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Question time: The beautiful game

Why did the chairman of SportMalta react so badly to the national football team’s performance?

Luciano Busuttil, Chairman of SportMalta

Football is by far the most popular sport on the island, and our football history dates back to 1900.

In legendary games such as against Italy, Germany and England, our national team did us proud. Even though we lost, our players gave their 100 per cent and put up a good challenge.

But unfortunately, the dark moments were more frequent. The infamous 12-1 defeat in Spain remains the most painful memory to date. Each and every competition we take part in, sees us at the bottom of the list. I grew up with the unfortunate mentality that our football team would never ever succeed. The excuse back then was that we are a small country with a limited population. Watching Iceland succeed in international competitions both in Europe and on the world stage, has proved this excuse to be futile.

The recent defeat against the Faroe Islands, a team we used to beat, hurt our national pride. I expected a better reaction from all the team when facing Azerbaijan. Watching the game, seeing that our players could not cope for the whole duration of the match, and more than that, seeing the whole team defending a 1-1 tie, with our side marking just one shot on goal on the statistics sheet, was definitely not the reaction one expected from our national team.

We want them to play well, play to win, fight for every ball

I am tired of seeing our national team settling for mediocre results and performances. When athletes, players, put on a shirt with our flag and country name printed on it, they have a duty to play not just for their own sake but for the country they represent.

My reaction was fuelled by many factors. Primarily because I believe that with the current set-up we can do so much more. We have to get rid of the mentality of the ‘respectable defeat’.

Secondly, more youngsters have to be given the opportunity to play. We invest a lot of money in nurseries and football clubs. We invested huge resources with almost each and every football club having its own pitch. The government passed millions to the MFA to help clubs build their own facilities. We have improved considerably. I remember the time when the Ta’ Qali and Marsa Sports Grounds were the only pitches covered in turf. Now it is the other way round.

Thirdly, I follow all kinds of sport activities in Malta. There are other sports that bring prestigious results, like bowling, waterpolo, rugby, table football, billiards and shooting, with the latter receiving extensive investment in the new shooting ranges.  One must also refer to the considerable investment that has been made in our national pool and the new indoor Olympic-size pool for the benefit of aquatic sports.

Many of the sports I mentioned do not have a venue of their own for their players to train in. And yet it is a pleasure to watch, for instance, our national rugby team play – fighting for every ball till the final whistle. Our bowlers have to train and play in a commercial establishment – and yet they bring home prestigious results so much so that bowlers feature annually in the SportMalta awards.

In spite of all this, we still love football because it is the beautiful game. We love our national team, our colours. We want them to play well, play to win, fight for every ball.

Our players are talented. Our coach is the best in my opinion. He can understand what it means to be a Maltese football fan. Many thought and understood my criticism as a lack of trust in our team. On the contrary. It is because I know they can do more than they actually did that I cannot accept poor performances. I just hope that the team itself will not accept any more unsatisfactory performances like the ones against the Faroe Islands and Azerbaijan and show us what they are truly capable of.

Ryan Callus, Opposition spokesman for sports

Malta is a place where everyone should be entitled to express an opinion. Luciano Busuttil is entitled as much as Joe Citizen to be frustrated at the lack of positive results by Malta’s national football team. However, Busuttil is not merely Joe Citizen. Busuttil is much more than that. He occupies the post of chairman of SportMalta. The chairmanship places him in a privileged position to bring about the necessary changes we talk about needing so often, in football and beyond. Tough as they may be, the changes are necessary if our sports professionals are to become more successful in achieving results.

Going by SportMalta’s own mission statement, the agency ought to establish a success in sports and remain “determined to make a difference”. SportMalta cannot therefore render itself as an armchair critic. Busuttil’s criticism of the national team, and the manner in which this was done, is tantamount to acknowledging SportMalta’s own failure. Within this context, the condemnation by the Malta Football Association president Norman Darmanin Demajo is understandable. SportMalta must be the change agent which is desperately needed in certain sports disciplines.

Sports is the means that could unite us all

At this juncture, it is my duty as the Opposition spokesman for sport, to enquire what has the SportMalta chairman contributed to improve the situation of the performance of our national football team? One cannot point fingers at the way national teams are operating, when it is evident that a culture shift is necessary if this country is to seriously tackle the parochial way we live sports. Such culture shift must be across the sports disciplines and there is no one better placed than SportMalta tasked to implement this. In my first few months in this role, I have come to realise that sports is most often considered an extra-curricular activity in our schools; and a secondary priority in our homes and society at large. This should change.

Are high expectations from our national team justified? Some players play part-time as opposed to players in foreign national teams – this cannot ever offer our players a level playing field. Additionally, as Andre Schembri states in his book Għaxar snin nilgħab fl-Ewropa, our youngsters must be prepared and trained from a young age to be able to face off tough competition in foreign leagues. This will in turn increase their chances of being taken on by foreign teams, exposing them to a higher level of sport.

The current national team only has two players playing with foreign football clubs. Access to the game is easy, with clubs and nurseries in pretty much all localities around Malta and with a solid set-up. However, have we asked how come only a few get a chance to play abroad?

The Malta Football Association must increase its budget and resources dedicated to the development of young footballers such that good talent exhibited at the junior national teams is not lost to other sports or because they fail to find regular playing time at senior club level. Truth be told, the interests of the national team are often in conflict with domestic competitions, where local clubs are reluctant to let go of their prospective players.

When the day comes that our national team boasts an 11-player team with regular standings in foreign competitions, our expectations of them may be justified. Anything short of that would only serve to dilute our team’s determination, boldness, effectiveness, energy, resolve and persistence. For how can any athlete be successful if we, in particular those in positions that matter, shamelessly criticise their performance, knowing the game is not on an equal playing field?

This is not about pointing fingers and playing partisan games. In a country where division and rivarly reigns, sports is the means that could unite us all. It is the duty of us all who have our nation at heart to support our national team, in spite of its lack of positive results. Size does not matter, as Iceland recently proved to the world. But it is our duty, especially we who are in public office, to sit down together to find ways of empowering our athletes.

If you would like to put any questions to the two parties in Parliament send an e-mail marked clearly Question Time to editor@timesofmalta.com.

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