The Malta Independent 23 February 2020, Sunday

The Story of Lolly Debattista: First player to be awarded the Footballer of the Year award by the MFA

Malta Independent Tuesday, 18 October 2005, 00:00 Last update: about 7 years ago

LOLLY DEBATTISTA is another well-known name in local football circles. First he had made a name for himself on the right defensive flank of Floriana FC and then for Malta and the MFA XIs against foreign teams visiting the island. Later he was also very successful in the coaching field, winning all that Maltese football could offer with Valletta and Hamrun. Here he tells his story to Henry Brincat.

As all those who started playing football before the Second World War, Lolly Debattista’s first playing experiences were not in a football field. He started playing with some other pre-war greats in the square in Floriana, near the Capuchins Church.

He said: “We used to meet there every morning and play football till evening. We played with a small ball, sometimes made of pieces of cloth. One day we decided to hold a seven-a-side match. I was in the side that had green shirts. The others had a white jersey. The square was packed with people and the referee was the late Frankie Tabone, who then became the Floriana Ajax coach. I formed part of this side which emerged from those players playing in that square. After that match, we were asked to join in for drinks by Mr George Borg (then Floriana president) at his house in the same square. It was there that they offered us to play as a team. We were young, aged between 13 and 14, but we accepted and Tabone was given charge of the team,” said Debattista.

He added: “We played some great football. There were other players like Joe Borg, Lolly Borg, Publius Demanuele (Il-Koku) and Azzopardi, among others. We used to enjoy ourselves playing at the Gzira Stadium, and attracted very large crowds. On many occasions, it would be packed.”

Debattista also recalled that it was in the period of 1948/49 that Floriana decided to change most of its senior players and included the Floriana Ajax boys in their senior string. “At first it was difficult. All of us were still under 18, but after settling down, we enjoyed our first win against Sliema in the Marian Congress Cup. Then, after a few weeks, we beat them again, this time 5-0, in the FA Trophy final. From then on, we never looked back. In fact, in the second year, we went on to clinch the championship. We then continued under George Shaw, brought over by the club from West Bromwich Albion, after Frankie Tabone,” he said.

As a player Debattista was very successful. He said: “I was honoured to have been named as the first ever Footballer of the Year by the MFA. I have captained Floriana on several occasions. I have won the league title seven times and the trophy on nine occasions, apart from winning several other competitions. I was also honoured to have played for Malta in that memorable 3-2 home defeat to Austria in February 1957 – Malta’s first ever international. I also played against several foreign teams especially in those Christmas tournaments. In 1951, I also joined Floriana on tour to take part in the Festival of Britain. We played three matches against Chelsea, West Bromwich and Doncaster, losing 5-1, 2-0 and 5-0 respectively also leading Valletta and Hamrun in European competitions.”

Asked to mention a memorable moment in his career, Debattista quickly referred to every victory against Sliema. “They were (and still are) Floriana’s greatest rivals in local football. That first win in the Marian Cup tasted very sweet for me, but I will also never forget the big 6-0 win against them later on. I also relished the great moments when I won the championship as a coach with Valletta and Hamrun,” he said. In addition, his first championship with Floriana as well as the day he knew he was given the title of First Maltese Footballer of the Year were great moments in his career.

Among other satisfying moments, he recalls the many times he played in front of crowds of well over 15,000 at the Gzira Stadium. “Rivalry, especially between Floriana and Sliema, was at its highest in those days. The atmosphere at the Stadium was tense and electrifying, but we all used to enjoy the matches, despite all the shortcomings,” he said.

I also asked Debattista whether he had any disappointing moment. “Of course, I consider as the biggest disappointment(s) the times I could not play (due to sickness or injury). In those days, we were not paid for training (90 minutes a day) or for the matches. We played because we loved the game and our club. I remember I used to cry like a little boy when I had to miss a match – so did the others.”

Another interesting episode in the coaching career of Debattista occurred when he joined Valletta. In those days, it was considered a ‘sin’ by then Valletta president Joe Salinos for a Floriana player to join the citizens. Yet, Debattista broke the ice when, after Valletta decided to part company with the Italian Terenzio Polverini, they called him to take charge of the side. “I could not believe it, but I accepted the task confidently, leading the side to a Trophy win against none other than Floriana with a 1-0 win in the final thanks to a Nardu Farrugia goal. And Valletta were so happy with my services that they confirmed me for another season, in which I then guided them to a memorable league and trophy double,” he said.

At the end, I asked Debattista to name some players whom he considered as among the best ever. “Among those I played alongside, just a few of the greats must include Tony Nicholl, Salvinu Schembri and Maurice DeCesare, while among those I coached, I would mention at least Ronnie Cocks, goalkeeper Frankie Grima, Carlo Seychell and Nardu Farrugia. It is simply impossible to remember all the others,” he said.

Debattista, who today helps the Floriana FC nursery as a masseur, believes that today’s players cannot be compared to those of the past. “Today there is a lot of alienation. They want to have a good time before playing football. In a few words, they do not play for the fun of it, as we used to in the past.

In order to become a top player, one has to play with his heart and be determined to succeed,” he said.

Date of birth: 21 December, 1929

Education: Primary School at Floriana.

Sports career: It was only after school that he started playing football. He was one of the pioneers of the famous Floriana Ajax side of the late 1940s and early 1950s. He then played regularly for Floriana and Malta as well as the MFA Pick XI. He was also in the Malta side that faced Austria in Malta’s first ever international match in 1957. He also played against several foreign sides when these used to come to Malta to play in the Christmas tournaments organised by the MFA.

Coaching career: Debattista has coached several clubs. He started with Floriana minors and then Floriana, as assistant to Lolly Borg, his cousin. In 1975, he joined Hamrun Spartans and led the side to promotion to the first division. In December 1976, he took over at Valletta after the latter decided to part company with Italian Terenzio Polverini. He led Valletta to several successes including a League and Trophy double. He later coached St Patrick, Senglea and again Floriana. With Hamrun he had another three spells, winning the league and trophy, and several other honours. Nowadays he helps in the Floriana nursery, though mostly as a masseur.

Awards: He was the first player to have been awarded the Footballer of the Year. Debattista must be one of the most successful footballers ever in Maltese football. He has won the championship on seven occasions, the Trophy and Cassar Cup nine times each, the Scicluna Cup once, as well as the Independence Cup and the Sons of Malta Cup. Debattista is also proud that he formed part of the Floriana side that won the league title four consecutive times – a record which still exists today. On one occasion, Floriana also won the championship with maximum points.

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