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National XI pit themselves against British Services

MFA XI played against the United Service League XI (1-1) on April 27, 1918. Standing: Salvu Troisi, Edwards, Karmenu Tabone. Sitting: Ruggieru Friggieri, Salvu Tabone, Sghendo, Zammit, Karmenu Cristiano. Squatting: Galea Sluta, C. Inglott, Emmanuel Busuttil.

MFA XI played against the United Service League XI (1-1) on April 27, 1918. Standing: Salvu Troisi, Edwards, Karmenu Tabone. Sitting: Ruggieru Friggieri, Salvu Tabone, Sghendo, Zammit, Karmenu Cristiano. Squatting: Galea Sluta, C. Inglott, Emmanuel Busuttil.

There were many renowned players who donned the national team jersey during the Mile End era and it would take volumes to narrate all their exploits.

Who can ever forget such names as Ruggieru Friggieri, Salvu Tabone Tal-Luminata, Johnnie Perrin, C.F. Huggins, Gejtu Psaila, Karmenu Tabone Ix-Xtu, Salvu Troisi, Jack Herbert, Guze Tagliaferro and many others...

Some of these players, under different circumstances, could have walked into many European teams of that era.

In fact, Ruggieru Friggieri and Salvu Troisi played as professionals with Italian clubs Messina and Napoli respectively.

Those very few old timers lucky enough to have lived through that great period of Maltese football still recall with tears in their eyes the hallmarks and characteristics of those legendary stalwarts.

Speaking about the national team of that era, one must keep in mind that very few international matches were played in those days.

Although some English university teams and other representative sides featured in matches across Europe before the turn of the century, and the English amateur international team had made appearances on the continent in 1906 and 1907, England's trip to the Hapsburg Empire in 1908 was the first time that the full international team had played against foreign opposition.

The chances, therefore, of Malta taking part in a full international were non-existent, and even a meeting with a foreign club seemed remote.

Faced with such scenario, the Maltese stretched their imagination and contented themselves with staging representative matches against the British Services. The latter, especially during the First World War, comprised several first-class British footballers and proved to be worthy opponents for the National XI.

The names of Davies, MacDonald and Walker made soccer history in those days. These players and others of equal fame in the professional game in Britain graced the Maltese football grounds during their period of service on the island.

It was custom in those days to pick the best player in each position for the national team.

This system did not always work because one has to take into account not only the player's skills but also his ability to blend into the team. There were no coaches and the team was chosen by a kind of selection panel.

This policy caused many conflicts and before every big match, torrents of letters were sent to newspapers by 'armchair selectors' arguing in favour or against the chosen XI.

Partisanship and parochialism played a big part in the arguments. Star players were 'feted' by their supporters who never missed a chance to sing their heroes' praises.

However, despite the pique and controversy, these encounters between the Civilian League XI and Services XI were eagerly awaited by everybody and on the day of the match, the Maltese gave their whole-hearted support to the national team.

First-class football

In 1917-18, to mention one example, the national team was involved in two matches.

The first game was played on Boxing Day 1917 against the Army. The great crowd present at the Mile End was treated to a first-class exhibition of football.

The exchanges were quick and frequent and the Maltese left wing, made up of Karmenu Tabone and Galea Sluta of St George's, ran rings around the Army defence.

At half-time, however, the score was still 0-0.

The Army opened strongly in the second half and Johnnie Perrin had to deal with shots from every direction.

The Maltese fought back but it was the Army who broke the ice with a fine goal from Dickinson. Two minutes later, Hancock passed to Kenyon who scored to secure victory for the Army. The final whistle found the Army leading by two goals to nil.

The second match was played on April 27, 1918 against the United Service League XI.

Unfortunately, an authentic account of this match is not available but from the photograph taken after the match which is being reproduced with this article, the probability is that the match ended in a 1-1 draw.

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