The Malta Independent 8 December 2021, Wednesday

As Malta’s footballing season gets into gear, those in lower divisions feel left behind

Albert Galea Sunday, 26 September 2021, 08:00 Last update: about 3 months ago

Malta’s footballing season has now kicked off across the whole of the country’s pyramid, with the professional players in the Premier League and the amateurs in the country’s bottom tier all having tasted the action for the 2021/22 season by now.

However, it has been a rockier start than many would have wished for for those in Malta’s second and third tiers of the football pyramid, as new protocols and decisions have left them feeling forgotten and left behind when compared to their counterparts in the BOV Premier League.

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Malta’s footballing pyramid is divided into three: the BOV Premier League – the top-most level, and made up of largely professional teams – the Challenge League, and the National Amateur League.

The tale that the lower leagues have been forgotten has long been heard in footballing circles, with many – particularly those who are more used to playing in the second and third tiers – long saying that the Malta Football Association (MFA) puts very little care into their level of football, choosing instead to focus on the Premier League.

The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke with a number of players and officials from several Challenge League and Amateur League teams – all of whom had the same feeling that they had been left behind by the MFA in favour of their more professional counterparts.

 

Players forced to stretcher off their own teammates after stretcher bearer position removed

Criticism in this regard reared its head two weekends ago, when the Challenge League kicked off, when an avid follower of one of the league’s teams lamented that the MFA had failed to upload any details – or even fixtures – about the weekend’s matches to their website.

Premier League games were being covered by the association’s usual live score coverage on its website, but the same treatment had not been extended to those in the Challenge League.

While the issue has now been rectified – fixtures, tables, and results with all the details about the match are now being shared on a brand-new Match Centre through the MFA’s website – the situation brought out the discontent from within these footballing tiers.

Contacted by this newsroom, the team manager of one Challenge League club gave a laundry list of complaints against how the league was being administered.

One of the foremost criticisms – and one reflected by other officials and players – was that the position of stretcher bearer, which was previously listed on each team’s matchday line-up just in case a player has to be stretchered off the pitch, had been removed altogether.

Indeed, this newsroom was made aware of an instance in a game in that first weekend of Challenge League fixtures when an injured player had to be carried off the field in a stretcher by the club physiotherapist, the ground nurse, and two of his own teammates.

In another situation the following week, a player had to be stretchered off by the club physiotherapist, the ground nurse, and the 68-year-old kit manager of the player’s team.

“It’s disgusting,” the team manager says, annoyed, as he points out that this is not the case in Premier League matches.

 

As the Premier League moves away, the turf is left un-watered

Another situation which has left those in the Challenge League with a bitter taste in their mouths is in terms of facilities.

Challenge League matches this year have been scheduled for the Victor Tedesco Stadium in Ħamrun and the Centenary Stadium in Ta’ Qali – while Premier League matches will now be played at the National Stadium in Ta’ Qali and the Tony Bezzina Stadium in Paola.

Premier League matches, up until last season, were also played at the recently resurfaced Centenary Stadium.

Generally speaking, astro-turf pitches should be watered before intensive use. This is not only a measure which adds to the longevity of the surface, but one which also reduces the risk of injury – astro-turf pitches are notorious for injuries where a player’s studs can get ‘stuck’ in the surface, hence leading to serious injuries to the knee or ankle of the said player.

The Centenary Stadium was watered before matches throughout the last season played, but now that the Premier League has migrated to other pitches that practice too has been stopped.

“When the Premier League used to be played there or when it’s used for national team matches, the pitch is watered, but for us – no,” the coach of one team said about this issue.

“They’re not touching the pitch… it’s a disaster,” the team manager of another club told this newsroom.

 

Amateur League players left without dressing room showers as part of Covid-19 protocols

“Be sure that for the MFA only the Premier League exists… the National Amateur League has been forgotten as well,” the coach of an Amateur League team said when confronted with these issues.

Indeed, the stretcher bearer issue is also present in the Amateur League, but when it comes to facilities, the matter is escalated even further.

Contrary to what happens in both the Premier League and the Challenge League – where, as one member of staff explained, each club is given two dressing rooms for their players to make use of while respecting Covid-19 regulations on social distancing – Amateur League teams have been left pretty much without dressing rooms – and more importantly, showers.

Indeed under the current MFA protocols, in the Amateur League, dressing rooms can be used for precisely that – changing into match kits, with only a particular number of players allowed to be inside at one go.

Players are not allowed to use the dressing room showers at any point – not even after the game, where most will come out drenched in sweat.

This is not the case in the Premier League or in the Challenge League, and has left Amateur League players who spoke to this newsroom with a very bitter – and angry – taste in their mouth.

The charge is being led by veteran player Matthew Borg who took to social media last week to question why they had been singled out for such treatment, querying about how banning them from showering was supposedly more hygienic.

“Let’s not see the inferior divisions as flies […] players and staff in the Amateur League are not livestock,” he wrote on social media.

Borg told The Malta Independent on Sunday that he had even written a formal complaint to the MFA at the start of the week, where he called on this “filthy practice” to be stopped and said that some grounds where even going as far as shutting of the water supply in the dressing rooms – which includes sinks and toilet flushing systems.

Up until Saturday afternoon – six days later – this complaint hadn’t even been acknowledged by the MFA, Borg told this newsroom.

The issue has certainly not been rectified either: Borg told this newsroom that in his club’s second fixture on Friday at the Victor Tedesco Stadium, they were again not allowed to shower.

Questions sent to the MFA by this newsroom about all the matters above, and a request for comments and reactions to the sentiment that those in leagues lower than the Premier League had been forgotten by the association also remained unanswered by the time of going to print.

Borg’s feelings garnered support both publicly and privately amongst those who spoke to this newsroom. 

“’Bubbles of 100 people for standing events aren’t a problem, but 20 people who meet every day for training cannot have a shower after a match,” one player lamented.

That player also pointed out a key point in this regard: all players are either fully vaccinated or are submitting to PCR tests every week – measures which have been made mandatory across all footballing pyramids by the MFA.

“Discrimination at its best. If the Premier and Challenge League can [use the dressing rooms fully] then why can’t we? […] Now it’s even better… sinks and toilets are without water because they closed the mains supply. Absolute discrimination,” one club official said.

One player even suggested that the only way that those higher-ups within the MFA would get the message that they need to be treated on par with others was if all clubs agree to boycott a weekend of matches.

“We’ve been abandoned,” the team manager of an Amateur League club told this newsroom when asked to sum the situation up.

As things stand though, despite the anger, the feeling that no action will be taken to rectify these points remains rife.

Photo Domenic Aquilina
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