Two small European island nations meet today in a friendly soccer match.
Both have similar population numbers, economies, and love for the sport.
One was this summers darlings at the European Championships in France, making it to the quarterfinals.
The other has not won a competitive match in three years.
We are of course talking about Malta and their visitors from Iceland. Today’s match represents the greatest of dreams for Maltese soccer, somehow rising to a level of competitive play that is unfathomable today.
The match may also be frustrating for the most ardent of Maltese supporters.
After all, Malta is the nation with a larger population - 423,282 against Icelands 323,002.
Malta enjoys wonderful weather year round, making training in theory easier than in Iceland.
And yet it is Malta that sits ranked #178 in the world while Iceland has zoomed up the charts to #21!
So what would it take for Malta to replicate Iceland’s success? Let’s have some fun for a moment and ponder that!
To my unprofessional, but prying eyes, Maltese players need to leave home. To pull in some history here, this is not an uncommon problem in Malta. Before 1920, Maltese rarely left the Mediterranean even in dire economic times. The desire to return back home to Malta was so strong that trips too far away were unimaginable (and let’s face it…why would you want to leave your home when its sunny almost year round?!).
That attitude seemingly has stuck around in the form of Maltese soccer players. Most of the national team is comprised of players who ply their trade in the Maltese Premier League. And while that league has been slowly improving, it is far behind even many second tier leagues in Europe.
The best case for why players need to go abroad rests with Maltese superstar, Michael Mifsud.
Ultra-talented, the young Mifsud went to Norway before being bought by English side Coventry City (right). Those years (2005-2008) coincide with Malta’s highest FIFA rankings in several decades. At the peak of his career however, he apparently turned down offers from the Chicago Fire to return back to Malta and play for Valletta. It was a headscratcher of a move. Sure Major League Soccer isn't the cream of the crop, but it was seen as better competition than Malta's domestic league.
Later in 2013-2014, he signed to play in Australia, with the Melbourne Heart. But Mifsud left after just 14 appearances, citing home sickness.
It was no surprise that the year he joined Melbourne was the same year Malta’s rankings yet again peaked – and the last year Malta won a competitive match. 1-0 at Armenia, Mifsud the lone goal scorer. (Worth noting, several other high profile Maltese players plied their trade abroad that year as well, including F Etienne Barbara with Minnesota United, and GK Justin Haber in Cyprus).
If you look at Iceland’s national team recently, many of their best players have been pushed by their national association to go play overseas where the competition is much better than the domestic Icelandic league. The majority of the players end up in the Swedish, Norwegian, Dutch, or Danish leagues. And a few of the superstars from Iceland have cracked into English leagues, both the Championship and this year the Premier League where the competition is incredibly fierce. To hear more about the team, VICE Media created this video. It's worth the watch if you're a fan of soccer.
So maybe the Maltese F.A. needs to see the signs all around them. Iceland sends players abroad, Iceland wins. The rare occasions Malta has had players abroad, Malta wins....the parallels are uncanny.
It is time, time to step up and start marketing Malta's younger players (and perhaps gently nudging them out the door). Granted the talent has to be there, or clubs won’t sign the players but it appears from watching the national team play that there is a lot of raw, undeveloped talent. Perhaps that talent would be best served playing overseas, sharpening their skills against tough competition, much like today’s opponent has done with their players.
And if the Maltese players seemingly get homesick, and that is why they shy away from overseas play (something Mifsud hinted at on several occasions), then perhaps they should look to basing Maltese players in communities that have large Maltese populations. Toronto F.C., just up the road might be a good spot for young players to compete, particularly with their development clubs now in London and Windsor, a young Maltese star could be nurtured and still find a pastizzi and the occasional Kinne to cure their home sickness.
And maybe when our very own Detroit City F.C. makes the leap to full-time professional level, we could host some young Maltese talents here in the Motor City.
But if that still can't get Maltese talent to go overseas, then maybe the Malta F.A. needs to start IMPORTING its talent. No doubt there are hundreds of talented 2nd, 3rd, and 4th generation Maltese-Americans, Maltese-Canadians, and Maltese-Australians who would love to play for a national side. This method of improving isn't that far fetched, particularly in Malta. Heck, Malta Rugby has climbed the world rankings (up to #45!) by filing its squad with Maltese from Australia and England!
Whatever the case may be, Malta should seriously consider exposing its athletes to the world if they expect to pull off an “Icelandic miracle.” I know we would all be much happier for it! Until then, we can watch the match today and continue to dream.
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