Football in Malta has started to make a real impression in European competitions over the last couple of years but, as Paul Grech reports, the new season starts under a cloud amid controversy over match-fixing allegations involving two of the clubs in the Maltese Premier League.
Days before the Maltese football season is due to start and still the future of Marsaxlokk FC and Vittoriosa Stars, the two clubs at the centre of corruption charges, is unknown after hearings were repeatedly postponed. For years, rumours of corruption have undermined the credibility of local football but when these were brought up the official reply always was that unless someone stepped forward with proof nothing could be done.
Over the last year, however, attitudes have finally started to change. It started last August when Albanian coach Ilir Pelinku and former referee Joe Attard where charged with trying to fix the Champions League qualifier between Marsaxlokk and Slaven Belupo. The local side were cleared of any wrongdoing but soon they were in the news once again when, after a crucial game against Msida St. Joseph that saw them gaining access to the Championship Pool and condemning Msida to the relegation pool, the Msida goalkeeper revealed that he had been approached to throw the game. Marsaxlokk assistant-coach Peter Hartshorne and former player Claude Mattocks admitted the charges in court but both received only a suspended sentence and a €500 fine.
At around the same time, Vittoriosa Stars’ vice-president Emanuel Ancilleri was also taken to court after allegations that he had tried to bribe players before a game with St. Georges and, to further complicate matters, Vittoriosa then went on to win promotion to the Premier League. With relegation being one of the possible punishments – and what most are anticipating – it was thought that both cases would be dealt with swiftly. After all, here was the perfect opportunity for the local football association to prove that it was willing to act swiftly and decidedly against corruption.
This, however, hasn’t happened. Instead, the impression is that the two cases are being viewed as an inconvenience with hearings being regularly postponed and the specially appointed investigations board dragging its feet in delivering a judgement – so much so that on the eve of the season no one knows what is going to happen. Will Marsaxlokk and Vittoriosa be allowed to play in the Premier League? If not, when will Msida and Pieta Hotspurs, the two clubs who would replace them, get to know? After all, neither club has been preparing for a season in the top flight.
This delayed justice has also overshadowed the positive news to have come out so far this season where Valletta FC did admirably well in the Europa League and were within a few minutes of being the first Maltese club to make it through two rounds of European football. The arrival of coach Tom Caanen, as well as his fellow Dutchmen Jordi Cruyff and Denk Van Ouden, has taken the club to another level and, coupled with the local transfers of Terrence Scerri (Hibernians) and Kevin Sammut (Marsaxlokk), make Valletta the favourites to regain the title that they missed out on so dramatically last season.
In their way they will find Sliema Wanderers who seem revitalised after their success in the FA Trophy. Their squad has been significantly boosted by the arrival of Maltese player of the year Clayton Failla (Hibernians), Ryan Fenech (Hamrun Spartans) and Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza (Birkirkara) which puts the onus on coach Stephen Azzopardi to aim for the top prize after a couple of lean years. If the summer has been a positive one for Valletta and Sliema, however, it hasn’t been that rosy for champions Hibernians. Last season’s success was just reward for a policy that focuses on the development of young players with the arrival of coach Mark Miller proving to be the catalyst that they needed.
Since the dramatic final day draw with Valletta which secured their title win, however, they have lost two key players – Clayton Failla and Terence Scerri – to their two closest rivals, losses that seem likely to hit them hard. Former Torquay striker Iyseden Christie has arrived on trial and looks like he could be a useful acquisition but it looks unlikely that his arrival alone will be enough for them reclaim the title. Writing them off, however, would be foolish as they still retain a lot of quality. Another club that, like Hibernians, have been focusing much of their energy on youth have been Birkirkara. Yet this has been a difficult summer for them as well. Victor Zammit , the man who transformed Birkirkara from a yo-yo club into one of the island’s top sides, resigned whilst manager John Buttigieg left to take over the national team.
Playing wise there hasn’t been much change with Dutch striker Sylvan Comvalious coming from relegated Hamrun Spartans in the hope that he solves their problems up front whilst their search for reliable goalkeeper continues. To replace Buttigieg they have gone for former Valletta boss Pawlu Zammit who paid for his failure to win the league by being dismissed. Yet he is a young and talented man who will do well although a fourth place finish seems to be the best that they can hope for given the number of young players he will have to count on.
Floriana will know all about Birkirkara’s situation for they too have been stuck in a footballing limbo: too good to go down but without the necessary quality and strength in depth to challenge the top clubs. The arrival of Irishman Roddy Collins woud indicate a new found ambition but if that really is the case then the expectation is that the players already at the club will perform better than they have in the past since the squad is largely unchanged from last season. Collins has been attempted to bring some players from the Irish leagues but so far none have actually signed. Unless that changes, it will be more of the same from them.
Having managed to survive in their debut season in the top flight, Qormi are now looking to consolidate their place there. As they did last summer, most of the players they’ve signed are experienced veterans who know all about football in the Premier League. This might not be the most adventurous of policies and certainly not the cheapest but it should lead to a relatively tranquil season that will act as a stepping stone for further progress. If Qormi do make it to the Championship Pool, the club that they’re most likely to replace is Marsaxlokk FC. Champions just four years ago, their decline has been a steady one since president Victor Scriha opted to take-over Valletta FC. What may prove to be more serious for them is the already mentioned pending case of corruption brought against them which, if proven, would probably see them getting relegated. This has hampered their transfer activity, and whilst they have lost a number of players they haven’t been in a position to bring too many players.
At the other scale to Marsaxlokk are Tarxien Rainbows. Promoted last year, they were widely expected to go straight back down. That this didn’t happen was largely due to the inspired signing of Brazilian striker David Bueno who scored twenty three goals in as many games. Most of the top local clubs were lining up to buy him but instead he has opted to move to Poland. To replace him – and attempt to confound expectations once again – they’ve gone for two more Brazilians (Antonio Everton Pereira and Anderson Mendez Ribeiro) who already look a cut above what is available locally.
Taking inspiration from Tarxien are First Division champions Dingli Swallows who are putting faith on the players who got them here rather then spend money they don’t have in order to chase marginally better results. Dingli’s story is pretty inspiring in itself. On the verge of relegation to the Third Division when John Zammit took over as player-manager five years ago, he has transformed the club and took them to two promotions. For a village of just 2,500 people, it is a phenomenal result just to reach this level no matter what happens in the coming months. Finally, there’s Vittoriosa Stars – or, at least, there will be Vittoriosa Stars unless they are thrown out because of their own corruption case. As with Marsaxlokk, this has limited their preparations and the number of players they could bring in. The end result is a squad that seems woefully short of the quality needed to stay up.