The appointment of Ray ‘Żażu’ Farrugia as coach of the national football team following the abrupt dismissal of Belgian Tom Saintfiet has been met with optimism.
Farrugia will be the 26th manager since the national team’s baptism of fire against Austria back on 24 February 1957 at the Empire Stadium in Gzira. Since that day the national teams went on a roller coaster journey, with occasional spells of good performances, but as all of us well know, mostly disappointing performances that make you wonder why Malta never reached the heights of similarly sized countries such as Iceland and Montenegro.
Farrugia’s appointment, however, is a good omen. Numbers show that the national team, performs better under the guidance of Maltese managers than when it is guided by foreign ‘maestros’.
Some of the most memorable results achieved by Malta in the last 60 years came under the guidance of Pippo Psaila and before him Victor Scerri. This, however, doesn’t erase the major challenges ahead of Farrugia.
The national team is in turmoil. Not only have recent performances been poor but corruption can no longer be dismissed as a perceived problem. It is real.
In an interview Farrugia gave to Lovin Malta following his appointment, the new national team coach skirted questions on corruption and dismissed them as “rumours.”
But this year alone, the limited availability of players at the national team coach’s disposal has been further reduced due to the latest match-fixing scandal, in which five Malta U-21 squad members have been banned from playing football for 12 months, and another two suspended for life by UEFA.
The Malta Football Association secretary-general Angelo Chetcuti described the bans as “a hammer blow for the image of Maltese football” but vowed to work even harder to protect the ‘Beautiful Game’ in Malta.
Unfortunately, this is not the first episode of match-fixing, neither for the U-21 side players nor for the national side for that matter.
A 2016 report by FIFPRO, the worldwide football players union, found that one in six Maltese footballers are approached for match fixing in their career.
In 2012, former Malta and Valletta midfielder Kevin Sammut was suspended for 10 years following his involvement in fixing the Euro 2008 qualifier between Malta and Norway in 2007. In 2016, four other Under-21 national team players were accused of match fixing.
Corruption is not a new phenomenon in Maltese football. The Dutch still raise doubts about the 21 December 1983 European Championship qualifier in which Malta was trashed 12-1 by Spain.
Spain went into the match needing to win by at least 11 goals to pip the Netherlands to top spot in the qualifying group to reach the 1984 European Championships.
Farrugia who was part of the team that faced Spain in Seville, describes the game as the most disappointing day in his career. All players who represented Malta on that fateful day deny accusations of bribery and to complicate matters further claimed they felt as if they were drunk.
Maltese players who played in what is regarded as one of the dodgiest games in football history, claimed that they were drugged at half time through refreshments provided by the Spanish football federation. This was denied and former Spanish contingent members threatened to take legal action.
What worries most of the loyal national team supporters is not if the players where drugged or not. For sure that would be a big relief and a form of closure for a match which still haunts Malta.
But corruption remains associated with Maltese football. Rumours of a wide-ranging system of corruption present at all levels of the local football scene and numerous bans have tarnished the game and Malta’s reputation.
The Malta Football Association is doing a great job. If it weren’t for competent people doing a good job and collaborating closely with UEFA and FIFA we wouldn’t be able to unveil the scandals.
Yet, what is it that is making all these players risk their football careers and accept or consider taking bribes?
Unfortunately, football reflects society. It’s a microcosm of a society in which corruption is considered normal and a way of life by a nucleus of people who don’t believe in hard-work, integrity and fairness.
Farrugia has a hard task ahead of him. He not only needs to find a way to unite a dysfunctional but promising national side on the pitch but he also needs to address problems which transcend football.
I wish Farrugia the best of luck on and off the field. I am sure he can achieve the same success he has had in his long career as a footballer and coach in Malta and abroad. But he needs the support of all involved in the game to improve the national team’s performances.
If corruption is rooted out of the game and adequate resources are put to his disposal Farrugia can restore pride in the national team and make the country dream again. Forza Malta! Forza Żażu!