The Malta Independent 22 July 2024, Monday
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The Carmel Busuttil Story

Malta Independent Tuesday, 27 April 2004, 00:00 Last update: about 11 years ago

Carmel Busuttil is a household name in Maltese football and he certainly needs no introduction in local sporting circles.

In his heyday, he was an excellent player, first when he helped Rabat Ajax to their glorious years in the mid-80s, later at KRC Genk in Belgium, and then at Sliema, where he went on to finish his career.

But he also had another illustrious career with the national team, where, for many years, he was not simply Malta’s best player, but also the captain.

Busu, as he is still affectionately known, started taking an interest in football when still very young – at home – watching some games on Rai TV. That is probably why he is an avid Italian and Milan supporter. He says he would never miss the important matches in which Italy and Milan were involved.

Asked how he started playing football – the early days – Carmel said: “My first contact with a ball was probably in the square in front of my parents’ house in Rabat. That was in the early 1970s. There was not too much traffic those days and our parents were happy to see us playing where they could keep an eye on us,” he said.

Did anyone ever tell you that you would eventually be a star one day? I asked. And Busu said: “No never, to tell you the truth. But after some years, I met some people who told me that they knew I would eventually be a good player. But I think I owe much to Joe Bugeja, one of my first coaches, under whom I learned a lot of things about football – tactics and the rest. I continued to show improvement when I started attending the Fr Hilary’s Educational Sports Centre at Marsa. I stayed there for two whole years until it came to an abrupt end after a dispute with the late Lorry Sant, then Sports Minister.”

Rabat Ajax player

Busuttil then went on to describe how he became a Rabat Ajax player. “At the time, Rabat Magpies were the top team in Rabat, but they encountered financial as well as administrative difficulties and they were taken over by Rabat Ajax.

“At 14 years of age, I made my debut in the senior side in a match against Ghaxaq at the old Gzira Stadium and from that day onwards, I never looked back. I still remember vividly – and I have the cutting from The Times – when you selected me as Player of the Week, when I was still in the Second Division with Rabat. That was the first real great honour in my career,” he said.

Busuttil said the club made great inroads into Maltese football in those days. But he feels it was not he alone who made the club great. He added: “It is unfair to say that Rabat was Carmel Busuttil. We had some great players in the side like Albert Pearson, Emmanuel Cortis, Emmanuel “Ciko” Azzopardi, Edmond Caruana, Mario Zahra and even my brother David not to mention the others. We had a good balance in the side. Later we had Mark Miller after his first year at Floriana and then Charles Scerri, Joe Galea and Kevin Asciak. They all helped to make Rabat great in the mid-1980s. First we won the league and a year later, we won the double. Unfortunately, the next year we were relegated.”

Busuttil is still sorry to see Rabat going down from the first to the second division (next season). “The club’s financial situation is difficult and the lack of sponsors does not help. I also feel that the premises need to be located somewhere else where they would be more accessible to outsiders. It should be made more active,” he said.

At Verbania

His second club after Rabat was Verbania of Italy. “I was invited to go there by Adelmo Paris, the great Italian player who turned out for Zurrieq in the 1980s. I remember I was impressed with the great organisation of the club, even though they were amateurs. Training was taken very seriously – it was almost professional. While I was with them, the team earned promotion from the promozione to the inter-regionale.

“Then there was Horst Heese’s arrival in Malta and efforts to send me abroad with a professional club got under way. I remember I had stopped playing for three months because Rabat did not want to honour an agreement with Verbania over my possible transfer to a Swiss club. I was furious and I stopped playing for Rabat, hoping that they would eventually budge. But then Malta Football Association president George Abela and Mr Heese started working on my behalf and that was how I was eventually transferred to KRC Genk in Belgium. Rabat knew they could not resist any longer.

“It was not easy in those days. The number of foreigners was limited – not like today with all the doors open. But after a 15-day trial, they wanted to keep me and an agreement over the transfer fee of Lm45,000 was reached with Rabat, again thanks to the intervention of Dr Abela,” said Busuttil.

In Belgium

With Genk, Busuttil signed two deals – both for three years – and he remained there until the 1993-94 season. He remembers that the first years with the club were difficult. “KRC Genk was a fusion between two old clubs, Waterschei and Winterslag. They were bitter rivals – two teams from the same city – and obviously they hated each other. I could see during training that there were two different groups of players and it was evident that they were not relishing the idea of training and playing together as a team. But as time went by, things improved, and now they are just one big club with a very strong following. The stadium has a capacity of 25,000 and they have around 22,000 season ticket holders for their home matches.”

I asked Busuttil whether he had any other offers before terminating his contract at Genk and coming back home. “I had been tempted to join another team during my stay there, but my wife Julie was very happy at Genk. In fact, I had offers from a Belgian club, one from Turkey and another from Hungary. But we had settled down nicely and we had our friends over there. So we decided together to stay there until it was time to come back home, that is, when I started missing my parents and my brothers and sister a lot.

“Here I decided to join Sliema mostly because of my friendship with Martin Gregory and Hubert Suda. But even Floriana were chasing my signature. I remember Sliema paid Lm40,000 to get my services. With them, I won the League, the Trophy, the Super Cup and the Lowenbrau Cup. It was certainly another enjoyable period of my career, especially to have finished my career as a player on a high and positive note,” he said.

National team

Busuttil is also remembered by all Maltese football followers as a great national team player, perhaps “the greatest of them all”. I asked him how he felt when he decided to quit: “It was a difficult decision, but there had to come a time for me to draw the line. Last year, I was certainly honoured, and highly pleased, to have been selected by the MFA as its best player on the occasion of the Uefa Jubilee Year.”

I asked Busuttil which goals he remembers most (he scored 23 for Malta in all): “Well, the one I scored against Germany in the 2-3 defeat at Ta’ Qali and the other in Budapest when we registered a 1-1 draw against Hungary. Both were memorable goals. Against Germany it was fantastic – not only to beat such a great goalie as Schumacher was, but also to hear that big roar from the 33,000 plus crowd at Ta’ Qali. The goal in Hungary was different. I will remember it for its execution after Johnny Buttigieg came out from defence to serve me with the ball in midfield and how I finished it in the Hungarian net.”

And what were your greatest disappointments? He answered: “The 6-0 defeat against Yugoslavia in Belgrade ranks as the highest. It was disastrous under Kosanovic. There was simply no discipline among some of the players and I thought I was let down by the attitude of some of them. After that disastrous performance of the team, I had decided to quit, but then I changed as things somehow improved.”

Busuttil is now assistant national coach with the prospect of being national coach himself in two years’ time.

Is there a future for Maltese football? I asked. “It’s a difficult moment for Maltese football. Results are hard to come by but, as the saying goes, if there’s a will there’s a way. If everybody pulls together, I think there is enough talent in Maltese football but all the players have to be prepared physically and mentally. It has to be a concerted effort, starting with government, sponsors, the MFA, the clubs and the players. Unless we return to full professionalism, I feel it is all a waste of time and money.

“There has to be a lot of investment, especially in the youth sector, if we are to make progress. We are a small country and we can never produce a large quantity of players. But we do have a number of quality players. At my own school in Pieta, for example, we have some talented players who, I believe, with some form of discipline, a good mentality and a bit of luck, will be able to play abroad one day.

“At the moment, my football school, better known as the Busu Football School, is in contact with a school from one of the greatest clubs in the world. We are trying to take some boys to play against their academy, where our boys will be assisted by their own coaches and scouts. It is the first step towards stardom for these youngsters. We simply hope it will be successful.”

Carmel Busuttil – CV

Born: 29-2-1964

Education: Secondary and Umberto Calosso Trade School.

Football career: Started playing football in a square in front of his home in Rabat and at school. Joined Rabat Magpies Amateurs when only 10-years-old.

After Rabat Ajax took over from Rabat Magpies, following some administrative problems, he signed for the Ajax and made his debut in the senior side at the age of 14. He led the side to one promotion after another – from the third division to the first division – and in the mid-1980s helped them in no small measure to win the League twice and the FA Trophy.

In the late 1980s, he joined KRC Genk of Belgium, with whom he played for six years before returning to Malta where he finished his playing career with Sliema Wanderers.

He made his debut with the national team under coach Victor Scerri in a “home” match at Messina – the Malta stadium having been banned for that match – against Iceland. Malta won 2-1, with goals from Ernest Spiteri Gonzi and Emmanuel Fabri.

From that day onwards, he became an automatic choice under coaches Gentscho Dobrev, Horst Heese, Pippo Psaila, Pietro Ghedin, Milorad Kosanovic and Josif Ilic.

He now runs a football school for children at Pieta Hotspurs and in a few years’ time, hopes to reap the first “fruits” – as he knows there are some talented youngsters who are learning fast.

Last October, he was appointed national team assistant coach to Horst Heese with the prospect of becoming national coach in two years’ time.

Busuttil still a hero at KRC Genk

Despite having left the club to come back home around 10 years ago, Busuttil is still considered a hero at KRC Genk, where he plied his trade for six years between 1989 and 1994.

He made a big impact there, after a slow start. In fact, in his first season in 1988-89, he scored just three goals. A year later, however, he and Frane Bucan finished joint top scorers with 12 goals. In the 1990-91 season, he was third best with five goals, but in the following two seasons – 1991-92 and 1992-93 – he was again on top, with 10 and 11 respectively. In his last season in Belgium, Busuttil was the club’s third best scorer with six goals.

During those six years, which he describes as wonderful and magical, he became the darling of the club’s supporters. So much so, that two years ago, during his last visit, he was very much impressed with the ovation he received from the over 20,000 crowd for a league match when he went down on to the pitch. “It was a great emotional and nostalgic moment for me,” he said.

Busuttil is still adored as a hero in Genk. In fact, he is listed among the best 20 “golden” players the club ever had. He is featured in a special book, named De Goden Van Genk – The golden Genk – written by Stefan Van Loock and published in 2002.

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