As Malta prepares to stage the UEFA European Under-17 Championship, facilities on the islands have come a long way since street football was the order of the day.
In March 2012, UEFA President Michel Platini visited Malta, making a speech at the official opening of Fgura United FC's new facilities – a project partly funded by UEFA's HatTrick assistance programme. "UEFA's most important objective is that youngsters and aspiring footballers continue to enjoy themselves through these pitches," Mr Platini said, noting that the days of street football were very much at an end.
Malta has certainly come a long way in terms of football development since my friends and I played out on Bastion Street in Senglea, when a plastic ball was all we had in terms of facilities. The team that my brother Joe and I founded in 1964 – Ta' Fuq is-Sur (literally, coming from Bastion Street) – played against similar street sides from all over my home town. We painted the lines on an area of flat concrete next to our house with white Brolac paint to make it look as much like a proper pitch as possible.
It was a golden era for us; other kids used to turn out to watch our eight-a-side games, though they were not without pitfalls. Accidentally shooting against neighbours' window panes was one issue; a more dramatic one was accidentally kicking the ball over the city's fortifications (the bastions the street took its name from), where it would then fly down into the dockyards. If you were lucky, the dockers would help you rescue it; if not, the match would be abandoned until someone could acquire a new ball.
Happily, that will not be a problem for the teams at the U17 finals in May. The biggest tournament that Malta has ever staged will be played on excellent pitches in the kinds of stadia me and my friends could only have dreamed of when we were kids. Seven games will be played at the 17,000-capacity national stadium, with the Hibernians Stadium in Corradino and the Gozo Stadium in Xewkija, on Malta's sister island of Gozo, also well equipped.
"The Malta Football Association is continuing its upgrading programme concerning local footballing facilities," U17 championship tournament director Joe Cassar told UEFA.com recently. "Not just for the upcoming final tournament, but for the benefit of the local game, and young players. UEFA's HatTrick programme and the government have been supporting the MFA in this initiative, through continuing financial assistance and cooperation."
Such safe, well-maintained facilities can only help the next generation of players as they make their way. I look back with great affection on my street footballing days but I am glad that the players who visit for the U17 finals will be able to enjoy their football safe in the knowledge that a misplaced kick will not have to send them scrambling to the dockyards to get their ball back.
Domenic Aquilina is UEFA.com's Maltese correspondent
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