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Lightning strikes back

For 18 months, ace footballer Michael Mifsud did not play football despite offers from foreign clubs. For the first time he concedes it was a mistake and tells Kurt Sansone he was caught in a trap.

At 30 and after returning from an 18-month lull in his professional football career national team captain Michael Mifsud is enjoying a renaissance.

I am hungry for the game and I want to recuperate what I lost in the past year and a half- Michael Mifsud

He scored a gem of a goal in Malta’s draw against Georgia two weeks ago, his fourth in the last three international matches, and is currently in top form in the premier league with his new club Valletta FC.

Statistics easily make Mr Mifsud Malta’s best-ever player. He is the all-time top scorer with the national team having notched up 30 goals and has played professional football with clubs in the German, English and Norwegian leagues. Since his debut with the national team in 2000, Mr Mifsud was capped 87 times.

But it is not just statistics that speak for the nippy diminutive forward. His undisputed talent is also recognised by national team coach John Buttigieg who for the past year and a half kept him in the squad despite not playing regular club football.

Bar two brief stints with Valletta FC and Qormi FC, Mr Mifsud spent the best part of the past 18 months without a club. He turned down a number of offers from foreign clubs with the official line always being that he was waiting for the right offer after having last played in the English Division One with Barnsley.

The elusive search for a foreign club and his relatively long absence from the game baffled football enthusiasts and also led Malta Football Association president Norman Darmanin Demajo last year to question whether a club-less Mr Mifsud should retain the national team captain’s armband.

This all changed at the beginning of summer when Mr Mifsud signed a five-year contract with Valletta FC ending the player’s barren journey. He has bounced back and in his own words he is “hungry for the game”.

But reflecting on the career break that risked compromising his achievements, Mr Mifsud for the first time concedes that it was a combination of bad decisions and trusting the wrong people.

“At some point in life you make wrong decisions. Unfortunately, I made wrong decisions in my football career but sometimes people who are supposed to help end up working against you. Nobody knows this but I was caught in a small trap where a person who was supposed to help me, worked against me,” he says.

It is a chapter Mr Mifsud is eager to put behind him and one he is reluctant to give details about even though he does lift the lid.

Football is not just the 90-minute game that people see on television or follow at the stadium, he says.

“Football is nice but after passing through some bad experiences I came to the conclusion that there are a lot of bad people surrounding the game.”

He speaks about “management” issues unrelated to football’s core that is playing and which can distract players.

“You would have done your best to better your career and then you trust yourself in the hands of people whose only interest is their own. They are issues that distract you and ones that I wanted to get away from,” he says, justifying the break that helped him relax and refresh.

Mr Mifsud never stopped training during his career break but does not blame people for questioning his decision.

“There were people who felt sorry because they thought I was throwing away my talent but I felt I needed a break and now I am hungry for the game and I want to recuperate what I lost in the past year and a half,” he says, displaying the same ambition that propelled him to play with foreign clubs.

Georgia coach Temuri Ketsbaia conceded after the Malta match that Mr Mifsud was a very talented player and expressed his surprise at the fact that he is not playing overseas.

Mr Mifsud smiles and says that despite signing a five-year contract with Valletta FC he has an agreement with the club that allows him to join a foreign team.

“I can play abroad anytime but it will have to be something good for me to leave now because I am settled and happy here. But you never know what is round the corner.”

He was warmly welcomed by the Valletta supporters and teammates, most of who play with the national team. And Mr Mifsud has not disappointed with some dazzling performances as the league champions maintain their record-seeking unbeaten run, which started in the final months of the 2009/10 season.

Valletta is just two games short of breaking the longstanding record of 37 unbeaten league matches held by Hibs. It is a record they hope to equal today in their match against Mosta.

It is Valletta FC’s penchant for victory and success that lured Mr Mifsud to the capital city. “Valletta is the best domestic team in terms of support and its capability to win honours and I think I made the right choice.”

Mr Mifsud says that settling down at Valletta has helped him to relax mentally and this explains his top form.

“I always give my hundred per cent... I love playing football and I always try to do my utmost and more,” he says.

This year Valletta managed to go through the first qualifying round of the Champions’ League only to be stopped by Lithuanian side Ekranas. The champions lost 3-2 in Malta, a task that made it all the harder for them to seek redress in the away match. Valletta went on to lose 1-0 in Lithuania ending their dream of qualifying from two rounds.

Mr Mifsud rues the lost opportunity and admits lack of concentration in the home match allowed the opponents to score easily. Ekranas scored three goals before Valletta fought back.

“We could have done it but we conceded easy goals. We were also unfortunate but it could have been a lack of concentration,” he says.

The most a Maltese team has ever progressed in European football is two preliminary rounds, unlike Cyprus where clubs have even managed to reach the group stages of the Champions’ League.

Football enthusiasts often ask whether Maltese clubs can emulate the European successes of their Cypriot counterparts given that they come from a small country like Malta with no international football stature.

Mr Mifsud cautions against a direct comparison between Maltese and Cypriot clubs despite the similarities between both countries. He says the level of investment in clubs is very high in Cyprus and this is what is needed in Malta.

“We have to remember that in Cyprus every club has its own stadium and that makes a difference. We have to invest more in clubs, their nurseries and the infrastructure they require. Greater coordination between clubs and the MFA is also important.”

He yearns for more professional set ups in clubs that will enable skilled children to continue playing football when they arrive at the crucial age when they have to decide whether to take up a football career or continue studying.

“I took the risk of becoming a professional player and I managed with a lot of sacrifice and work but having the proper structures in place will enable more players to continue rather than dropping out,” he says.

With the national team in the doldrums, having managed only one point in the European Nations Cup 2012 qualifying group stage and almost always ending up last in its group, some argue that stronger clubs will help to bolster the national team.

Speaking from experience Mr Mifsud insists the level of international football is extremely high and admits it is not easy for Malta.

Against Italy I will play to win- Michael Mifsud

“We do miracles when we obtain good results. We drew against Georgia, a team that is ranked 63 while we are ranked at 167. People may argue that Georgia is a small team but their players all play professional football in foreign leagues.”

Malta was drawn in the same group as Italy in the World Cup 2014 qualifying stages. The home match will be eagerly awaited for by football enthusiasts, who will get to see the Italian superstars play so close.

Mr Mifsud is also relishing the chance to pit his skills against the Italian giants and says the game will be fun because it poses a formidable challenge.

Does he feel intimidated playing against top quality players?

“Against Italy I will play to win. The game starts goalless, with 11 players on each side. It is true that on paper they are better than us but my friends and I believe we can obtain a positive result, why not?”

It is this winning mentality that has accompanied Mr Mifsud throughout his football career and which he concedes is the reason why he managed to leave his mark wherever he played.

“If I don’t start a game with a winning mentality, I might as well not even walk onto the pitch,” he says.

Mr Mifsud adds that it has been a characteristic of his since a very young age to relish a challenge and try hard to achieve his goal. He says former national team players like Ernest Barry, Martin Gregory, Carmel Busuttil and David Carabott had motivated him from an early age.

“What does my opponent have better than me? He has two hands, two legs and can head a ball like me. What he can do I can do and possibly even better. My opponent may be better than me but I cannot throw in the towel. I don’t fear anyone. I enter the pitch wanting to achieve a positive result.”

Mr Mifsud takes offence at the prevalent perception that Maltese football is corrupt. Teams win and lose, he adds, noting that even world-class clubs like Barcelona have their negative streaks.

“I do not believe corruption exists because you cannot do something you love and do it badly... my job is to give my utmost in the ground,” he says.

Mr Mifsud’s answer sounds somewhat naive but coming from a player who is in love with the game and who made sacrifices to overstep the limitations of a small country, it is understandable.

Whether dejected supporters share the same feeling is another story altogether but Mr Mifsud insists that offensive language directed towards players when things go bad gives him an extra boost.

“Funnily enough it helps me want to achieve more,” he says smiling.

For many football youngsters Mr Mifsud is an idol, a quality player they would like to emulate in skill... and hair style. However, he says this status does not wash on him.

“I feel I am a normal person who is trying to do his job well. It is nice to see children looking up to you and feeling happy because they would have met you. I used to motivate myself in this way as well when I was young.”

Recently the association representing footballers joined with the General Workers’ Union in a bid to provide better support to players in their dealings with clubs and agents. The move was frowned upon by some club administrators after they saw the move as a threat.

But Mr Mifsud believes the development is positive and much in line with structures that are found in foreign leagues.

“These are professional ways of administering the game and I believe they can help improve the situation. It is a positive step forward and a player should have somebody to defend him.

“From my experience abroad unions always helped the clubs because although they may appear to have conflicting roles the final aim is to improve the game. We obviously still have to see how the system in Malta will work.”

Although he exudes confidence and ambition, Mr Mifsud is unassuming and shrugs off the suggestion that he is the best player of all time.

“Believe me I do not think about these things. I go down to play and do my job. The important thing is to play good collective football.”

He says that his parents influenced him a lot in his career since they were always behind him.

But alongside his parents and the likes of former footballers Carmel Busuttil and Martin Gregory, Mr Mifsud also lists God as his guiding light.

“The person who helped me most was God. I always pray to him... I believe,” the footballer says.

And much in line with the biblical parable of the talents, Mr Mifsud has not kept his talent hidden but used it to achieve personal success and please a Maltese football audience that can claim to have its own superstar.

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

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