By Roy Delaney.
Finding a decent match in Malta was always going to be a challenge. Ranked 47th out of 54 in Europe, their UEFA coefficient is stronger only than footballing powerhouses such as Gibraltar, San Marino, Armenia and, strangely, Wales. In the wider world, they sit in a cosy 157th place (out of 208), tied with Indonesia, and just a wisp higher than Puerto Rico, India, Singapore and Guam.
So when the only games available on my recent visit to the smashing little rocky isle were third-tier fixtures, as all the (comparatively) higher-ranking teams were on an international break, there was only one way to decide which game to go to – pick the teams with the funniest names.
And so it was that I found myself on a rickety bus heading for a stadium in the middle of nowhere to watch an unpromising bottom-of-the-table clash between Dingli Swallows and Swieqi United – by some distance the lowest-ranking game that I’ve ever paid money to see.
But the first challenge was to find the stadium. The game was being held at the Century Stadium, a homely little ground pitched in the shadow of the reasonably decent Ta’ Qali National Stadium. Now, you’d think that such a high-profile national venue would be awash with transport links, but oh no. The best I could work out was to get a bus to the nearby Ta’Qali craft village – a huge clump of wartime Nissen huts in the middle of some dusty farmland – and pick my way through the woods by following the glow of the floodlights.
Apparently, Malta has the most cars per head of any nation in Europe, so everyone just assumes that you’ll drive – no good for the travelling football fan at all.
Finally arriving at the ground, a little dusty of shoe, I noted that the car park was absolutely heaving, so rather hopefully expected at least a slightly respectable crowd. This optimism was buoyed when the man at the back-breakingly low ticket window asked me which team I was supporting. Segregation? Excellent! This could be lively!
But as I climbed the concrete steps to the stand, and heard the starting whistle crack the air, I was just a tad disappointed by the lack of noise and excitement coming down the tunnel. I turned into the ground to see a wasteland of beige terraces and red plastic seats.
I managed to count every punter in the ground before I found my seat – 33. I’ve been to parks games with bigger gates than that (although thankfully it rose to a respectable 51 by the end). Turns out all the cars outside were for the nearby gym, which had at least three times more punters than those sat out in the stand.
But that didn’t mean I wasn’t in for a night of joyous entertainment – oh no – because Dingli Swallows turned out to be one of the worst sides I’ve ever seen.
It wasn’t so much that they couldn’t hit a barn door, but they weren’t entirely sure where to look for said door in order to make an attempt at hitting it.
Rarely did they string more than three passes together in a row, they missed every header they went for – often by some yards – and just loved trying to execute those showboating overhead kicks, wherever they were on the pitch, and whatever direction they were pointing in.
Indeed, only their chunky and diminutive keeper Dunstan Zarb kept them in the match, chucking himself at anything and everything that Swieqi could throw at him.
And it wasn’t that Swieqi weren’t trying. They must have had at least 75 per cent of the ball in the first half, and were putting together some nice passing moves – but somehow the ball just wouldn’t go in. If it wasn’t Zarb rather thoughtlessly getting in the way, it was the woodwork.
They must have hit the frame a good half-dozen times during that frustrating first period. The poor sods just couldn’t score, no matter how hard they tried. As the half-time whistle blew, their clearly long-suffering travelling supporters trudged to the tea bar at their end, shaking their heads in dismay. All seven of them.
Mind you, they might have been drowning their sorrows with something a little stronger than we’re used to back home. Not only was there beer freely flowing, but a nice neat little selection of optics nestled in among the ubiquitous packets of Twistees and tins of Kinnie.
“Little old men all around me were steeling themselves for the second half with shots of rum and whisky.”
The man behind the counter seemed amused by my fascination with his wares, and couldn’t believe it when I told him that this kind of thing really wouldn’t happen back home. Little old men all around me were steeling themselves for the second half with shots of rum and whisky. They were going to need it.
The second half saw much of the same. Swieqi’s one decent player, a gangly Nigerian called Kenneth Ekezie, spent half of his time marauding down the wing, and the rest of it arguing with the ref about some imagined slight. As each one of his runs crunched down the old-school Astroturf (a surface so crispy it sounded as though he was running through newly laid snow), his resulting crosses became more and more wayward and his frustrations more vivid. A quarter of an hour into the half and we began to get the inevitable feeling that, despite their clear dominance, the visitors were never going to score.
And then something beautiful happened. Dingli won a corner.
So rare were their forays up front that both their players and their fans celebrated it like a goal. Admittedly, it came about after a sliced cross scuffed off the back of a United defender, but it was a corner all the same.
The Dingli fans half-heartedly edged towards the middle of their seats as their rarely-noticed winger set the ball in the quadrant and prepared his run-up. Of course, he fluffed it, the ball flying high and deep into the sky, way above the heads of his hapless forwards.
But then something even more beautiful happened. A freak gust of wind caught the ball, swirled it around, whacked it off the post and trickled it into the goal from the back of the keeper’s jersey.
Somehow, Dingli were in the lead. The players, on both sides, were stunned, while the Swallows fans were hugging each other in confused delight. A recent form record that read a very symmetrical LLLLLLLL looked as though it might be up for a change of letter. But first there was the little matter of playing out the game.
True to the script, Swieqi piled forward, but just couldn’t penetrate the plucky but beautifully inept Dingli defence. After what seemed like about three hours of bus parking, the final whistle blew and the Swallows fell to their knees in delight. They’d have been no less relieved or elated if they’d won the Champions League in extra time.
It was an absolutely lovely thing to have been a part of, and just goes to show that the pure joy of football pays little attention to world rankings and numerical formulas. The little team winning unexpectedly against far superior opposition – whatever their relative position in the world footballing firmament – is always a beautiful thing to behold, and I was so glad that I’d made the effort to step out on that chilly Mediterranean night to witness it.
Now how the heck was I going to find my way back to that dusty bus stop?