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Coppa banking on girls' fighting qualities and team spirit in Andorra

Santino Coppa (right) delivering a talk before a training session at Ta` Qali.

Santino Coppa (right) delivering a talk before a training session at Ta` Qali.

Friday, June 6, 2003 - 10.45 p.m.... a packed University Sports Hall explodes in an interminable shout of joy after Malta beat Cyprus 64-42 in the final of the women's GSSE basketball tournament.

It's almost impossible trying to put to words the scenes of joy and emotion witnessed that day at Tal-Qroqq when the Maltese players lined up on the highest step of the podium, with the gold medal around their necks, and listening to the national anthem, sung with great pride by the hundreds of Maltese who went to cheer their heroes.

That historic success owes much to the tactical nous and experience of coaches Santino Coppa and Carlo Farrugia who managed to turn a modest team into an unbeatable outfit for the other GSSE rivals.

It also marked the start of a new era for women's basketball.

Following that memorable triumph, the team went on to achieve other impressive results on the international scene. Last year they finished third in the Promotion Cup, held in Andorra, to qualify for the 2006 Commonwealth Games in Melbourne.

Next week, all eyes will again be on the women's basketball team who will be defending their GSSE title in the Pyrenees pocket nation bordered by France and Spain. Everyone is keeping his fingers crossed for a repeat of that astonishing 2003 result, but what are the prospects according to Coppa himself?

"It's going to be a very difficult tournament for us," he reckoned.

"Unfortunately, since the 2003 GSSE we lost six experienced players. Besides, during the past 12 months we were further weakened by the loss two other key members in the squad.

"Playmaker Irene Farrugia has quit the national team and another big blow is the absence of Lucienne Bezzina who has suffered a serious knee injury a few weeks ago.

"This has left us with a very young group of players still trying to gel together. Added to that, this year we only had four weeks to prepare and that made our job even more difficult."

Despite the setbacks the Italian coach is not downhearted but confident that his players will fight till the end to get a positive result in Andorra.

"I have never been the kind of person who concedes defeat so easily," Coppa remarks.

"I was really encouraged to see the response of my players during the few weeks of preparation we had. They have shown motivation and a great will to improve... that fills me with enormous courage ahead of our next commitments.

"Cyprus, Luxembourg and Iceland are very strong teams with various players in top European leagues.

"It could be that they are superior, technically, but I believe that the spirit in our players on court is second to none. That can make a huge difference in trying to turn the balance of a match."

Coppa is a natural born-winner. His shrewd tactics has turned him into one of the greatest mentors of the game. During his career in Italy, he won two women's league titles (1989 and 2000) and the 1990 European Cup with Priolo.

Last season, he moved to another Sicilian club, Schio. With them, he won the Italian Cup.

With his unique pedigree, it comes only natural to ask Coppa what initiatives a country like Malta has to embark on to make the grade.

"To start with, I think the most essential move is to improve the level of the domestic league," Coppa replied.

"This is not something that can be achieved overnight, it's a long process. I have already promised the Malta Basketball Association that I'm ready to help and make available all my coaching expertise and contacts to help Maltese players improve their skills."

Training monitoring

Coppa said in future he will have to visit the country on a more regular basis during the season to follow the players closely.

"If this national team is to reach higher levels," he said, "I have to come here at least once a week to monitor the training.

"Another thing is to have more players in foreign leagues. This season we had Joselle Cardona and Josephine Grima in Sicily with Virtus Siracusa. Their experience was useful and helped them to fine-tune their game.

"It's also essential that the team plays more regularly outside the country to get acquainted with the high tempo of international basketball.

"Grima is one player expected to earn a contract abroad. There have already been some contacts with a number of foreign teams and hopefully something will be sorted out this summer."

Coppa then shifted focus on the GSSE again.

"We are going to Andorra looking to give our 100 per cent," he said.

"Difficult to say what lays ahead for us but all I can say is that my players are ready to sacrifice themselves for the team and I'm sure their effort will yield rich dividends."

GSSE basketball facts...

¤ Malta's first medal in GSSE was a bronze won by the men's basketball team in the inaugural San Marino '85 edition.

The team, then coached by John Tabone, lost to Cyprus (91-83) and Luxembourg (88-81) but beat Andorra (71-66) in a direct clash for third place.

¤ Two years later in Monaco, John Tabone again led the men's team to another third placing.

Malta was beaten by Monaco (87-83) but two wins vs Cyprus (77-71) and San Marino (91-75) secured the third step on the rostrum.

¤ The best GSSE showing for the men's team was in Iceland '97.

On that occasion the team, coached by Alfred Mifsud, finished second. Mifsud had a talented squad at his disposal with Roger Fasting, Tim Britt, Dalibor Mijatovic and Don Ross in the fold. Malta lost in the final against Cyprus 73-68. In previous matches Malta beat Cyprus (75-56) and San Marino (69-67).

¤ Basketball was not contested in Liechtenstein '99. But in Andorra 2005 it will be the first time for the men's team to miss the GSSE after having failed to reach the required standards set by the MOC.

¤ Mariella Piscopo and Val Drury were coaches of the women's team in Malta '93. The girls beat Cyprus 39-36 in a decisive match for third place. The bronze medal was the first for the women's team.

The same position was attained four years later in Iceland when again the team had the better of Cyprus 59-54.

¤ The most outstanding result in GSSE basketball for our selections was the one of the women's team, coached by Santino Coppa, two years ago in Malta. Cyprus were again the victims as they were beaten in the final 64-42.

In the qualifying phase Malta defeated Iceland 59-47 and Luxembourg 59-50.

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