally realised. In the 27th Mifsud slid a teasing cross into the far post to give Coventry a shock lead, before his trademark determination saw a goal created from nothing, as the man nicknamed ‘Mosquito’ chased down a long ball forward, nutmegged Gerard Pique and played a one-two with Jay Tabb before blasting into the top corner. Forget that this was an ‘inexperienced’ United defence – there aren’t many that can say they’ve had Pique’s pants down at Old Trafford.

Those confidence boosting goals helped Mifsud reach a tally of fifteen by Christmas, with his giantkilling exploits continuing with a brace at Ewood Park to knock Blackburn Rovers out of the FA Cup. Unfortunately there would be a sting in the tail to Mifsud’s remarkable season, as a protracted move to Bristol City broke down, and the striker fell out of favour. After a loan move to Barnsley, Mifsud returned to Malta, and would finally get his hands on a trophy, winning three Maltese Premier League titles with Valletta in 2012, 2016 and 2018. Now 37, Mifsud is still very much playing, currently turning out for Birkirkara, as well as captaining the Maltese national team.

At international level, Mifsud’s achievements are unrivalled in Malta. Making his debut at 19 against Albania, his career with the Falcons is littered with memorable moments, including a match-winning performance against Hungary in the Euro 2008 qualifying campaign, and an incredible five goal salvo in a 7-1 victory over Liechtenstein – the nation’s biggest ever win. In 2010, with a goal against Finland, he became the country’s top goalscorer, and continues to add to that tally.

While Mifsud might never reach the heights his obvious goalscoring talents deserve, he’ll probably take the title of ‘The Maltese Messi’ bestowed on him by La Gazzetta dello Sport. And that unforgettable double at Old Trafford of course.

 

The Game: Malta 2-0 Greece, 1975

maltagreece

Winning games isn’t something that comes naturally to the Maltese national team. In 390 FIFA recognised games, the archipelago have won just 42. If friendlies are removed from that list of victories, the number drops dramatically, with Malta winning just five games in their World Cup and European Championship qualification history. Still, everyone has to start somewhere, and in 1975 they did.

Malta had joined FIFA and UEFA in 1959 and 1960 respectively, but decided against registering for World Cup qualification for their first decade of membership. Their maiden forays into international competition had been in the European Championships, losing 9-2 on aggregate to Denmark ahead of the 1964 tournament, and finishing bottom of a group including England, Switzerland and Greece in a bid to reach the 1972 edition. Their first World Cup campaign, following on immediately from the Euros qualifiers, was similarly disastrous, as Sweden, Hungary and Austria made light work of the Reds, securing another fourth placed finish.

In a desperate bid to drill some competitive spirit into the team, the Maltese FA turned to Italian Terrenzio Polverini to manage the side for their Euro ’76 campaign. Polverini had carved out a career as a half decent defender in Serie B, and had been part of the Bologna squad that won the Scudetto in 1964, before injury had forced him into early retirement. Moving into coaching, Polverini spent six years as part of the backroom staff at Ternana, before making his first steps into management at Sliema Wanderers, winning the Maltese Cup in his first season.

Polverini’s first match in charge of Malta saw a defeat to Libya, one of the few teams the Falcons had actually beaten in previous meetings. A goalless draw in Tripoli was hardly cause for celebration either, and it was with trepidation that fans headed to the Empire Stadium in Gżira to watch their team take on World Champions West Germany. Though hardly an even game, Malta did at least manage to keep Franz Beckenbauer and co. at arms length, losing by a solitary Bernhard Cullmann goal.

On form, their next opponents hardly represented an easier proposition. Greece were slowly emerging in the world of international football, and had already racked up a win and two draws from their first three games before heading to the Empire Stadium. Among the Greek side were Vasilis Kostantinou and Mimis Domazos, both members of Panathinaikos’ run to the European Cup final three years earlier. Malta, meanwhile, gave a debut to young goalkeeper Robert Gatt. In a match dominated by the visitors, two bolts from the blue swung the game Malta’s way. In the 33rd minute, Sliema’s Richard Aquilina was played through on goal by full-back Eddie Vella, before lifting the ball over Kostantinou to give the hosts a half-time lead, before Vince Magro repeated the trick in the second half, as Polverini’s advice to his players to catch the Greek ‘keeper off his line helped seal an historic first competitive win for the Falcons.

Unfortunately that wouldn’t be the beginning of a Maltese resurgence, as Greece wreaked their revenge in the very next game, putting four past Malta in Saloniki. Polverini and his team would have the last laugh, however, as the Greeks missed out on top spot by a point, having lost just once in the whole campaign, and saw their place at the Euros taken by West Germany.

It would be another seven years before Malta won their next competitive fixture, a 2-1 victory over fellow minnows Iceland in the Euro 84 qualifiers. While the nation may have experienced more impressive victories, like a 1-0 win over World Cup-bound Belgium in 1994 or the 2-1 victory over Hungary in 2006, that win over Greece will be forever held dear in Maltese hearts. You never forget your first time.

 

 

 

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