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Willie Vassallo - an inspirational midfielder

Willie Vassallo was a key figure in Floriana's glorious era in the sixties and seventies.

Willie Vassallo was a key figure in Floriana's glorious era in the sixties and seventies.

Since the opening of the then new Gżira Primary, in September 1956, the school's football team enjoyed several successes.

The senior team were Primary Schools champions in 1962-63, 1963-64 and 1965-66 while the juniors won the league in 1956-57, 1957-58, 1962-63, 1966-67, 1967-68 and 1973-74.

The school's best season was probably 1962-63 when the boys carried off both championships, thus becoming the first school team to win both titles in the same season. The star that year was none other than Willie Vassallo.

Born in Gżira on September 14, 1949, Vassallo is considered by many as the one of the best Maltese players of the post-war period. His immense potential, which was already evident at primary school level, came to the fore when he joined Gżira's minors team.

By that time, although still 17, he had already represented Malta in two international events, namely, the schools FISEC competition and the UEFA Youth Tournament.

His displays in the minor league soon attracted the attention of Lolly Borg, then coach of Floriana FC. Borg, an excellent judge of football talent, moved in and signed the budding youngster.

Floriana soon realised what a gem they had in their hands. When, at the start of the 1966-67 season, the club decided to give a run in the league to their youngsters, Vassallo was the first to win a place in the team.

Vassallo was a hard-working midfielder, in the mould of Manchester United stalwart Paul Scholes. I have never seen a more energetic player than Vassallo.

His non-stop running in midfield usually gave Floriana the edge in that most important part of the field.

His passing was impeccable and he also had this knack of coming from behind his forwards to score important goals.

It was not long before Vassallo became the most important cog in Floriana's all-conquering team of that era. Between 1966 and 1977 he led the Greens in their quest to win all honours the local game had to offer.

Always the centre of attraction, he urged his team-mates to even greater efforts. Nineteen major honours are testimony to his skills and, above all, his leadership qualities. The latter was also recognised by the national team selectors who made him captain.

An automatic choice for Malta, he made his debut on December 30, 1969 against Luxembourg. It was the start of a long and glorious career with the National XI which, however, came to a premature end when he moved to Australia in 1978.

His best game for Malta was probably the European Championship encounter against England at Wembley Stadium in 1971.

The lush turf of the old temple of football had broken many fine international footballers in the past but it had no such effect on Vassallo. Playing with great determination, he inspired his bewildered team-mates to come out of their shell and give the Englishmen a fight for their money.

England were expecting a double-digit score and some even suggested that a new international goals record was in the offing. That this failed to materialise was due mainly to Vassallo's five-star performance and, of course, his team-mates who, following his example, played their hearts out for their country.

Vassallo's best season in Malta was 1973-74 when he was honoured with the MFA Footballer of the Year award.

It seemed that there was no limit to what Vassallo could achieve but in 1978 a bolt of lightning hit the Floriana camp when Vassallo announced his intention to migrate to Australia.

His departure affected the team badly and marked the end of Floriana's domination in Maltese football.

As things stand at the moment, it seems that Floriana badly need another Willie Vassallo to restore the club to its former glory.

Honours won

Footballer of the Year: 1973-74.

League championship: 1967-68; 1969-70; 1972-73; 1974-75; 1976-77.

FA Trophy: 1966-67; 1971-72; 1975-76.

Independence Cup: 1968-69; 1972-73; 1975-76; 1976-77.

Sons of Malta Cup: 1967-68; 1968-69; 1973-74; 1975-76.

Testaferrata Cup: 1975-76.

Christmas Cup: 1967-68; 1968-69.

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