One of the best players of our generation and arguably the best player of all time, Lionel Messi, described how he managed to achieve his dream in a few simple words. He said “I always thought I wanted to play professionally, and I always knew that to do that I’d have to make a lot of sacrifices. I made sacrifices by leaving Argentina, leaving my family to start a new life. I changed my friends, my people. Everything. But everything I did, I did for football, to achieve my dream.”
In my humble opinion that one quote epitomise the real effort that needs to be made by anyone to be successful in any subject, in this case the beautiful game, Football!
Those involved in the local football scene knows that I have a history in the local game. Having spent over 10 years in the committee of local club, 6 years of which were in the Premier Division, I grew to love the local game and also grew to understand how many things work here in Malta. I was only 17 years old when I joined Msida St. Joseph FC’s committee and for many years I was the youngest club administrator in Malta.
In Euro 2016 we’ve all been impressed by Iceland’s success in the way that they first managed to qualify for the tournament and then the exceptional way they played to reach the Quarter Finals. Let’s not forget that Iceland managed to beat England & Austria and drew with Portugal and Hungary in this tournament. Rightly so, us Maltese must be impressed by this feat because what they achieved is something straight out of a b-rated sports movie that we used to watch when we were kids (Call out for my favourite sports movie: The Mighty Ducks). It’s good to keep in mind that Iceland is a country with a population of 330,000, which makes it even smaller than Malta.
I’ve did some research about what Iceland did over the years and this new found success didn’t happen overnight for them. Iceland have worked towards improving their overall footballing standard since the 2nd half of the 1990’s. What they first did was to ensure that each and every city had an artificial pitch that enabled them to play football even in their harsh winters. After that was achieved they started towards improving their coaching levels. After a few years Iceland became the country with the highest number of UEFA A Licensed coaches per capita, this enabled them to have a qualified coach at each and every club, no matter how large or small the club is.
Comparing that to Malta, I believe that we are very close to that level. Most clubs in Malta today have their own artificial training pitch and most clubs (if not all) have at the very least 1 UEFA A Licensed coach. So it begs the question, what are we doing wrongly here? Why are countries like Iceland improving immensely whilst our improvement has been very, very minimal? Here I’m going to offer two points which I strongly believe in. 2 points which might not be popular, however I truly believe that they are necessary for the local game to develop.
The first one is the number of clubs in Malta. This is something that I’m passionate about and have spoken about it before as well. I’m sorry if this sounds harsh, however professional football is not a game for everyone. Thus in order for our country to improve we need to minimize the amount of clubs on this island thus making the fight for places even more stringent. How can it be that if you take a walk from Valletta to Sliema across the seafront you would have passed from 7 localities that each have their own football club? (Valletta, Floriana, Pieta, Msida, Ta Xbiex, Gzira & Sliema) I believe that we should have regional football clubs in which a club will cover an area of 5 kilometres and each club will have 1 team participating in the top division and a few other teams participating in smaller divisions and different age groups. That means that the Maltese league system will have a maximum of 3 divisions, a reserves league, an Under 23 league and an Under 21 league. That way we’ll allow players to play against their own level and make them dream big towards playing for the senior team. The problem with this is that it will never happen. No club will ever entertain the idea to merge with a few other clubs thus this idea unfortunately will never materialize. If implemented, these clubs will have a lot of teams with them and the number of games that the club plays will be quite higher than it is today, the only difference being that there will be different levels. This way it will create competition in the same club as players will compete to be promoted form their reserve team to the senior team etc. It will minimize the places for first team football, however it will create much more space for players to play football against players their own level. This is healthy competition and will weed out the weak while letting the best competing against the best, week in, week out.
The other thing that we can do is something that has worked for Iceland. Iceland currently have over 100 players playing in Europe in many different levels. They include players playing in England, Germany, France and Italy. Iceland got many players playing with the Under 21 and Under 19’s of teams across Europe and this can only result in one thing. They have more players getting trained with better players thus they will definitely improve. However how can Malta do the same? I believe that this needs to come from the kids themselves, or even more so, from their parents.
We need to instil a sense of professionalism from our better local players and encourage them that from a young age they go and play abroad. The MFA needs to help these kids secure European clubs when they are still 14/15 years old. That way they will continue their studies abroad and also train with the very best coaches in the world. Unfortunately in Malta kids are too close to their parents and they don’t like to let them go, this will unfortunately result in kids feeling homesick and quickly return home.
In my years involved in football I’ve seen players that at a very tender age that were courted by Real Madrid, by Inter and by AC Milan; and all of a sudden I’ve seen them come back to Malta and grow up to be half average players in the Maltese league. What went wrong there? For one reason or another they preferred to come back to Malta and because they lost their opportunity to play abroad at a very young age they never developed to their full potential.
My plea here is simple, let’s all push our best players to leave Malta at a very young age, let’s all help them secure contracts with European clubs and then let’s start reaping the benefits. This is a numbers game, the more we send the more options we have. If our players remain in Malta all their lives they will never reach their top potential.
I also urge MFA to start a scholarship project. A fund that will financially compensate the clubs for every teenager that they help to transfer abroad. This way the club will have an extra added benefit to help kids to be transferred abroad. MFA can also help by sponsoring the parents to go up and visit their kids every few months while they’re playing abroad. This will be done in a way that if the player returns to Malta within a set period of time, any funds given will have the be paid back. The reason for this is to encourage players to remain playing abroad longer. The longer the player stays abroad, the more he will get used to it and the element of homesickness becomes less of an issue.
Football is a team game and no one can fix it alone. Together we can do it, however we need everyone that has football’s best interests at heart to do his part, be it the clubs, be it the MFA, be it the parents and also the kids themselves; they need to work together so that we create a cultural change that will take Malta to the next level!