The Malta Independent 24 October 2021, Sunday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘The national team has made great strides’ - Joe Cini

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 19 September 2021, 10:00 Last update: about 2 months ago

‘The Malta Independent on Sunday’ meets Joe Cini. Here he talks about his stints with Leyton Orient and QPR, the great matches against Austria and England, his love for pasta and the present national team.

Joe Cini was born on 25 November 1936 to Carmelo and Antonia Cini nee Armeni. He is married to Connie and has two children, Joseph and Chris.

Cini started this interview by going down memory lane and talking about his early days. “I was born and bred in Pieta. At that time it was a small village and still is though it got bigger with the amalgamation of Guardamangia. In front of St Luke’s Hospital was our national stadium. We used to play in the tennis courts during the week and during the weekend, since cars were few we played in the square in front of the hospital’s main entrance. We were a bunch of good lads and some good players came out of our group, like Sunny Anastasi, Ray Edwards and myself, to mention a few. But our daily routine was school, homework and off to play football with anything which looked like a ball, and when we were lucky, we even managed with a real ball.”

And what is Joe’s educational background. “I attended Floriana primary and went to secondary schooling at De La Salle College. I went there with the target of sitting for the Dockyard exam but some dates had changed and I was considered not eligible to sit for the exam. At De La Salle I used to play with the Blues. My mum told me that I had to decide about my future since I hadn’t made it to the Docks. The Brothers convinced me to stay on for another year before ending my studies.”

How did Joe’s interest in football start? “At that time, although there was athletics and other sports, it was football all the way. At the Floriana school we were a bunch of good players and there was a certain Mr Falzon who was a player scout looking for talent. When I finished De La Salle I played with the Under 16 Msida and Hamrun. I later joined Floriana playing Minors, Third and Second Division because that was the system at the time. In 1955/56 I started with Floriana Ajax and I made my debut with the Floriana A team against Ittihad starting as a left full back instead of Pullu Mousu.”

“When I gained confidence I advanced to half back position. Later on Lolly Borg wanted me to move more forward and play in the left half position. Borg had a hold on the Floriana team at that time. In 1956/57 Leyton Orient were visiting our island and they offered me the opportunity to go for a trial in England. In fact their manager, Nick Collins had asked me so and told me that I was to receive an invite in a few weeks’ time.”

“At that time after matches we used to go to Valletta through Republic Street where we used to go for a drink at Brittania Restaurant. One day, Guzi Bonnici found me in Valletta and gave me the invite from Leyton Orient, though it was sent by mistake to Sliema instead of Floriana. Subsequently, I went to England for this trial and I was doing very well. Unfortunately, after a few weeks the Suez Canal war started. I spoke to the manager, Alec Stock, who told me that if I wanted to go back home I could go ahead since he was also leaving to join Italian club Roma as their coach.”

After a year or so Stock was given the sack and he once again contacted me since he took over QPR. “Yes I went back to England this time with QPR. I started the season over there and until November I was doing well when I got a call from Malta to join the national team for the Olympic Games. The manager informed me about this and wanted to release me on one condition, that on my return, I would become a professional player. I asked my fiancée at that time, who is now my wife, to join, but her dad didn’t want her, so things turned out to be very difficult. So in the end I couldn’t keep on with this arrangement. Stock was a good manager but he used to play me a lot of times out of position.”

Back in Malta Cini returned to Hibernians but it didn’t last long. “We played against Valletta and the supporters came over in a violent manner to turn over the bus. And for me that was the end with the Paolites since this incident hurt me a lot. Before the start of the following season Sammy Nicholl contacted me to go with them at Sliema Wanderers. I was blunt with Sammy and told him that I was requesting Lm800. It was good money at that time and the only player who had that sum was Salvinu Schembri. They called me to meet the Committee and I went together with my uncle, who was like my manager. I held firm for the amount I asked for and we struck a deal.”

“The first two seasons weren’t that good since Maurice Walsh, Salvinu Schembri, Victor Scerri and some others had packed up. So to build up a new team takes time. Fortunately, we got Lino Falzon, Spiteri, Cocks and the Wanderers Committee hired Hungarian Janos Bedel as their coach. He changed the system and changed a number of positions including mine. We also had Edward Aquilina and Edward Darmanin and the team settled. So much so that between 1963 and 1965 we were a dominant force.”

Cini was the youngest member of the Malta team that conceded a narrow 3-2 defeat to Austria in that historic friendly at the Empire Stadium in 1957. “The preparations were very good, for those times, and everyone had to fight for his place. Austria had a very strong team, replete with great and renowned players. Besides the significance of the occasion, the result was also very good. We were unlucky to concede an early goal but it was such a great match that, if there was more time left, I don’t know if we would have attained a draw as, in the last 10 to 15 minutes, we were all over them.”

And what about the great match against England in 1971. ‘That is a match that I will never forget for various reasons. First of all they didn’t even rate us. The English were firing all kind of numbers indicating the thrashing that we were going to get. We had a formidable team, which consisted of Freddie Mizzi, Joe Grima, Freddie Mallia, Anton Camilleri, Leli Micallef, Edward Darmanin, Ronnie Cocks, Willie Vassallo, Joe Cini, Eddie Theobald and Louis Arpa. We prepared very well for this match but always with the same mentality, defending rather than attacking. But in the end it was a good performance and result. Mizzi was unlucky to concede that goal. But we always went near on a couple of occasions to draw level. I will never forget that match.”

“For the return match there is a great story behind it. I was the captain of the team when we played in Malta so I was the spokesperson for the team. We requested a bonus of Lm100 and after a number of meetings we managed to get it. When the Wembley match approached, the MFA of the time, Dr Mifsud Bonnici, summoned Carm Borg for a meeting requesting that he didn’t want me to start the game in London. In the process Borg was suspended for reasons unheard of and Tony Formosa had to take over in the last minute. But the team had already been chosen by Borg on Mifsud Bonnici’s instructions. So I wasn’t chosen to start and everyone in the dressing room couldn’t believe his ears.”

After ending his playing career Cini stayed away from the game. But what is the reason for this? “Yes it’s true, because I couldn’t stand it anymore, hearing all those insults from the terraces. Who doesn’t make mistakes? Let’s take English football as an example, which is at top European level. You see players missing sitters. Is it because they have been bribed? The corruption mentality in Malta is too much to handle. For the supporters a player cannot miss a chance.”

Joe also mentioned today’s football. “I just go to the stadium to watch my nephew, Alex when he plays with his team. Otherwise, I don’t go to the stadium. Firstly, because of the great number of foreign players and also because of the insults hurled at the players through the 90 minutes.”

And what about the present national team? “The national team has made great strides in the last two years. Whoever has chosen this coach must be congratulated. He has changed the mentality. We enjoy watching the team play nice football, eight, 10 and 12 passes between the players. I love this team and I think things can only get better. At least that’s what I hope.”

Turning the page onto the personal aspect, Joe described his normal day routine. “I have got a workshop at Pieta. At about 8am I’m over there and stay till noon. After that off for a beer. We make the rounds in different localities but on Saturday we meet in Valletta at Carlo Seychell’s pub. After beer, back home, off to shower, eat, rest a bit and stay watching TV.”

Talking about his favourite food Joe mentioned pasta, which makes the top of the list for his culinary tastes. “I love all kinds of pasta. Go and have a look in the oven and you’ll find baked macaroni. It’s so good. I love it.”

And favourite travel destinations for Cini? “We were going to travel this summer but all kinds of things happened. Now I’m hoping that if all goes well next summer I will go to the States, which for me, is one of the best places in the world.”

Cini wanted to pass this message to the upcoming players. “You have to take things seriously. Now it’s not a hobby anymore, it’s a job. So you have to be committed.” Cini added: “I also wish that the MFA keeps on doing things the way they are doing them now, but I’ve got a feeling that more foreign players will apply for Maltese citizenship and play for Malta. That for me will not be the national team anymore.”


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