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Gates close at Gzira ground after 60 years

Hibernians skipper Guzi Xuereb (left) about to exchange banners with the Red Star Belgrade captain in one of the last three European matches played at the old Empire Stadium.

Hibernians skipper Guzi Xuereb (left) about to exchange banners with the Red Star Belgrade captain in one of the last three European matches played at the old Empire Stadium.

The gates of the Empire Stadium were closed for the last time on November 29, 1981 at the end of the Premier League game between Sliema Wanderers and Senglea Athletics. The famous old ground had seen almost 60 years of regular sporting activity. A great tradition had come to an end.

There had been several interesting and peculiar events at the ground since its inauguration on November 4, 1922. We can say that the stadium and its predecessor, the Empire Sports Ground, had fostered the development of the game in Malta.

All things must come to an end, however, and the end for the stadium came on that fateful day in November, 1981. However, the last important episode, or to be exact, the last series of events to be held at Gzira was that season's European club competition matches.

It would have been great to write that the end of the Empire Stadium was marked with some great performance by one or other of Malta's participants that year.

Unfortunately in 1982 Malta's participation in Europe was, to say the least, very disappointing.

Now, a quarter of a century later, no matter how one looks at it, one finds it hard to pinpoint a single positive aspect. One exception perhaps, was Hibs' home game against Red Star Belgrade in the Champions Cup.

At the time, Hibs were going through one of the best periods in their history.

They were the last team to win the championship at the stadium and also earned the distinction of winning the first title at the new National Stadium in Ta' Qali.

The second edition of the Premier League kicked off on the dry, hard pitch of the Gzira ground and finished on the green turf of Ta' Qali. It was a historic occasion which opened new frontiers in the history of the game on our islands.

In the meantime, despite the completion of works on the National Stadium, the three leading Maltese clubs had to host their European opponents for the last time on the notorious sandy pitch at Gzira.

Hibernians were rather unlucky to lose their home match against Red Star by the odd goal in three. The Maltese champions gave as much as they got and richly deserved a draw. A goal in the last minute, however, gave Red Star an undeserved advantage for the second leg.

In Belgrade it was a different story altogether. The Yugoslavs went on a rampage and whipped Hibs 8-1.

Floriana outclassed

In the Cup Winners' Cup, Floriana were outclassed by Standard Liege. At the stadium, the Belgians won rather easily 3-1 and then went on to beat the Greens 9-0 at home.

Encouraged by their home crowd, Standard Liege opened an all-out bombardment on Floriana's fort. The Maltese were swamped by the Belgians' tremendous pressure.

Standard Liege tried their luck the moment they got the ball and from any position. Goalkeeper Robert Gatt was forced time and again to come to the rescue of his defenders.

Despite the scoreline, Gatt was undoubtedly the best player on the field and he deserved the title of Man of the Match.

The other European match of the season was Sliema Wanderers' meeting with Aris Salonika, of Greece, in the UEFA Cup. This was the closest encounter on aggregate of the last three European matches played at the Empire Stadium.

However, although the Blues conceded the least number of goals, they were still well and truly beaten.

At home, the Wanderers lost 2-4 against a side that surely could not be ranked among the greats of Europe. Then, in Salonika, they lost 0-4 in a one-sided game that was completely dominated by the home team.

The era of the Empire Stadium had come to an end and like an old horse who had given its last ounce of strength, it lay down to die.

It was not long before, abandoned and forlorn, that it was left to crumble into oblivion.

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