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The best Maltese full-back ever

Ruggieru Friggieri wearing the colours of Sliema Wanderers shortly before his death in 1925.

Ruggieru Friggieri wearing the colours of Sliema Wanderers shortly before his death in 1925.

It is inconceivable that after so many years and more than 650 articles, Ruggieru Friggieri has not been featured in this series.

Friggieri is such an obvious choice, yet he has somehow slipped my mind.

Today, I want to make up for this oversight and highlight the career of this truly great player.

Friggieri's name is so prominent in the history of Maltese football that even today, more than 80 years after his untimely death in 1925, we still talk about his feats.

Friggieri, affectionately known as iz-zibga, was born in Floriana on April 11, 1886.

He was a little man, standing not more than 5ft in his socks. This, however, did not prevent him from becoming the greatest full-back ever produced by Maltese football.

In his days, the game was rough and a full-back needed to be strong and a tough tackler. Friggieri had both qualities but he could also play himself out of trouble, something that was very rare in those days.

He started playing for Floriana some time around 1906 when the team was still being formed. In 1909, he took part in the memorable Mtarfa Cup match against St George's. It was on this occasion that the legend of iz-zibga was born.

In that era, full-backs were pure defenders. They were often restricted to playing inside their own box to mark the opposing inside-forwards. They rarely ventured out of the box except to tackle their opponent before he could create danger.

Charging with the shoulders was allowed and considered as part and parcel of the game.

In those days, Floriana were involved in many prestigious charity and challenge cup matches against Service teams.

Many times Friggieri was given the task to guard forwards twice his size. The English roared with laughter when they saw this pint-sized Maltese defender.

"Sweep him off the ground," they would shout.

Friggieri, however, went into his tackles with gusto and the outcome usually ended with the British player biting the dust. The Maltese loved every minute of it and responded with the cry 'keep him on the island'.

Between 1910 and 1913, Friggieri led Floriana to three successive championships and two cup victories. He became a household name and was feted as a football legend.

Floriana won their first league championship without conceding a single goal thanks mainly to the defensive powers of their celebrated full-back.

Myths and legends grew around this great personality to an extent that his presence made his team automatic favourites to win the championship. Before the start of a new season, bookmakers would always wait to see with whom Friggieri would sign before announcing their odds.

During the 1913-16 period, he played professional football with Messina in the Italian league where he was described as the 'Piccolo Diavolo Maltese'.

In 1916, he joined St George's, helping the Saints to win the league and Cousis Shield double. The following season he probably joined Valletta United but, as the records for this season are very sketchy, I was unable to confirm this.

During the First World War he moved to the KOMRM, inspiring the regiment's team to many successes in the United Service League.

Such was Friggieri's fame that he was chosen to play for the Combined Services XI, an honour not bestowed on any other Maltese footballer of his time.

Friggieri was admired and respected by everybody and many times after some important match against the Services, he was invited for drinks in the mess.

In 1922, Friggieri turned professional for Sliema Wanderers. He stayed with them for three seasons, winning two championships, one cup and one Cassar Cup medal.

In 1925, a dark cloud formed around this great player. He was accused of selling the league match against Floriana but he denied the charges and also signed an affidavit.

Unfortunately, Sliema lost that important match and after the game, as the players were about to enter the Sliema club, Friggieri was seriously manhandled by some irate supporters.

Whatever the truth, the incident left a bad taste in the mouth and a black spot on Friggieri's career.

He never played for the Wanderers again and, a short while later, he returned to his old club Floriana for the princely sum of £5.

However, he was not to play again for the Greens because he fell ill and died suddenly while still at the top of his career.

The Maltese game had lost a great football talent.

Friggieri's roll of honour

League Championship
Floriana FC 1909-10, 1911-12, 1912-13,1920-21
St George's 1916-17
Sliema Wanderers 1922-23, 1923-24

Cup Competition
Floriana 1910-11, 1912-13
St George's 1916-17
Sliema Wanderers 1921-22, 1923-24

Cassar Cup
Sliema Wanderers 1923-24

National team: Played five matches for MFA XI against Service teams.

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