The Malta Independent 19 October 2018, Friday

The Story of Ray ‘Zazu’ Farrugia

Malta Independent Tuesday, 8 February 2005, 00:00 Last update: about 5 years ago

He left Malta as a young football star, returned 12 years later as a hero and became a top coach.

All local football enthusiasts – young and old alike – will know about the subject of this week’s interview. Ray Farrugia, more commonly known as ‘Zazu’, won the hearts of the Maltese in Malta – especially in Floriana – in his early days, and then those of Maltese Australians in Sydney, where he played for Melita Eagles for 12 years. He told his story to Henry Brincat over an excellent meal at Cosa Nostra Restaurant in Main Street, Mosta, where he also revealed his greatest wish – that of one day being appointed national coach

Speaking to Ray “Zazu” Farrugia has always been enjoyable. This time the conversation obviously did not consist of just football, although the subject dominated most of it.

At the start, he paid tribute to his former coaches, especially Lolly Debattista and Lolly Borg, two former Floriana greats who had introduced him to the Greens’ minors and seniors sides in the 1970s.

“I must give them credit. They pushed me forward in both sectors and it is mainly thanks to them that I made great strides I did,” he told me.

Zazu recalled that they used to play football on The Granaries or at the playground just above the harbour, or in the Kapuccini Square. “They spotted me in one of those places. There would have been Debattista, Borg and even Benny Camilleri in those days, watching the youngsters playing.

“I was only 14 years when I played for the Floriana minors (Under 18) side. Debattista was our coach and for four years we won most of the honours at stake.

“When I was a 16-year-old, Lolly Borg, seniors coach at Floriana, introduced me into the senior team. It was not such a good start, as we lost 1-0 to Hibernians. But in the second match against Qormi we won 7-1 and I scored a hat-trick. After that, I retained my place regularly in the first team.

“I remained there for four years – a brilliant spell for Floriana, during which we won two league titles, one Trophy, three Testaferrata Cups, three Independence Cups and two Sons of Malta Cups,” he said.

Farrugia remarked that he played under three coaches in those four years. These were Lolly Borg, Euchar Grech and Tony Formosa.

He added: “That Floriana team was certainly the best I have seen in 35 years of football. It contained players of the calibre of Anton Camilleri, Louis Arpa, John Holland, brothers Frankie and Powie Micallef, Edwin Farrugia, George Ciantar, Willie Vassallo, brothers George and Ray Xuereb and Michael Sultana. Among the reserves were Dorian and Julian Holland – John’s brothers, Dennis Debattista and my brother Tony Farrugia. It was the team to beat those days. I compare it favourably with the Valletta of the 1990s, though I maintain it was even better.”

Asked to mention a memorable day during his first spell in Maltese football, Zazu quickly referred to the day he got married. “It was in 1977 and Floriana were scheduled to play an important match against Hibernians. Coach Tony Formosa was aware of the importance of the match, but had told me he was going to leave me out because he did not want risking me getting injured on my wedding day.

“But I insisted on playing. In fact, I was so adamant that I told him that if I didn’t play, I’d stop playing football. He finally gave in and Floriana went on to win 5-0 and I scored two of them. After the match, I was whisked away from the Gzira Stadium to Sarria Church in Floriana where I got married. In the end, it was a great day, with a double celebration!” he said.

During his four years with the Floriana seniors side, Zazu played against Panathinaikos in a 1-1 draw in front of a packed Gzira Stadium, but was not in the Floriana side that beat top Hungarian side Ferencvaros 1-0.

“I also played four times for the national team: twice against Tunisia, the 1-12 defeat at the hands of Spain and once against Holland,” he said.

Asked to give more details about the 12-1 defeat against Spain, Zazu said nobody seemed to be able to explain what had really happened. “We had quite a good start. At the interval it was 3-1, but in the second half, the Spaniards seemed to be performing miracles and got what they wanted, after which they stopped. I was on the pitch until the score was 4-1, but then I suffered a hamstring injury and remained inactive for six months. This was perhaps my only disappointment as player. Otherwise, my playing career was full of satisfactory experiences,” he said.

He continued: “Then came the Melita Eagles offer, something I could not resist. In fact, Floriana had been drawn to play the famous Inter of Italy in the European Cup and coach Lolly Borg wanted me to play for the Greens before I left for Australia. But I decided to go ahead with my plans and left for Australia. That was in 1978.

“When I arrived there I was just 21 years old. The club did not even have a stadium in which to play their home games, but had a very good coach in the form of Raul Blanco, a professional Argentinian coach who had worked under the famous Cesar Menotti. Of my 12 years in Sydney, I was under Blanco for nine years. I learned a lot from him and it was he who convinced me to take up a career in coaching.

“It was a great and very memorable spell at Melita Eagles. I won a lot of respect from the club’s management and their fans. After two years we won the first of four State leagues. We also won three Cups and, on one occasion, I was also voted Player of the Year. In the tenth year I was named Best Maltese Achiever in Australia and had the honour of being presented with the trophy by the Prime Minister, Bob Hawke. That honour had earlier been won by Jeff Fenech, a world champion in four categories, John Aquilina, a Minister in the Australia Government and Darren Gauci, a famous jockey in Melbourne.

“I was so respected over there that when it was time to come back home, they organised a testimonial in my honour – the first ever to be held for a sportsman in Australia,” he added.

Zazu had also been selected to play for Australia by well-known coach Rudi Gudentorf. “But after about six months, they realised they could not use my services as I had already played for Malta. In actual fact, I played only for the New South Wales Selection in matches against other States, like Queensland, Western Australia, New Zealand, etc.

“I will also remember that spell with nostalgia. Apart from the respect they showed me, I must say they changed my life. I learned to live in their style and it is no wonder they still come here today asking to meet me. I really appreciate their efforts. Today, I still follow the results of Melita Eagles. They are the team I love most. They have remained close to my heart.

“I must also say that I had other offers from the Marconi club, and other clubs from Hong Kong and Singapore after a few years. Despite the temptation, especially the one from Hong Kong, I decided to stay with Melita, which was always occupying a top five place while I was there. During my spell there I played alongside some very good players such as Washington Gonzalez, a Uruguayan with great technical qualities, Greg Brown from New Zealand, Colin MacAusland and Kenny Wilson, both ex-Rangers, Alex McPherson, ex-Everton, John McKie, ex-Kilmarnock, Micky Cross, ex-Manchester United and Dennis Duarte, ex-Madeira of Spain. I was the only Maltese player in the side during my spell in Sydney,” he said.

In 1990, he and his wife decided to move back to Malta. “We sold our house and we came back. Floriana had first option, but they could not match an offer from Naxxar Lions president Michael Zammit Tabona, who offered me a managerial and playing job at Naxxar. Of course, Naxxar had to pay Floriana for my services.

“I spent eight years at Naxxar. I remember we had a disappointing moment when the team was demoted to the second division after having failed to honour a match against Zurrieq in protest against an MFA decision. But we were back in the Premier in successive seasons. In the final four years, I was also coach of the side as I led it to a fourth placing with Henry Pullicino scoring 14 goals! Foreign players I coached at Naxxar included Paul Sixsmith, Paul Mariner, Chris Ramsay and Chris Oretan, now back at Valletta,” he said.

Farrugia then took over as national Under 21 coach after he was approached by former MFA treasurer Norman Darmanin Demajo and MFA executive committee member Louis Arpa. “I reached agreement with Dr Joe Mifsud and occupied the post for four years, between 1998 and 2002. That spell was one of my best memories of local soccer. I will never forget the 5-1 victory over Macedonia at Hamrun’s Victor Tedesco Stadium. In that qualifying group, my boys figured in five draws out of 10 matches, having drawn against Bulgaria, twice against Ireland (the away result was later turned into a 3-0 win for the Irish after a protest), Denmark and Iceland.”

I am one of those who well remember that the players under his charge considered Ray their second father. “That group of players gave me a lot of satisfaction. Most of them are now playing regularly in the Premier League and the majority are also in the national team squad. Moreover, two of them, Michael Mifsud and Luke Dimech, are plying their trade abroad, in Norway and England respectively,” he said.

Farrugia took over at Pieta after his spell with the Under 21 side. “I had to start from scratch at Pieta, but we twice managed to finish fifth, claiming a Championship Pool place on two occasions. There I also introduced several youngsters who are now in the club’s first team,” he said.

Now Ray is committed to his own ‘Zazu football school’ which he only launched last week. He hopes that it will turn out to be as successful as his playing and coaching career has been so far.

It was here that he told me that his greatest wish has not yet materialised. “I wish that one day I will be the Maltese national team coach, mostly to be able to reply to those critics who say that Maltese coaches are not good enough for such a post. I would relish the chance to give it a try,” he said.

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