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The national team – 31 years on

Malta defender Andrei Agius (right) tries to anticipate Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic during last Tuesday’s Euro 2016 qualifier. Croatia won 1-0. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Malta defender Andrei Agius (right) tries to anticipate Croatia striker Nikola Kalinic during last Tuesday’s Euro 2016 qualifier. Croatia won 1-0. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

In May 1984, the Malta FA, under the stewardship of George Abela, decided to embark on an ambitious project aimed at upgrading our national football team and propel it into the professional era.

The backdrop of this mammoth decision was the 12-1 humiliation in Seville, at the hands of Spain.

We had only been playing football, on some sort of turf, for only two-and-a-half years as the National Stadium at Ta’ Qali was seeded with some rudimental sparse grass in 1981.

It is now 34 years since we started playing football on turf.

Up until 1984, the national team was run purely on an amateur basis and prepared for international games literally on the eve of such fixtures without the necessary professional set-up that includes full-time coaching and medical staff, full-time players and a centre where to operate.

There were no professional pre-season camps and we trained on hard grounds.

To launch this project, the Malta FA chose a coach of Bulgarian origin, and since then, the Maltese team has had nine national coaches – two Maltese and seven foreign.

In line with the strategic thrust of Dr Abela, the technical sector was set up in 1986 and this provided our national team with all the quality amenities that professional football could dream of.

In parallel, the MFA launched the professional scheme through which most, if not all, of the squad members attended training full-time between Monday and Friday.

The youth sector was also addressed, a fully-fledged nursery scheme was introduced and a national football school was set up at Ta’ Qali.

Coach education was given more importance and from a total active nucleus of 38 coaches in 1983 (not even enough for all MFA-registered clubs), the numbers and quality at club and national team level grew from strength to strength to reach today’s high level of programmes offered at the MFA.

In synergy with all this development, the MFA also arranged a set of friendly internationals for all national teams to enhance the exposure of our players at all levels.

Since 1999/2000 – due to the excellent lobbying of the Maltese Olympic Committee – the citizenship law was amended and today we have the dual citizen status that permits Maltese living abroad to represent our country so long as they conform to UEFA and FIFA eligibility rules.

This is a huge bonus for our national team that was not possible until 2001 and has resulted in several naturalised athletes donning the red and white Maltese kit.

Furthermore, over the years, local competition rules continued to evolve so as to permit a greater number of foreign players to compete for clubs – another great incentive as their expertise and professionalism assist the local talent.

Over the years our national team players were beneficiaries of various performance-related bonus schemes.

In the past eight years or so, we also had the largest number of local talent playing overseas.

Status quo

But three MFA presidents and nine national coaches down the line, the obvious question one asks is where are we today?

In these last 31 years, the national team played no fewer than 264 games where our success rate is 18 per cent (having lost 189 matches).

Our team scored 166 goals, which gives us an average of 0.63 goals per game, and in the process conceded 558 goals – an average of 2.1 goals per game.

In all FIFA and UEFA qualification campaigns since 1984, our national team ended up as wooden spoonists with one exception – the 1994 World Cup qualifying group.

The MFA should tackle this matter by setting up a commission where all stakeholders sit down to identify the problem and then come up with a holistic strategy

According to the latest UEFA rankings our national team is placed 51st from 54 countries.

The ones behind us are San Marino (population 31,000), Andorra (population 82,000) and Gibraltar (population 32,000).

As for the FIFA rankings, at the end of my tenure as Malta coach in 1993, the team was ranked 83rd.

At the start of October, before our recent two defeats in Euro 2016 Group H, Malta was in 157th position in the world.

Should we accept such mediocrity after such heavy investment in the local game?

For the first few years after the MFA’s evolutionary process began in the 1980s, one could well understand that appreciable results would take time to come but now it’s three decades – a lifetime to restructure a sport.

We should now be reaping the toils of our labour not struggling as we are scraping the bottom of the barrel.

Hearing one of the television commentators at the end of the Norway-Malta qualifier earlier this month state that at least we only lost 2-0 is farcical to say the least.

Has this pundit not realised that with the new UEFA format goal difference is not the first yardstick for classification but direct confrontations are taken into consideration?

Before, when goals were taken into account, all teams went out to hammer the minnows of the occasion but now it’s of marginal importance.

A team like Norway, that was to figure in a decisive away match to a strong team like Italy next, would, in this revised scenario of qualification criteria rules, play the game, secure the result and then cruise until the final whistle, avoiding injuries and conserving their energies.

This new format works in favour of the weaker teams as the onslaught is avoided... piling up the scoreline against Malta is of no significance when within 48 hours they have a do-or-die encounter.

Small countries like Cyprus, Estonia, Iceland, Montenegro, Liechtenstein and Luxembourg, are all above us in the rankings.

Iceland have qualified for Euro 2016, so why can’t our national team make the quality leap?

This has nothing to do with a particular national coach or MFA president but with our national team and its future.

The question merits an answer and I think that the MFA should seriously tackle this matter by setting up a commission where all stakeholders sit down to identify the problem and then come up with a holistic strategy.

What do Iceland, Cyprus and others have that we don’t?

Football is by far the most popular sport on the islands.

It is also the only sport that can sustain itself on its own financial means and the only sport with an array of state-of-the-art facilities.

Malta and the Maltese deserve better.

Note: Pippo Psaila was national team coach between 1991 and 1993.

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