Tired of never having the opportunity to support his country in international tournaments, one local football fanatic devoted the past year to painstaking research into ways Malta and small states can be more competitive in international football.
“I’m a big Manchester United fan, and like other Maltese fans I adopt a team during World Cups, but at least once in my life I would like to support Malta on the main stage,” said Emren John Vella, who undertook the research for his postgraduate thesis at the University’s Islands and Small States Institute.
From the terraces of Ta’ Qali to the każini of Kalkara, Mr Vella harnessed the all-pervading Maltese passion for football by distributing questionnaires on ways Malta can improve, which were answered by 1,044 members of the public.
He also interviewed national team players, ex-players, sports journalists, coaches, managers, technical staff and politicians to add to his analysis of the performances of nine small European states with populations below 1.5 million in World Cup qualifying competitions from 1986 to 2010.
Mr Vella says the outcome is perhaps the most comprehensive research into the international football performances of small states ever conducted in Malta.
In the questionnaires, Mr Vella put a series of suggestions to improve the national team to respondents and asked them to choose which they thought would be the most effective.
Based on the results, the Maltese public thinks better financial incentives for local players would be best way to improve results at international level, as it would allow more players to turn professional.
These sentiments were shared by former England international Gary Neville who, in response to a question from Mr Vella said that young Maltese players have talent, but he questioned whether the incentives existed for young players to dedicate themselves to a football career.
Mr Neville suggested one incentive could be for the Malta Football Association to develop feeder relationships with clubs abroad to send youth players there for experience.
The next most common response was that players had to adopt a more serious attitude to training. In an interview with Mr Vella, a senior MFA said that as soon as the national team coach looks away, many of the players avoid doing what they had been asked.
More investment in improving existing football grounds and training facilities across the country, greater focus on youth development and the employment of professional coaches at local clubs were other common responses.
A need for a change in mentality of players and coaches was also highlighted in the study. When Omar Smarason of the Icelandic FA was asked if he believed that Iceland (population 317,593) could qualify for a major championship, he said: “It is a dream we are aiming for in the long term. Many things would have to go right for us and we would have to be a bit lucky in some of our games, but anything is possible in football.”
In contrast, a senior coach involved with the Maltese national side told Mr Vella: “I can assure you it is impossible (to qualify for a World Cup) because the other countries are so much stronger than us”.
In his analysis of the performances of small European states in World Cup qualifying competitions from 1986 to 2010, Mr Vella discovered that Iceland had won 13 games and drawn 14 in 60 games, compared to Malta’s record of one win and 12 draws in 66 games.
“It’s tougher for small state players to pull off positive results if their leader is already disheartened,” Mr Vella said.
The need for a change in the player selection system at club level was also examined by Mr Vella, who drew attention to instances of nepotism in the local game due to Malta’s small population and close family ties, which happens to the detriment of talented players with no connection to club administrators or coaches.
Ideas mentioned in the study for changing the league system to improve the national team included decreasing the amount of Premier League teams to ensure the top local players only play against each other, or allowing top Maltese clubs to join a low level of the Italian national league, like the top Welsh teams who play in the English league.
Mr Vella also proposed increasing the amount of international friendly games to give the national team more experience of playing together competitively. He suggested small states could organise games between themselves in midweek when Champions League games are taking place, for example.
While accepting the chances of Malta qualifying for a major tournament are remote, especially since the current European seeding system means Malta must always compete with world class teams in the qualifying phases, he believes prospects can be improved if the will is there.