Two days before the never forgotten reign of Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister nobody voted for who has overseen the massive increase in our crippling debt that would make Greece’s look like pocket money, I was sitting by a swimming pool with a beer in my hand, speedos on, paying close attention to a fine Italian specimen on a lounger opposite. Now obviously I was not in one of the famous English resorts of Skegness, Bognor Regis or Gravesend. I was in Malta, that little island of England as we all remember it, and how we wish it was today.
I was here purely for research purposes as the Maltese Premier League was coming to an end. Sure, the weather was also a factor as too was football Jo’s “networking” techniques that had managed to secure us rooms at one of the island’s most famous addresses, the Corinthia Palace and Spa for less than the price of a ticket to West Ham versus Man City.
Technically I had been to Malta to see football before. Thirty years ago to be exact. A Fuller family holiday, which with almost nightmare co-incidence, coincided with West Ham’s march to the FA Cup final and a semi final replay with Everton. Back in the day, with no Sky TV or the like we had to rely on BBC World Service to replay the moment when “Frank fell over, and score oh what a beautiful goal” (sung to the tune of White Christmas) to take West Ham to Wembley.
As a nod to a Fuller family Saturday some 30 years later, the Current Mrs Fuller senior (CMFS) was dropped at the shops, and the boys headed off to the old national stadium in Gzira. Then, as is the case now, most clubs played at the ground so there would be three or four games, back to back on a Saturday. Despite being only 10 years old at the time I remember the vast sweeping empty terraces (the stadium held 30,000) as we watched FC Valletta beat local rivals Sliema Wanderers and then Hibernians beat Rabat Ajax. Ironically, just 24 hours before the “Battle for 4th place” took place at the City of Manchester stadium, it was to be the “Battle for 3rd place” in Malta. Pretty similar really, except it would be played in front of 1,000 by two teams who would struggle to compete in our Rymans League.
My flight flew in over the new national stadium at Ta’Qali – I say new, it was actually opened nearly 30 years ago, but for most things in Malta this is classed as new. I was meeting Football Jo at Valletta Bus Terminal and quickly found the bus stop. Five minutes later came an ancient snub nose jalopy, painted in bright colours that was the main mode of transport between the capital and the airport. I got on and asked for a ticket and was confused when I was told it was 47. 47 Euro? or 4.70 Euro? Actually 47 Cents, or about 40 Pence. In fact every journey around the island was 47 Pence. We stopped eventually at a roundabout where there were lots of other brightly painted buses – this was the bus station! It looked like a scene out of a colonial outpost in Central America during the 1950’s – almost as if time had stood still. And in some ways it had. Malta had enjoyed life under English rule and had held onto some elements even today as I was to find out over the next few hours.
So here is a quick guide to Malta for those who have yet to visit.
1. Malta, the island, has nothing to do with Maltesers, the chocolate. Last year Forest E Mars original factory in the industrial wastelands of eastern Berkshire made over 10 billion of the little round chocolate balls with the honeycomb middle that we all know and love as Maltesers. No reason for mentioning this apart from the fact I have never met anyone who dislikes Maltesers once they have tried them, and I have never met anyone who has been to Malta who doesn’t want to go back.
2. Malta is the only other country apart from the United Kingdom (and Ireland) that drives on the left. Drive is a loose term as speeding as fast as you can, not using your breaks and overtaking three abreast is not exactly something we see on single carriage roads in SE9. Accidents are common place, which makes travelling by big sturdy buses all the more appealing.
3. 99% of people in Malta speak English and are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will meet. They are so polite that they will only ever argue with each other in Maltese so as not to offend us Brits.
4. Food and drink is cheap. Fancy a 3 course meal with a couple of pints of local Cisk? Well that will be €20 sir – less than a bowl of soup in Copenhagen’s Wagamamas.
5. Missing your fix of Sky Sports? No need to worry about that as almost every bar relies on Jeff Stelling to keep them updated on a Saturday afternoon. Chris Kamara is still classed as a style icon here – you have been warned!
6. Stuck for a gift as to what to buy a Malteser? What about a big bell? That is what the Queen gave them for Christmas a few years ago. Still it is unique and beats the video iPod that she got from Barak Obama.
So Jo and I had a wander around, doing the cultural things. Shock horror – TBIR does culture I hear you say? Actually yes. We headed off to see Caravaggio’s “The Beheading of Saint John the Baptiste”, one of the biggest paintings I have ever seen (about the size of a cinema screen) which was once stolen from the wall of the Oratory in Valletta cathedral. Quite how someone managed to sneak out with it is a mystery to anyone.
Such a dose of culture called for a beer and so we headed off to Malta’s most infamous bar, simply called The Pub. This tiny bar, with a capacity of just 24 people is famous for being the final drinking place of Oliver Reed, who toppled off his bar stool for the last time in May 1999 whilst he was filming Gladiator (he wasn’t actually filming it at the time – there simply would not have been room in the bar!).
So after all of that sightseeing we headed off for a few hours R & R and a chance to catch up on her latest adventures in dating (she is back on the market boys. 40 years old, own house, own teeth, DVD collection that would shame Hugh Hefner) . After listening to her for a good hour I was starting to believe that all men were bastards. “Enough” I said and tried to convince her the best place to look for a Maltese version of Teddy Sheringham (still one of her favourites) was to head of to the football.
The national stadium is located in Ta’Qali which is Maltese for “in the middle of nowhere with no public transport”. So we walked. Our Concierge had basically told us to “keep right” and then started on a sentence of “be careful of…..” and then was distracted by a blonde in a very short skirt, leaving us hanging on his warning. But more of that later, as we wandered around residential roads, parks and finally the old airfield, guided by the huge floodlights.
The Maltese season runs as normal with all teams playing each other twice up until the end of February. Then the top and bottom halves are split with four teams contesting a relegation battle and the top six contesting for the honours. The play offs start with the idea that they build to a crescendo in the final games as 1st plays 2nd, 3rd plays 4th and so on. All well and good but this always lead to the strange situation of teams in the bottom 4 actually ending up with more points than teams in the top 6. And that was the case this season as we headed inside to see the 3rd v 4th and 5th v 6th play off in the Ta’Qali in the beautiful Maltese sunshine. Coming into the final games, the league looked like:-
- Birkirkara – 45pts (and thus Champions)
- Valetta – 41pts (guaranteed 2nd place)
- Sliema Wanderers – 30pts
- Qormi – 27pts
- Tarxien Rainbow – 20pts
- Hibernians – 17pts
The winners of the league go into the 1st Qualifying round of the Champions League, with 2nd and 3rd going into the Europa League. So we were set for a feast of football as Qormi had to beat Sliema to pip them for that last European spot and hope that Valletta then won the cup. What a hotbed of football eh? Well not quite.
First we had to buy a ticket. Twelve Euros got us both entry for both games. But it wasn’t €6 each – oh no. €8 for me and €4 for Football Jo. In a bid to encourage more women into the grounds, they had reduced the price by 50%. Surely it would have been cheaper to have simply offered a selection of trash magazines, fluffy kittens or an Avon stall?
Hibernians 0 Tarxien Rainbows 1 – Ta’Qali Stadium – Tuesday 4th May
We entered the ground just after half time in this one. Hardly a surprise that this “dead rubber” was poised at 0-0. Hibernians have actually a very impressive claim to fame. In 1970, Sir Stanley Matthews turned out twice for the club when he was managing them at the game of 55, scoring in one of them. Matthews reign only lasted a season but he did win the Maltese cup during his brief time on the island. They were also supposed to have a group of “ultras” who “cheered their team to glory through thick and thin” according to the internet. Looking to our right we counted 121 fans from the reigning champions who had endured a season to forget.
Tarxien Rainbows are in their third ever season at the Premier League level and certainly destined for their best ever finish. A win in this game would leave them in 5th place, and they still had the small matter of a cup semi final to look forward to. They certainly played the most positive game, cheered on by their fans who had armed themselves with huge flags and a small band.
It was still a surreal experience. Apart from the small areas of fans in our stand the ground was completely empty. With huge vacant areas around the pitch it hardly made the game a good spectacle so we concentrated on the cold Cisk beers and comparing the fans around us with people we knew, as well as trying to fix Jo up. She is so picky – not one of the fat, middle age Maltese men I suggested was good enough for her. Beggers can’t be choosers I told her, but she made some smart quip about breasts, short skirts and stockings that I had to agree with.
Anyway, with time ticking down, the most predictable result seemed to becoming reality. Then the first positive move of the game saw Tarxien’s Calabretta rushed into the box and was brought down by Hibs Aaron Xureb and the referee pointed to the spot. Up stepped Ryan Grech but his spot kick was saved, only for the rebound to fall back to him and he made no mistake this time.
Ten minutes later, with the players departing the pitch through one tunnel, the Sliema and Qormi players emerged from the other one ready for round 2 of Playoff Tuesday, as we had imaginatively christened it. The standard of fans had also improved. Sliema, Malta’s most successful team with 26 league titles and 20 cup wins as well as over 70 games played in Europe had brought a small band of fans, but more importantly, a small group of WAGS who sat down just in front of us. The visitors, Qormi, playing in only their second season at this level, had come lock, stock and barrel with almost the whole town turning out in the stadium. Hopefully this one would be better quality than the dead rubber we had just seen.
Sliema Wanderers 0 Qormi 3 – Ta’Qali Stadium- Tuesday 4th May
Based on the first half of this game I can confidently say that at the age of 40 years old, and with a dodgy knee and swollen ankle, and whilst holding a pint of Cisk, that I could have nullified the attacking options of the Sliema team. It was poor, and based on some of the football I have seen this season at the likes of Brimsdown Rovers and Hucknall Town. Neither team seemed to want to win the game, despite the prospect of European football for the winner. In the first period I cannot think of any chances that roused me from my deep conversations with Jo about important things in life (“Where is the strangest tattoo you have ever come across”, “If you could have anyone as your sex slave, who would it be” and “If you could change your name, what would it be to?”).
The game turned on a hotly disputed penalty in the 57th minute. In a similar situation to the incident that won the previous game, Qormi striker Alfred Effiong burst into the box and lost control of the ball allowing Sliema’s keeper Agius to get his hand to the ball. But this wasn’t how the referee saw it and he pointed to the spot kick. A flurry of yellow cards followed the decision before Camilo stepped up and slotted the ball home.
Sliema at last started to push forward, realising that their Europa League aspirations were fast disappearing. Unfortunately for them, it was Qormi who scored again as Joseph Farrugia slotted home unmarked after a great run into the box by Camilo. Just four minutes later they scored an unjust third as the impressive Nigerian Effiong’s run was stopped by a great save by Sliema’s keeper and the ball ran free to Giglio who slotted the ball home.
The Sliema fans started launching abuse at their team. A common scene at clubs across the world I would say, but one of the WAGs in front of us took exception to their abuse and started hurling abuse back. She was well into it her stride, complete with hand gestures. The game by this stage had ended and on the pitch Sliema’s Josef Mifsud had joined in the argument as well and saw red in the last bit of action of the season.
The police arrived to try and calm the situation, and ushered the WAGs out of the ground but they were not finished. They continued the argument, going toe to toe with one of the fans. It was compelling watching. Here was a very good looking olive skinned woman, dressed in an eye pleasing way incandescent with rage verbally laying into a scruffy man. You almost expected her to start hitting him with her Gucci handbag in a scene straight out of a Carry On film. The police were perplexed as to what to do. So they did what the rest of us did – they stood and watched until the man could take no more and turned on his heels and headed off to the safety of his car. Unperturbed by his exit the WAG simply took off her high heels and threw them at his departing Fiat Punto with unnerving accuracy. Despite his car disappearing in the distance in a cloud of dust she continued to hurl abuse at him as we walked slowly over to her shoes. There was something very attractive about her display of anger though.
We faced a 30 minute wander home. Public transport, i.e buses, finished at 9pm so we were forced to wander home. What struck us was the complete lack of life everywhere. We did not see one bar or restaurant open, not one house that had lights on nor any other pedestrian. We were told earlier to “be careful….” and can only assume this was to “be careful of dying of boredom on the walk home”. Either it was a Maltese rule that everyone had to be in bed by 10pm on a school night, or everyone had headed for Paceville, the Hedonistic area on the island that catered for ALL tastes.
So country number ten ticked off for the season. The football would sit somewhere low on the passion metre, but the island and the people are definitely worth a return visit.