Fred Tickell is currently in the middle an epic journey around Europe, visiting each of the 54 UEFA member countries.
Needing to use up some holiday time and in desperate need of some sun, beaches, countryside and football I elected to visit Malta. What little knowledge I possessed of the lonely island came from several chapters of Thomas Pynchon’s haunting novel V and I was uncertain of what to expect. Happily, I got on extremely well with Malta and while the tourist sites, ranging from ancient wonders to Second World War bunkers, were remarkable it was the miles of picturesque countryside and sun-drenched, arid farmland in between charming towns untouched for countless years that really impressed itself on me.
After an invigorating couple of days where I immersed myself in the storied history of the island it was time to see what the football obsessed nation’s top tier had to offer. As with many smaller countries, the Maltese Premier league’s 12 teams play at one of only four stadiums, often back to back and often at times inconvenient to those in gainful employment. Indeed there was a double-header kicking off at 5pm on the Tuesday with Floriana on the bill. Floriana are apparently Malta’s best supported team and historically the second most successful club however they won the bulk of their titles before and in the two decades after World War II and had little to brag about recently. Still, I expected them to draw a good crowd and, as a perennial fan of the underdog, I decided to support their opponents.
Finding the stadium proved ominously problematic. Despite some exhaustive research I could not find a location I was confident of venturing to, conscious that a wasted expedition could ruin my chances of seeing any football. On the morning of the game I approached the affable receptionist at my hotel who had handed me a complimentary can of Kinnie, Malta’s delicious national soft drink, upon arrival. “I want to get to the Hibernians Stadium in Paola,” I said. “No problem,” he said. A few minutes passed and he busily tapped away at the keyboard and bore a furrowed brow. “Can I look at your map?” A few more minutes passed after which he crudely marked a square in black pencil in to a blank area of my map. “It’s here,” he said “, take the bus to Valetta and then the 1,2 or 3 bus to Paola and get off at Dwieli.” Dissatisfied but without a better lead I thanked him and went on my way.
Malta’s buses are an experience in themselves. They’re almost always late and are typically commandeered by drivers who navigate the winding roads as if fleeing from the heist of the century. On more than one occasion I had failed to hold on sufficiently and a sharp corner sent me to the ground, much to the pleasure of the locals. Bracing myself for the journey ahead I boarded a bus and headed to the capital.
I pulled into Valetta at two in the afternoon and with kick off not until five I sought out Malta’s national dish, rabbit stew. Having successfully located a suitable establishment I ate and drank heartily in one of the capital’s bustling squares before beginning my adventure into the unknown. After meticulously counting off the stops I disembarked at the eighth and was greeted by a noisy roundabout with five exits. After a lengthy conference with my budget map I hopefully set off down the least main of the roads. The sight of Hibernians FC’s academy, which was merely a fenced off 11-a-side Astroturf pitch, suggested I was on the right track.
I wondered past several warehouses and narrowly avoided being run over on the pavementless streets until I came across a pockmarked stonewall that just about passed for one side of a football ground. There was little activity outside but at one end a club official was greeting players. As I approached he looked at me suspiciously and demanded to know which team I played for. Flattered, I informed him of my intention to buy tickets and he told me to come back nearer to kick off.
This left 75 minutes to kill and there was certainly no fun to be had in the surrounding deserted industrial park. Deciding to rapidly sightsee Senglea, one of the three fingers that overlooked Valetta, I marched down a grim highway for a while until I passed through a grand, stone archway and emerged on a high street. Lining both sides were a quaint selection of specialist shops, the type that the megastore culture had rid Britain of. That shop sells hats, that one DIY gear, that one nautical rope and that one I have no idea as the windows cannot have been cleaned in a decade. In most cases the proprietor sat outside, idly chatting to passers-by or pensively watching the traffic stream past.
After reaching the tip of the peninsula I had enough time to enjoy a cigarette and the view before marching back down a residential street. There was barely enough room for a car to pass and I squeezed into doorways to avoid meeting my maker as dentedhatchbacks confidently sped through. Children played carelessly in the street and proud mothers smiled at me as I walked by before returning to animated conversations with their neighbours. Washing hung from lines tied between the charming houses while the scent of cooking dinners emanating from open windows intermittently masked the dank smell of the sunless alleyways.
Arriving back at the stonewall there were significantly more cars parked outside than before and four bored policemen meandered around. A square foot cut into the stone acted as a window for a small office where an impossibly old gentleman sat. An A4 sheet of paper stated the prices, €6 for an adult and €2 for a child. Taken aback by the cut-rate fee I stepped forward, “One adult please.” “Home or away?” came the response. I had no idea and worst yet I had forgotten the name of Floriana’s opponents. I took a punt, “Not Floriana, please.” This response greatly amused the old man and a nearby policeman and a small, purple paper ticket was passed to me. I was supporting Qormi.
Further down a larger hole in the wall served as an entrance to Hibernians Stadium and an impressively disinterested steward glanced at my ticket before waving me off and continuing his loud conversation with a police officer. The terraces were practically empty. After years of viewing football games as expensive and difficult to enter experiences I was for the first time seeing the resulting apathy towards low quality domestic football. Malta, with its strong links to England and Italy, likely has more fans of Manchester United and Juventus than it does Sliema Wanderers or Rabat Ajax and the meager turnout, even at such an affordable event, was disappointing.
Hibernians Stadium was, like much of the island, beautiful with its rustic and endearingly dilapidated structure. A single grandstand spread the length of one side of the pitch. Behind the goal to the right players lazily passed a ball around and to the left was a set of stairs that led to a series of buildings that looked like a home counties leisure centre. Ahead of me was Senglea in all its glory.
Qormi were evidently a poorly supported team, I was one of roughly thirty and the rest were old men, young children and possible WAGs. Absurdly there was a thick wire fence separating the two sets of fans that ran from the floor to the roof and several policemen and stewards stood either side of it. Whatever violence the stadium had seen in the past was not to be repeated today.
With ten minutes until kick off I headed to where a small crowd had gathered around a fold out wooden table. Much like every small eaterie in Malta the options were Kinnie, low quality meat pies and Cisk, the country’s passable lager. I elected for the latter and took my seat where I contemplatively smoked, drank and admired the view.
Soon the teams emerged from the leisure centre and marched towards the pitch as the rap of the players’ studs on the concrete filled the air. As the game commenced the happy few took their seats and, despite their paltry numbers, they made themselves heard. The referee was hounded for every decision he made, their team were jeered at every misplaced pass and lauded for every completed one. Qormi were utterly outplayed but somehow found themselves up two goals to none at the half.
After securing a second Cisk I attempted to return to my seat but was instead accosted by a portly old man who had been particularly vocal throughout the first half. He demanded something of me in Maltese to which I explained that I was from England. This delighted him immensely. The Maltese like the English and they show this by slapping them extremely hard on the back. We chatted, to the best of our abilities, about my thoughts of Malta and his history of supporting Qormi. By the time the second half had begun we were fully out of conversation. However, silence was considered unacceptable and the second period was spent screaming at the officials or players in our native tongues. Neither of us had much clue what the other was saying but we nodded appreciatively at particularly raucous efforts. We were aided by Qormi’s capitulation as Floriana ran riot and finished 4-2 winners on the day much to the joy of their fifty or so fans on the other side of the fence.
The Qormi faithful began to file out and several Mosta fans arrived in anticipation of their showdown with Sliema Wanderers. My ticket covered both matches but the cold was setting in and I was wary of the journey back to the north of the island and the unwarranted adventure that would entail missing the last bus. After a quick walk along the barren roads surrounding the stadium I arrived at the bus stop and after a twenty-five minute wait I was back at Valetta. A frantic and incompetent search for my bus resulted in me jumping through the doors as they were closing. My heroics were greeted by a disapproving female bus driver who, true to her country’s tradition, drove me back to the north of the island like there was a tsunami tailing us.