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Clubs, players must get their act together if Maltese football is to progress

Malta’s 2-0 defeat to Lithuania has darkened the mood surrounding the national team after Andrè Schembri’s scathing criticism in the aftermath of the England qualifier had drawn attention to the perennial failings of Maltese football. But, what are the real problems and challenges facing the Malta FA, the clubs and players? Kevin Azzopardi analyses the situation...

There was no escaping the gnawing sense of disappointment in the Maltese camp after the 2-0 upset to Lithuania.

Georgas Freidgeimas (no.3), of Lithuania, beats Michael Mifsud to the ball. Photos: Paul Zammit CutajarGeorgas Freidgeimas (no.3), of Lithuania, beats Michael Mifsud to the ball. Photos: Paul Zammit Cutajar

Defeats are par for the course for Malta in international football but the gloom instigated by this latest setback, the third in a row in the 2018 World Cup qualifying trek, on a cold night in Vilnius suggested that all is not well with our national team.

And the general feeling that this was a game Malta ought to have taken something from only served to deepen the sense of frustration.

Until the 70th minute, Malta were still in this game and I dare say that, for most of the first half, our players were the brighter side going forward.

However, the team then suffered a collective mental and physical decline and were duly punished by Lithuania who hit two goals to secure a flattering win.

Malta’s late meltdown, which was further exacerbated by Jonathan Caruana’s needless sending-off, has inevitably triggered a backlash and augmented the pressure on coach Pietro Ghedin who was lost for words after the game.

Any effort to try and make some sense of the scepticism suddenly engulfing the national team must take into account the events which preceded Tuesday’s qualifier.

For months on end, all the focus was on the trip to Wembley and a 2-0 defeat to England was seen by many as a dignified result for the ‘minnows’, regardless of our team’s prudent mindset and lack of attacking ambition.

The amazing Maltese fans who were at Wembley on Saturday looked pleased with the team’s performance but the mood appeared to change dramatically after Andrè Schembri, whose close-season move to Boavista further enhanced his status as the country’s most famous footballing ambassador at present, delivered a scathing assessment not only of the team’s showing against England but also the state of Maltese football in general.

Schembri’s assertion that the Malta players did a cross-country at Wembley, a veiled reference to the energy spent chasing their opponents, and that we should not settle for a respectable defeat, cranked up the pressure on the team on the eve of their clash with Lithuania as critics seized on his comments to voice their discontent about the national team’s performances.

If clubs are paying a Maltese player a monthly salary €2,500-€3,000, why are they not full-time professionals?

It also rekindled the age-old debate about the perpetual failings of Maltese football, namely youth development, the poor standard of the domestic championship and the role of the Malta FA in all this.

A lot has been written and said about the team and our game in general after Saturday’s qualifier.

A lot of it has been negative.

As the governing body, the MFA has come under fire but fingers were also pointed at the players, who were accused of being spoilt, and Ghedin for his “defensive” tactics.

The ferocity of the criticism, including Schembri’s frank remarks, surprised me to a certain extent as the controversy overshadowed Malta’s build-up for their clash with Lithuania which, on paper, represented our best chance of getting off the mark in Group F.

I was never going to base my judgment on the progress, or otherwise, of our football on Malta’s performance against England. Some argued that we should not be happy with a 2-0 defeat and I agree, but we also need to put things into perspective.

Those who, like me, felt that Malta had produced a creditable performance, were branded defeatist but I beg to differ. I’m a realist.

I never expected our team, a collection of full- and part-time footballers who, in the main, ply their trade in our amateur, low-key Premier League, to hurl caution to the wind against a strong nation like England.

Was I happy that Malta were non-existent in attack?

Certainly not but how could I expect anything else when I knew that we are light years behind not only top-tier countries but also middle-ranked nations when it comes to the standard of the domestic football and the level of organisation at club level.

I’ve been highlighting these shortcomings for much of the past two decades and, given that little has happened, I keep asking myself whether I’m wasting my time writing the same things but Maltese football is too close to my heart to give up.

After all, it’s this mentality that has held our country back in many aspects as people accept the status quo, drift into the comfort zone and go with the flow.

We all need to take an honest look at ourselves and ask whether we are pulling in the same direction to raise the standards of Maltese football.

And by ‘we’ I mean the Malta FA, players, club officials, parents, the government and also the sports journalists who set the agenda.

The grim reality is that the millions of euros invested in club facilities and the national squad have hardly brought any change.

It is often said that Malta’s travails on the international scene stem from the dearth of foreign-based players, situation blamed on our youngsters’ reluctance to step out of the comfort zone and make sacrifices to forge a professional career overseas.

This is true but, given our perennial difficulties to export players, I firmly believe that we need to invest more effort into strengthening the level of domestic football.

And this is where the clubs come into the equation.

Fingers are being pointed at the Malta FA, and they surely can do more, but the clubs and players must also do their part because they are the heartbeat of football.

I have a lot of respect for the officials running our clubs who dedicate a lot of their time, energy and money to keep their teams afloat but things are not right.

It is a known fact that our leading clubs have an annual budget exceeding one million euro but this money is largely being spent on players’ wages. Most have more than eight foreign players, all signed on professional contracts, and a host of other Maltese players who earn a lucrative wage by local standards.

Paul Fenech keeping his balance against Lithuania.Paul Fenech keeping his balance against Lithuania.

If you are paying a Maltese player a monthly salary €2,500-€3,000, why are they not full-time professionals?

Can anyone explain to me how we can expect our football to grow if some of our top clubs don’t even have their own pitch to train on despite all the millions spent over the last 20 years?

The decision to increase the number of foreign players to seven may have lifted the level of the Premier League but if we keep neglecting our youth sector, this move could have serious repercussions for home-grown talent in future.

I’m not against foreign players but not only do clubs need to get the balance right, they must also ensure that they get the best out of their overseas pros by also bringing them in for training in the morning and involving them in their youth nurseries.

It’s all about striving to make that leap in quality through a professional approach.

It would be unfair to say that the clubs, especially the top ones, have not made any progress at senior level as coaching standards have gone up significantly and the performances have also improved as underlined by Birkirkara’s positive run in the Europa League and Valletta’s showings in the Champions League this summer.

However, considering the huge amounts of money spent by our top clubs, a lot more could have been achieved.

After all, it was the leading clubs who, a few years ago, persuaded the Malta FA to ditch the national team’s training scheme on the premise that they now have top-level coaches and proper facilities where to conduct training... but are these objectives being met?

The Malta FA clearly have a lot of soul-searching to do but this is not the time for knee-jerk reactions, especially as the national team have another two matches next month, against Slovenia on November 11 and a friendly against Iceland, of all teams, four days later, both at the National Stadium.

These games will be followed by a five-month break during which the powers-that-be will have ample time to take stock of the situation and make the decisions they deem appropriate in the short term.

But long-term planning is key.

The Under-21 boys’ achievement

The irony about all the negative vibe around the senior national team is that, on the same day Malta went down 2-0 to Lithuania, the Under-21 boys showed that not all is doom and gloom as they followed up their 1-0 victory over Latvia with a pulsating 3-2 win over Moldova at the Hibs Stadium.

These two wins meant the U-21 side, piloted by coach Silvio Vella, finished their UEFA Championship qualifiers with a record haul of 11 points.

Their feat takes on added significance when one considers the difficulties Vella and his young guns went through this year when allegations that their home qualifier against Montenegro (0-1) may have been targeted for match-fixing purposes, triggered a police probe.

For a time, it looked as though this saga had jolted the team’s momentum after a very positive start to the group but their perseverance has been rewarded.

It is worth noting that four of the players who started the win over Moldova on Tuesday – Jean Borg, Jake Grech, Matthew Guillaumier and Joseph Mbong – were part of the national U-17 team that was at the heart of the MFA’s elite youth academy project a few years back.

Myles Beerman, now playing for the youth academy of Rangers, came on as a late substitute.

It’s not clear whether the elite academy, which had been created to aid the U-17 team’s preparations (then led by Sergio Soldano) for the 2014 UEFA Championship in Malta, is still in place but the progress of these young players shows that the MFA’s huge investment in that project has not gone to waste.

The priority for the MFA and its member clubs is to make sure that the progress of these promising youngsters doesn’t hit a wall.

And, if for some reason or another, our upcoming talents are unable to join a foreign club, then we need to create the right, professional environment domestically to help them fulfil their potential.

Wishful thinking? Only time will tell.

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