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More than just a game

Malta Football Association president NORMAN DARMANIN DEMAJO tells Herman Grech he is determined to challenge the status quo.

You’ve been in the job for more than three months now. What have you contributed so far?

My main focus so far has been the financial side – helping clubs that need assistance to improve their infrastructure. We’ve moved away from the previous structure which relied on one man.

You vowed to give more power to the clubs and to inject them with a bigger share of gate money. How will MFA make up for the shortfall in its coffers?

The MFA has made a handsome profit in recent years. In my opinion, as an association, the MFA should not be making a handsome profit. Yes, you should balance the books; yes, you should have enough funds to finance your projects; but the priorities were wrong.

That’s probably why I’m president today, because the clubs realised you cannot have the MFA earning €1 million a year and yet €300,000 to €400,000 of it is coming from gate money taken by the same clubs.

The agreement for gate money was signed by George Abela 30 years ago when the MFA didn’t have funds from Uefaor Fifa. So our starting point was to give the clubs what was theirs. We even provided free usage of our facilities.

Do you think you can fulfil all your promises?

The first crucial promise was that every football club in Malta should have a decent place to train. You need money for that and we’re taking care of it.

We need to take football out of Ta’ Qali and into different regions. We need grounds that can accommodate 1,000 people. We also need to make Ta’ Qali more accessible.

We need to change the attitude because the MFA had isolated itself and created a bad atmosphere with the clubs. It’s an accumulation of years of bad attitude.

The national stadium at Ta’ Qali is clearly outdated, and frankly badly designed, despite the upgrade. Can you see a long-term plan to replace it?

It’s impossible to replace it as a national stadium. It holds 17,200 people. Architecturally it is built in the old bowl style with a track which was never used.

I agree that as a football stadium alone it has a lot of shortcomings but we’re addressing that issue by starting to utilise it as an entertainment venue, like hosting concerts. It could help us increase income in the process. We want to expand corporate facilities.

We’re looking at the traffic system at Ta’ Qali – we’re looking at things which have been lying there for too many years.

Are you happy with the number of fans on the terraces?

I think clubs are becoming more aware that the number of fans on terraces will now translate into money in their pockets. This has never happened before. All clubs were running at a loss.

Now they are relating to the reality that the more fans you get on the terraces, the more money you’ll receive.

Are you already seeing a change in numbers?

I think so. Clubs are encouraging more people to watch the team play.

Don’t you think many will, however, remain reluctant to watch what is often considered mediocre football?

I won’t go into that from a spectator point of view because if you support your team you still go. But Ta’ Qali is not a nice place to be if you want to take your family to watch football. You are surrounded by vociferous and aggressive fans.

What we’re going to introduce is the family stand, to tap the under-used and under-marketed Millennium Stand, where for a very reasonable fee a family can watch a match. We’re also going to introduce corporate seats.

But I wouldn’t change my mind and go to the stadium to watch poor quality football, despite the reasonable prices.

The quality is not the best in Europe, I’ll give you that. That is due to one factor – we are amateurs, much as we like to think we’re professionals. Our players go to work and then they train in the evenings.

Unless we can make the first step into semi-professionalism, which basically means you train daily in the afternoon, it’s difficult to raise the level of football.

We did have a professional scheme in the past.

Yes, but we only had it at Ta’ Qali, which cannot keep shouldering the entire weight of Maltese football. It has to go down to the lower levels. How can clubs plan to introduce semi-professional schemes unless they have basic facilities?

Do you think it’s ingrained in our culture to dissuade our children from taking up sports?

Of course. When you’re a professional footballer in Malta you only earn something for a very short period of time. Responsible parents would not encourage their children to play football. Once they get to a certain age, the academic responsibility grows.

On the other hand, Maltese players who got the chance to play abroad pounced on the opportunity. You get to earn decent money. If you’re young, excited and talented there’s nothing better than living the life of a professional footballer.

The national captain and our star player Michael Mifsud has only been contracted to a club for two of the past 20 months or so. Does it worry you that our captain has ended up in this state?

Not only does it worry me, it saddens me. From what I hear, Mifsud has had offers from various clubs but refused them.

Offers from local clubs or foreign?

Foreign. Mifsud has proven he can make it. If you can make it in England you can make it everywhere. It’s one of the toughest leagues in the world. You need physical and have mental strength – like (Sheffield United striker) Daniel Bogdanovic, who’s also made it.

Mifsud had the opportunities. But for reasons only he can explain, whenever he was offered a contract, he didn’t accept it. He was always waiting for something better.

Football moves fast. It doesn’t wait. So yes, it pains me, it worries me and it saddens me that a player with Mifsud’s talent doesn’t have a club.

Do you think greed was to blame?

It’s not fair to judge unless I know the facts.

But as MFA president, isn’t it in your interest that the national team captain is playing for a club?

Yes, it’s in my interest but it’s not exactly under my control. So I can’t tell Mifsud he should sign a contract with this club or the other. He is no fool. He knows what he wants. He knows where he can make it.

Until 10 days ago he was offered a very good contract with an American professional team but as far as I know he didn’t sign or didn’t agree (terms). According to newspapers, other British clubs were interested in him and they didn’t agree terms either.

Do you think he should still retain the captain’s armband?

No, I don’t.

Why?

Because a captain is a leader and not just the guy who wears the armband. Leadership involves a lot of qualities which at the moment (give rise to) prejudice in Mifsud because if the leader of your team isn’t playing there’s something missing. So in my opinion, he shouldn’t be captain.

Did you share your views with the national team coach?

No – because theoretically that’s his call. I don’t interfere. Whether I agree with it or not is another issue.

Some media reports claimed you said it would help the mentality of the national team if we have a foreigner as coach. Is this correct?

I think there are two issues with the national team coach. I don’t think we have any Maltese coach who has the experience (at international coaching level). The idea that you engage a foreign coach with international experience must surely help the team, confidence-wise and psychologically – and to also tackle fear – which is one of the biggest problems we have.

I don’t have a problem with Maltese coaches. We have some very good ones, but given a choice I would prefer a foreigner because our coaches lack international experience.

The problem with foreign coaches is they don’t understand the Maltese mentality. We go through transition periods and eventually the foreign coach finds out he has to adapt to us and not the other way round. I think in the end that probably balances out the pros and cons.

Are you happy with the national team scheme?

No, not at all. I’ve already expressed it but it’s too early in my presidency to tackle it. However, it’s no secret that othenational team set-up is detached; they do whatever they want within the MFA.

It’s run by arrogant people who abuse their power, and over the next few weeks it’s definitely an issue we have to look at. We have to first reclaim the territory and then see if we can come up with a national team scheme that recognises our needs and is more user-friendly for our clubs and for the future development of the game.

Even with the national team coach, in my opinion, success is not about making excuses. For the past 10 years, the MFA has invested €9.9 million in the development of our national team squads. Look at the results – they speak for themselves.

All we have is 9.9 million excuses. We need to focus on what we have and on getting results.

But who’s responsible for this?

The MFA is now.

You said it’s a free-for-all.

All I said is Ta’ Qali is a republic within a republic run by coaches and staff who in my opinion deal arrogantly with whoever tries to express an opinion. That is not right.

There’s a big divide between clubs and the MFA technical centre and I promise the clubs I will bring that divide down to make Ta’ Qali more user-friendly and will not remain the elite territory of a few arrogant coaches.

There is still the belief that Maltese football is riddled with corruption. Is this merely a misconception?

Today corruption is everywhere, so it’s not only in Malta where doubt is cast on matches. I don’t know if there’s corruption in Malta. I suppose there could be.

The MFA put structures in place to investigate matters reported to it. But again, how effective are these structures? They’re just rules which when tested end up being very limited in the fight against corruption.

But at least they send the right message. Joe Mifsud made it clear there would be zero tolerance to corruption. Don’t you think this should be the strategy?

This zero tolerance is a buzzword with everyone – and then when things happen... What I’d like to see is what happens when you discover (corruption)...

Are you implying that when corruption claims against former officials of clubs like Marsaxlokk surfaced they weren’t tackled in the right manner?

No, they took a long time... There was another case which dragged on forever. They probably realised that saying we had ‘zero tolerance’ was one thing and taking effective action was another. It was an eye opener and put regulations in place which might speed up the process in case it gets reported.

If someone is caught in the act of being bribed, what would you do?

There’s a corruption board and it will summon witnesses. It’s a mistake to think that having a legal framework in place is going to change behaviour. What we have to investigate is why people sell matches in the first place. They do it for money.

Can you envisage a time when footballers will feel they don’t need extra money from bribes?

I think once a semi-professionalism scheme is introduced, where there is more at stake, yes. Why are the highest paid players around the world never implicated in corruption? Because they have a lot to lose.

Here, what do they have to lose? Unfortunately, we’re far from that.

You and your predecessor Joe Mifsud were at loggerheads for several years. How would you describe your relationship now?

We don’t have a relationship. He was president and I was elected president. I spent 10 years in exile for a crime I never committed.

We acknowledge each other’s presence but after 10 years of being unable to represent my club as a delegate, and after 10 years of hearing that I damaged football, that I couldn’t be trusted, after being removed from Uefa, its time to move on. No, we don’t meet every day and have a coffee.

Do you feel comfortable with him around? He was an observer during the last MFA council meeting.

He’s entitled to be an observer. It makes no difference to me. He’s got a right to come to council meetings. He doesn’t have a right to participate.

It’s unusual, it’s never happened, but if he wants to attend it’s fine with me. At least he’s getting an opportunity I never had.

Do you see him as a shadow lurking in the background, ready to pounce on you the minute you make your first mistake?

I cannot say what he feels, but if I deserve to be pounced upon, by all means, I have no problem with that.

There’s been animosity for several years. What triggered it off?

There’s no animosity. I was treasurer of the MFA. I made allegations which still stand till this day. I asked the MFA president to answer questions which remain relevant. I had a right to ask questions. I got no answers and there was no board of inquiry, and I eventually walked away.

When he recently went on national TV and said I had harmed football I wrote to him to retract what he said or I would take all the measures needed to defend my integrity. He didn’t do it, so I wrote to him again. I wrote to the inquiry board, listing the allegations which I would like to be heard.

All this ‘zero tolerance’ to corruption can be mere fancy words. When I informed him about allegations of corruption and my request to investigate, he didn’t. Instead he took me to court.

Is there anything you wish you hadn’t said about Joe Mifsud?

Personally, I’ve never said anything about him. I’ve asked questions which remain unanswered.

We’re still meeting in court. A few months ago he went on a local programme and challenged me. He called me a liar and challenged me to sue him. So I said fine – I didn’t want to but if he called me a liar I’ll sue him. I’ve never said anything against Joe Mifsud. You can check my quotes anywhere.

In the run-up to the MFA election, Joe Mifsud said the MFA would lose credibility in Uefa’s eyes if you were elected. Have there been any repercussions?

Absolutely not.

What was he talking about?

Ask him. Invite him for an interview.

Would you back Joe Mifsud (currently a Uefa vice-president), if he were to seek re-election to the Uefa executive committee?

If someone proposed him it’s another matter. If you’re asking whether I’d propose him, of course not.

Will anyone else propose him?

I guess anyone can propose him but I’m not going to propose him.

If he were proposed, would you back the bid, just to have a Maltese person on Uefa?

It doesn’t make any difference to Malta if it has a member on the executive committee. Uefa doesn’t work that way. God forbid if it did. There’s no advantage or disadvantage to be gained by having someone on the executive committee.

Personally I wouldn’t propose him. That requires a level of personal trust on my part. I experienced 10 years where my interests were ignored for no good reason at all. I forgive, but I’m not going to put myself in a position where I can be harmed. It’s as simple as that.

Watch excerpts of the interview on www.timesofmalta.com.

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