A League football is a relatively new concept compared to the top flights of Europe, but many donâ€™t know it sits atop of the foundations of a different kind: lower league clubs many of which still embrace their European heritage. The Maltese Cup, held over this yearâ€™s Australia Day weekend was a great opportunity to experience this first hand.
Based in Melbourneâ€™s west, at the City Vista Park, Green Gully, Altona North and Altona Magic were all hosted by Caroline Springs in a tournament which spanned the long weekend Parrammata Melita Eagles (who travelled down from Sydney) were also special guests and made up the numbers.
These tournaments are by no means rare around Australia but often fly under the radar, as the FFA up until recently prevented local clubs from including ethnic heritage in their badges and on their kits. Even today the guidelines still encourage the omission of ethnic branding amongst clubs in a bid to increase inclusion. In the lower leagues the clubsâ€™ beliefs are often to the contrary, bringing together all parts of a local community and giving its members a chance to live its ancestral culture and share it amongst their local area.
I was at the tournamentâ€™s Friday night game to see the hosts take on their neighbours Green Gully in a double header. The â€˜legendsâ€™ raised the curtain before the seniors topped the bill. The headline act though was the main event as the crowd was roused by the Maltese national anthem beforehand.
I watch part of the first half with Freddy: former player, former manager, former everything really but now a part of the clubâ€™s furniture. He picks up my English accent, I pick up Maltese twang. We briefly talk about the Premier League, but itâ€™s clear his allegiances are here, where heâ€™s been able to take all that passion a football fan has and invest it in a place thatâ€™s welcomed him. Freddyâ€™s Australian team is Caroline Springs, he has no A League club, as none of them represent him.
Heâ€™s saddened by the clubâ€™s relegation last year but optimistic the lads will bound back. The facilities, which theyâ€™ll share with Western United until theyâ€™ve established their own base, boast a great bar and restaurant, changing facilities and pristine playing surfaces. Itâ€™s an attractive set up to players in a limited pool.
Weâ€™re interrupted by the tannoy, announcing the rest of the weekend programme: Saturday will see two more games, as will Sunday, after mass is given in the centre circle in Maltese. By now Freddyâ€™s off catching up with other fans and kissing cheeks as Iâ€™m left to watch the legends battle it out.
The night carries on in this vein, and right from the minute I stepped out of the car and heard two older ladies chatter away in Maltese I knew this experience wasnâ€™t going to be a typical trip to the football.
Itâ€™s a mixed bunch of a few recent retirees and a handful of greying old boys, with everything else in between. The pace of the game isnâ€™t half bad and you can tell back in the day clashes between these two sides would have been heated at times. The visitors run out 3-1 winners then itâ€™s ice baths and ice beers all-round as the sun sets and the seniors turn out before a crowd of around 1,000 strong.
The gap between games gives me a chance to explore the facilities. In the bar the chatter is mixed between broken English and Maltese. 20 kilometres from Melbourne could easily feel like thousands. Thereâ€™s a hum and a buzz around the place on this Australia Day long weekend. Itâ€™s the first weekend after the kids have gone back to school and parents back to work. Families catch up for the first time after the long summer break.
The bar area is full of old cups and framed shirts and no matter what the FFA say, this is a Maltese club like it or not. Even the food is Maltese, and Iâ€™m treated to my first pastizzi, a ricotta filled traditional pasty, as I settle in to the headline event.
The pitch looks immaculate, and itâ€™s no surprise given Western Unitedâ€™s affiliation. Western are the A Leagueâ€™s newest members and are currently playing before average crowds of 5,000 in a 45,000 strong AFL ground. They are developing their own facilities and will no doubt become the representation of Melbourneâ€™s outer west but until then, they need a base. The City Vista facilities weâ€™re at will provide that for the next two seasons, courtesy of a $10m investment from the local council.
The game gets underway and is of a decent pace, considering the standards and the stakes; it is after all a pre-season friendly but with George Cross and Green Gully a couple of leagues apart this year, chances for one to â€˜get the wood over the otherâ€™ as they say in these parts will be rare this year.
Gully, otherwise known as the Cavaliers make the quicker start and torment George Cross down the right flank, crosses are sprayed in to the box, the keeper is peppered. Eventually their efforts are rewarded and the deadlock is broken seeing them on to a 3-1 win.
Iâ€™ve an hours drive back home, and as I hit the road itâ€™s under the last of the dayâ€™s light. This far from the city thereâ€™s half a chance a kangaroo will dart across your path. Itâ€™s been an enjoyable night of football and taking in the crowd out in Australian suburbia.
Melbourneâ€™s population has grown by 30% since 2011, and by 2050 will overtake Sydney. First time buyers are being ushered in to the sprawl through incentives, but the hearts of these new communities need something to make them beat. After all Melbourneâ€™s migrant past is indeed its present and clubs like Caroline Springs George Cross and Green Gully provide a social network to many of the cityâ€™s new arrivals.
Long live the heritage I say. Nobody wants a whitewashed franchise model they canâ€™t identify with. Viva Malta and viva football.