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Serious incidents mar World Cup match against Poland

The Maltese national team as they lined up for the infamous match against Poland on December 7, 1980. Back: Norman Buttigieg, Ernest Spiteri Gonzi, Joe Curmi, John Holland, Leli Fabri, John Bonello. Front: Emmanuel Farrugia, Dennis Fenech, Edwin Farrugia, Ġużi Xuereb, George Xuereb.

The Maltese national team as they lined up for the infamous match against Poland on December 7, 1980. Back: Norman Buttigieg, Ernest Spiteri Gonzi, Joe Curmi, John Holland, Leli Fabri, John Bonello. Front: Emmanuel Farrugia, Dennis Fenech, Edwin Farrugia, Ġużi Xuereb, George Xuereb.

In 1980, a 70-year-old dream was finally fulfilled. At last, Malta had its own stadium, one that was built to international standards at the time.

The new venue eventually solved one of our biggest sporting handicaps. Football is a game which is best played on natural turf. A good, soft surface was seen as a must if Maltese football were to improve, but unfortunately, the ground at Ta' Qali was not immediately made available to the MFA.

The MFA Council was still locked in a dispute with the Ministry of Sport when the stadium was inaugurated and, at that time, no solution was in sight.

In fact, more trouble was brewing for the Malta FA.

On December 7, 1980 Malta met Poland in what proved to be an explosive World Cup qualifying match. The game was played at the old Gżira Stadium in front of a sizeable crowd of eager Maltese supporters.

The Poles had a fine team in those days. They had a good chance of qualifying for the finals and their sights were set on registering a massive victory against tiny Malta. They attacked from the start and for the first 20 minutes, their pressure was unrelenting. Fortunately for Malta, the visitors missed two clear-cut chances which enabled the locals to gain courage and confidence.

For the rest of the first half, Malta managed to share the exchanges. But, 10 minutes into the second half, Smolarek finally broke the deadlock.

The Maltese looked shocked at first but reacted well.

Leonard Farrugia exchanged the ball with George Xuereb but his inviting cross found no takers. Then, a few minutes later, Leli Fabri wasted a golden opportunity when he headed over the bar from an ideal position.

The Maltese paid dearly for these lapses. Four minutes later, Lipka received the ball in a dubious offside position. Everyone's attention turned to the linesman who was flagging for offside. Lipka, knowing that he was offside, half-heartedly rolled the ball into the net but to the amazement of the home team and the fans, referee Dusan Maksimovic awarded the goal.

The Maltese supporters were incensed. Some lost their head and started to shout abuse at the referee.

Stones and other missiles rained down on the linesman who certainly had no fault in the incident. When the Yugoslav referee tried to approach the 'hot' area, he was given the same treatment.

Somehow the game was restarted. Dzuba and Fenech were booked for misconduct and it was then that the real trouble started. Hundreds of objects were thrown at everyone in sight.

At this point, MFA president Giuseppe Mifsud Bonnici descended onto the pitch to try and calm the situation.

He appealed to the crowd to stop the violence, knowing that FIFA would ban the stadium if the game was abandoned and that the MFA did not have another venue to host its international matches. His appeal, however, fell on deaf ears.

Some people even read a twinge of politics in the situation. Others argued that some of the trouble-makers in the home crowd wanted the game to be abandoned.

In the meantime, objects were thrown at the Polish bench from the enclosure and Malta coach Victor Scerri had to escort the Polish officials towards the relative safety of the centre-circle.

The referee, in those circumstances, had no alternative but to call off the game. The trouble did not end there, however, and it took him over half-an-hour to reach the comfort of the dressing rooms.

These incidents had serious repercussions for Maltese football. The MFA faced a hefty fine and the possibility of having the stadium banned. Another scenario was that FIFA would decide that Malta's next home game be played behind closed doors. Whatever the punishment, the MFA found itself in a grave and serious situation.

At the end, FIFA was very lenient. The stadium was banned for only one match, forcing the MFA to hold Malta's next home game in nearby Sicily.

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