BY RYAN PLANT
Back in the 1930s, a political question in Malta divided the football fandom in the country. In the mid-19th century, at the same time as the sport in a structured form in England was introduced, travelling English soldiers took the game to the Maltese Islands during British rule as a means of entertainment.
The question was a simple one, but it divided a nation. The debate over which language the country should adopt, English or Italian, did not just cause a political divide, but it created a split in the countryâ€™s already faltering football cult. This was because the argument created pro-Italian and pro-English factions on the island that resulted in lots of the countryâ€™s football fans choosing to follow Italian and English clubs, a trend that is still often followed today.
It took until 1909 for a league format to be introduced in Malta, nearly fifty years after the Football Association was formed in England in 1863. Despite the Maltese F.A.â€™s formation and involvement, the league struggled for numbers and quality in its early years with a regular merry-go-round of clubs forming and dropping out, often to be never seen again.
Sliema Wanderers and Floriana dominated the first half century of Maltaâ€™s competitive football scene, winning all but four of the league championships between them up to 1940. At the time, three clubs from the small, historical southern town of Valletta were competing in the league system â€“ Valletta Prestons, Valletta St. Paulâ€™s and Valletta United.
In 1943, the three merged to form Valletta Football Club. Until the 1990s, the Lily Whites had an average history; this was during the monopolisation of Sliema and Floriana, but when other clubs such as Hibernians and Rabat Ajax began to break through, Valletta also seized the opportunity. At the end of the 1996-97 season, Valletta created history by winning the Premier League, Rothmans Trophy, Super Five Cup, Lowenbrau Cup and Super Cup.
Four seasons later the club went one better; they won the same previously mentioned five competitions, but also added the Centenary Cup to their trophy cabinet. This was a one-off tournament that celebrated the 100th anniversary of the Maltese F.A.
Having won 23 league titles (which includes two trophies won by Valletta United), the club has a proud history â€“ something that club president Victor Sciriha is not only determined to maintain, but to still improve.
Sciriha, a small, yet loud and controlling man that has been involved in Maltese football for over a quarter of a century, believes that Valletta are capable of becoming protagonists for the countryâ€™s game on the European scene.
He said: â€œI think the club has taken the direction towards further progress in UEFA European competitions.”
In a remote, secluded, yet lavish hotel in the city of Oosterwijk ahead of one of the biggest fixtures in Maltese footballâ€™s history, Sciriha explained his goals and ambitions for the club, which he boldly claimed was the biggest in Malta. He insisted that 70% of Maltaâ€™s football fan base supported his club â€“ and he really emphasised that it was indeed his club. He dictates what goes on both on and off the pitch; he even instructed the clubâ€™s coach, Gilbert Aguis, who is one of Maltaâ€™s most decorated footballers, to make me the journalist he had never met before a cappuccino before any interview could take place.
He said: â€œI am the president, and as the president I have to see that the club is run smoothly. Any problems that crop up must be solved by the president, and the ultimate decision always lies with me and the board of directors.â€
It is fair to say that from speaking to Sciriha, a controversial figure in Maltese football, that the only way is up for Valletta. Sure, they succumbed to a 3-1 defeat to Dutch outfit FC Utrecht in the Europa League second qualifying round this season, but there was no shame in the defeat â€“ having lost at the same stage in recent years to sides from other minor football nations such as Minsk of Belarus, Ekranas of Lithuania and Azerbaijani side Qarabag, putting up a fight against one of Dutch footballâ€™s richest clubs represented a significant improvement in what was a fatally tough draw.
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Sciriha added that Utrecht had a transfer budget that dwarfed that of Valletta; the Maltese club are also still not completely professional. Ageing striker Michael Mifsud, who may be familiar to English fans after his time with Coventry City, spearheads a side that is made up of a select group of local, semi-professional players that are on the fringes of the Maltese national side.
The lack of financial power in Maltese football has a direct link to the ever-spiralling riches of Italian and especially English football. The formation and growth of the Premiership in England in the 1990s led to even less interest in the Maltese domestic competitions and the countryâ€™s national side. Sciriha attributed this downturn in support to a number of factors including the slow-paced play, relatively unknown players and perceived corruption â€“ something that he was quick to deny at Valletta during his time at the Taâ€™ Qali Stadium.
Sciriha said: â€œWe are looking forward to building brand new facilities, which can hopefully help us attract the countryâ€™s best players. Our aim is to progress further in the Europa League, which would be huge for Maltese football.â€
With Scirihaâ€™s puppet-master style approach to club presidency, over the past ten seasons since he was elected by Vallettaâ€™s fans during his tenure he has overseen six league titles and seven domestic cup trophies. However, he has still not yet been able to deliver what was his primary aim all along â€“ progression to the group stage of a European competition.
The sport in Malta owes a lot to the English game and its travelling pioneers for its grounding and initial spark of domestic success, but its club sides have dramatically failed on the European stage as a result of the power of Premier League and Calcio sides in England and Italy. It seems impossible to see, despite the efforts of Victor Sciriha, that it may be a long time before a side from the island consolidates a place amongst Europeâ€™s elite.
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