Maltese domestic football is a quite wonderful thing for groundhoppers. While the football may not be of the highest standard the sheer enthusiasm and history of football on this tiny Mediterranean island means the number of clubs at senior level far outweighs the number of grounds of any decent standard. This means many of the top clubs play “home” games at various grounds around the islands with a select few having the luxury of their own home venue which is also made available to stage other fixtures. All in all this means multiple fixtures at multiple grounds in any given weekend which of course is manna from heaven for the hopperati.
My first game this weekend was a Premier League fixture between St Andrews and Hibernians. The match was played at the Victor Tedesco Stadium, the home of Hamrun Spartans. The stadium was inaugurated in 1996 and commemorates a former Hamrun president who had overseen the home clubs renaissance period in the 1980’s and early 90’s. All facilities are on one side of the ground as the pitch is hemmed in by urban sprawl on all three remaining sides. Today’s game sees second placed Hibernians, one of the island’s traditional powerhouses, against bottom placed St.Andrews for home this is nominally a home game. €7 gets you a double header ticket which means you can stay on for the Quormi v Naxxar Lions if you wish. The first half is a drab affair with very few chances created. The second half sees Hibernians well on top and they take the lead with a penalty from Clayton Failla. Almost immediately St.Andrews get a penalty themselves which is converted by Joe Farrugia. Hibs look to have gained the expected victory when Gilmar scored in the 90th however Farrugia netted again for St.Andrews in the second minute of injury time.
BOV Maltese Premier League – January 30th 2016
St.Andrews 2 (J.Farrugia pen 57, 90)
Hibernians 2 (Failla pen 55, Gilmar 90)
Att: c.300 (at Victor Tedesco Stadium)
Next up is San Gwann against Hamrun Spartans played at the Centenary Stadium. This stadium is adjacent to the Ta’Qali National Stadium and is owned and run by the Maltese FA. Opened in 1980 to mark the 100th year of the MFA all the facilities, including a big stand seating 2,500, are housed on one side of the ground. This includes a recently opened headquarters for the Malta Youth FA. The pitch is 3G and hosts huge amounts of games especially in the lower rungs of the League of Malta. Banger racing behind the far side punctuates the moans of the Spartans fans who object to many of the referees decisions, to be fair he did not have the best of games. Despite this Spartans grab the games only goal when Haruna Garba scrambled in from a set piece. Bizarrely immediately after the goal was awarded Spartans’ Martin Hrubsa was shown a straight red card after what I can only assume was an elbow, or similar, during the goal celebrations. What was noticeable from this second tier match was the drop in quality of player and fitness levels.
BOV Maltese First Division – Saturday January 30th 2016
San Gwann 0
Hamrun Spartans 1 (Garba 73)
Att: c.200 (at Centenary Stadium)
Sunday’s first game was a Premier League clash between Pembroke Athleta and reigning champions Valletta. This was played at Hibernians’ ground in Paola. Opened in November 1986 Hibernians became the first Maltese club with their own stadium. The ground now holds 4,000 which was ample enough to host an Intertoto Cup match against Uralmash Ekaterinburg in 1996. Pembroke do have their own ground, the Luxol Stadium, which is right on the coast but as they are now a Premier League club the match against Valletta is moved to a bigger ground. Police are out in force as Valetta bring a sizeable amount of fans to Paola. Pembroke start brightly but look a little surprised to take the lead when Arab’s tame looking header managed to beat the outstretched arm of Henry Bonello in Valletta’s goal. The order of things is restored when the champions score through Romao’s powerful header. Remarkably Pembroke took the lead again through Villabolos before Briffa restored parity. It is left to the wily veteran, Michael Mifsud, to settle the game. Arguably Malta’s most famous player Mifsud has had an extensive career around Europe including spells with Coventry City and Barnsley, as well as gaining 113 caps for his country. His clever finish gave Valletta the points and returns them to the top of the table. Pembroke’s Paltemio Barbetti was then sent off for a challenge on Mifsud. Hibernians ground is a lovely ground, has real attention to detail such as memorials and planted shrubs, it also has a grass pitch. The backdrop of clanking cranes of Paola harbour and the mass of flats and church domes rising to the distance makes it a very nice place to watch a match.
BOV Maltese Premier League – Sunday January 31st 2016
Pembroke Athleta 2 (Arab 5,Villabolos 53)
Valletta 3 (Romao 14,Briffa 60,Mifsud 76)
Att: c.300 (at Hibernians FC)
The final match of the weekend was a heavyweight clash between two of Malta’s best known clubs, Birkirkara and Floriana. The match is at the National Stadium in Ta’Qali which was opened in 1981 and lead to the mothballing of the iconic Empire Stadium in Gzira, the island’s pre-eminent stadium until that point. The National Stadium now holds 17,700 people having had a new East Stand, the Millennium, stand opened in 2000 providing the MFA with luxurious new headquarters. All fans are housed in the West stand with the VIP section separating the flag waving Birkirkara fans and the Floriana fans. What followed was 90 minutes of two teams completely cancelling each other out with barely any shots on goal registered. A goalless draw was pretty much inevitable and you had to feel sorry for those who had watched the game immediately before this one which was also a goalless draw between Mosta and Tarxien Rainbows!
BOV Maltese Premier League – Sunday January 31st 2016
Birkirkara 0 Floriana 0
Att: c.600 (at Ta’Qali National Stadium)
A decent weekend in good weather, nice grounds and as long as your expectations aren’t too high for the standard of football then Malta has a lot going for it. Finally it is worth mentioning that the legendary Empire Stadium is still rotting away in the back streets of Gzira. A real relic of the past when sand pitches were the norm. Seems incredible that in February 1971, England played in front of 30,000 people in this long abandoned playground.