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Malta's 120 years of footballing emotion

The Malta Football Association (MFA) proudly celebrates its 120th anniversary this year – and the association is commemorating a momentous adventure in a fitting manner.

Malta celebrate scoring during their creditable 2-2 draw against Turkey in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier in September 2007.
Malta celebrate scoring during their creditable 2-2 draw against Turkey in a UEFA EURO 2008 qualifier in September 2007. ©Domenic Aquilina

This is an occasion to cherish, and football lovers across the Mediterranean island nation of some 493,000 inhabitants are recalling memorable moments, epic matches and unforgettable events that have marked a long and emotional footballing journey.

Football was introduced to the Maltese islands by British servicemen stationed there, with the first match taking place in 1882. The officially recognised year of birth of the association is 1900, and Major William Henry Russel Prewer had the honour of being the first president of the association in 1909.

The Malta FA's 120th anniversary logo
The Malta FA's 120th anniversary logo©MFA

Since then, football in Malta has flourished, and the MFA, which joined UEFA in 1960, is now a long-standing and highly valued member of the European football community.

While restrictions brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic have led to the MFA scaling down the programme of anniversary events, the association intends to commemorate the occasion in fitting fashion.

Prestigious anniversary

Malta FA president Bjorn Vassallo
Malta FA president Bjorn Vassallo©Domenic Aquilina

“This is a prestigious anniversary for the Malta FA, which is one of the oldest football associations in the world, says MFA president Bjorn Vassallo. “We are naturally very proud of this.”

“We are commemorating this anniversary during unprecedented times owing to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has prevented us from celebrating this occasion as we would normally do. Nevertheless, it’s important for our association to commemorate this 120-year journey of a footballing nation, with its high and lows, and celebrate the efforts of all those who have contributed to the development of Maltese football.”

Celebrations kicked off with the unveiling of the 120th anniversary logo during a special online event broadcast on the association’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. Football stalwarts who have left their mark on the history of the Maltese game got the first part of the programme off to a fascinating start.

Official international debut

Early days of Maltese football at the Empire Stadium in Gzira.
Early days of Maltese football at the Empire Stadium in Gzira.©MFA

Joe Cini, who was part of the Malta team that faced Austria in the country’s first official international match, played at the Empire Stadium in Gzira on 24 February 1957, recalled that historic occasion which saw the national team, under the guidance of the late Joe Griffiths, produce a bold display, with Tony Cauchi and Sammy Nicholl scoring late goals in a 3-2 defeat.

Cini, who enjoyed a distinguished career both at club and national team level, paid tribute to his talented team-mates in that 1957 match, including Salvinu Schembri, Lolly Borg, Tony Cauchi, who sadly passed away last month, and Sammy Nicholl.

Another Maltese football legend, Raymond Vella, recounted his memories of another famous match, a gallant 3-2 home defeat to West Germany in a FIFA World Cup qualifier in December 1984. Vella said that the enthusiasm of the capacity crowd at the Ta'Qali National Stadium had been a great source of inspiration for the Maltese side, who produced an excellent performance on the day.

Players’ pride

Gilbert Agius, a former Malta captain who made 119 appearances for his country and scored eight goals, said he treasured all of the successful moments of his career, especially the period between 2006 and 2008 when Malta obtained five points in the UEFA EURO 2008 qualifiers under Czech coach Dusan Fitzel. Agius also looked back fondly at a club career laden with trophies won by his club, Valletta.

Michael Mifsud in action against Germany in 2004
Michael Mifsud in action against Germany in 2004©Domenic Aquilina

Birkirkara FC forward Michael Mifsud, the country’s most capped player with a total of 142 appearances and a record tally of 41 goals for the national team, singled out the goal he scored in the 2014 FIFA World Cup qualifier in Armenia in June 2013. “That was perhaps my most memorable goal, as it earned our national team a rare away victory,” Mifsud said.

The Maltese national women's team celebrate a goal in their recent international against Georgia
The Maltese national women's team celebrate a goal in their recent international against Georgia©Domenic Aquilina

Malta women's team captain, midfielder Dorianne Theuma, recently became the first female player to reach 100 appearances for the national side. She spoke about the significant progress made by the Maltese team and women’s football in general since making her international debut in a friendly match against Romania in 2003.

Malta’s former status as a British colony prompted the growth of football there, which eventually led to admission to international football bodies. “There have been many landmark occasions and memorable events in the Malta FA’s history,” says Bjorn Vassallo. “Becoming a member of FIFA in 1959, followed a year later by our affiliation to UEFA, are very important and special milestones.”

European profile – UEFA support – and a positive future

Backed by a professional structure, the MFA has been entrusted by UEFA with the hosting of various conferences and seminars over the years, including the 20th Ordinary UEFA Congress in 1990. In addition, Malta has welcomed UEFA Executive Committee meetings and seminars for European top coaches and referees, as well as successful UEFA youth final tournaments.

Ta'Qali National Stadium
Ta'Qali National Stadium©Domenic Aquilina

UEFA's HatTrick assistance programme has been fundamental in aiding the development of football facilities in the country. Among other achievements, club facilities have been upgraded, and the impressive Ta'Qali National Stadium has also been renovated.

Bjorn Vassallo emphasises Maltese football’s positive response to the current COVID crisis. “The 120th year of the Malta FA will certainly be remembered for the extraordinary challenges caused by the coronavirus,” he says. “I’m very positive that Maltese football will overcome the current difficulties.”

“The Maltese people have always shown courage and resilience in times of adversity, but as a nation, we have always managed to come back stronger. We look forward to consolidating the association’s footballing mission, as well as the social aspect, which is also at the heart of our work, in the months and years to come.”