After the low-key win in Andorra it was a relative surprise that our next opponents turned out to be Birkirkara from Malta. After their goal-less draw in Malta two weeks ago against the Armenians, Ulisses FC, the odds were stacked against the “Stripes” when they traveled to Vazgen Sargsyan Republican Stadium in Yerevan. But they won 3-1 meaning that they progressed in European competition for just the third time in their history. In fact the game was only their fifth victory in thirty eight European games and a spot in the Second Qualifying Round gives them a chance to equal their best ever run in the competition. Their finest moment came in 2010/11 when they got to the Second Qualifying round of the Champions League before losing to Slovakian Champions MŠK Zilina, although they did win the first leg of that tie in Malta.
The club were formed in 1950 and are four times winners of the Maltese Premier League as well as winning the Maltese Cup five times, the last of which was back in May when they beat Hibernians to qualify for the Europa League. Ten years ago the club were coached by former Arsenal striker Alan Sunderland. Whilst their UEFA ranking is 356th, they have a relatively impressive squad with 10 players capped at full international level by Malta, including captain Gareth Scriberras whilst defender Alejandro Moreno has over 40 caps for Venezuala. Their danger man is the very experienced Fabrizio Miccoli who has played for Fiorentina, Juventus and Lecce although he is best known for his 74 goals in 165 games with Palermo. Coach Gionvanni Tesesco also had a decent career in Serie A and was actually an unused sub when West Ham lost to Palermo in their last European adventure back in 2006.
The club play in the centrally-located town of the same name which with over 22,000 people, is the biggest town on the island. Their ground, the Infetti (meaning “infected” in Italian by the way!), is an athletics stadium with basic facilities and a capacity of just 2,500 but the good news is that the game will actually be played 3 miles down the road at the 18,000 Ta’Qali National Stadium is just 3 miles away – Ta’Qali is Maltese for “in the middle of nowhere with no public transport”. Birkirkana itself is just 5 miles from the airport and 4 miles from Valletta and Sliema. Regular bus services run between the towns, including the N21 and N38 although very little routes (just the 106 from the University every 30 mins) seem to run to the ground meaning a walk along dusty roads to get there from civilization. It is located next door to a large vineyard and the Aviation Museum.
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. As 99% of people in Malta speak English and are some of the most genuine and helpful people you will meet you wont struggle if you need anything.
With the Hammers host the first leg, they will be looking to build up a comfortable lead before they head to the sunshine in Malta.