The Malta Independent 20 January 2022, Thursday

50 Shades of Greats: ‘Sport is essential both physically and mentally’ - Gilbert Agius

Simon Farrugia Sunday, 31 October 2021, 11:00 Last update: about 4 months ago

The Malta Independent on Sunday meets GILBERT AGIUS; he speaks about how he was spotted at Centru Sportiv, the great Valletta teams he played with, his experiences with the national team and the present and future of Maltese football.

Gilbert Agius was born on 21 February 1974. He is the son of Carmelo Agius and Carmen Attard. Gilbert is married to Ruth Camilleri and they have a 19-year-old daughter, Brooke.

Gilbert started to recall his childhood days. “My dad was a player with Valletta and it was practically football all the way. We didn’t have anything more to do, not like nowadays. Hailing from the Mandragg area there were lot of boys over there of the same age. So it was either at the swings or Barrakka or anywhere where we decided to convert into a football ground.”

But was Gilbert a naughty boy? Any particular anecdote? “Not that I recall anything in particular; I was just a normal kid. Neither naughty nor timid. But I was busy jumping from one thing to another. School, football, waterpolo and football again. So my life as a kid was just the two Ss – School and Sport.”

And what about Gilbert’s educational background? “I attended the primary school of Tal-Pillar, Valletta which was just a stone’s throw away from where I lived. Later I attended the Junior Lyceum in Hamrun and that was it. Looking back, I think that I should have furthered my studies since I believe that I would have advanced more had I sat for exams and subsequent certification.”

Agius is a product of the Centru Sportiv, Marsa where his father was one of the coaches. He inherited a lot from his father, especially his uncanny ability to score goals. “My brother and I used to go with my dad to watch him play and also play football in the meantime. We also used to go out of Valletta together with my friends. Either the Floriana swings or at Xaghra or L-Ospizio School and many more places in the vicinities. On Saturdays it was a full day of football. Mornings at Marsa grounds and afternoons with friends. So yes my passion for football started from there.”

“In fact I was spotted by a certain Edgar Tonna who spoke to my dad about me not aware that I was his son. He told him that number 7 is an interesting prospect. Being a PE teacher at Stella Maris he took me over to Stelmar, their college team, though I was not their student. I participated in tournaments with them but the rule that a village can have just one club forced Stelmar to join Luxol.  And so that’s the reason why I joined Luxol Nursery.”

Gilbert kept on explaining how his career evolved at that time. “It lasted about two-and-a-half years with Luxol since another rule change restricted players to play in their zone only. For example Valletta, Floriana or Hamrun only or Cottonera area. So a player from Valletta couldn’t play outside his district.  And so it kicked off with Valletta. John Curmi, the brother of famous Paul Curmi il-Pampalun, contacted me and asked me to join the team from the Capital. In fact I started my career with Valletta with the Under 14.”

Gilbert had his first taste of big-time football in September 1990 when he came on as substitute in a League match against Sliema when they were 3-0 down. “My debut was against Sliema. The Wanderers had a very good team at that time with the likes of Hubert Suda, Simon Grech, Roger Walker and Martin Gregory, among others. Ironically, I was drafted in at half time and played in the libero position. But to be more precise – against Sliema was my league debut but my baptism with Valletta was against Hamrun in the Euro Cup. I was still a 16-year-old. I still remember the day. I went as I would normally do to have a dip though I knew I was in the squad. So, when I went to the club and coach George Busuttil told me that I was going to play, I was very excited about the prospect.”

But why did Gilbert play his entire career with just one club bar a short stint in Gozo and Pisa. “I don’t regret it and I’m proud of it. Since initially I played in a great team with wonderful players. We had several international players. In the new millennium things turned a bit sour and there was an exodus of players including the coach who went to Sliema and they won three consecutive titles with that group of players.”

“I was a bit unlucky that in my peak days the Valletta team was a bit weak. Offers did come my way, even attractive ones, from teams like Sliema and Birkirkara. But when Victor Sciriha took over as Valletta president things had a positive twist.”

But which edition does Gilbert consider as the best? “For me the best of the lot was the 1996/97 team which won the five major honours. True that a few years later we won the six trophies available, which was in season 2000/01, since there was also the Centenary Cup. But the players that Joe Caruana Curran had brought were the best players at the time. And yes, I sincerely believe that the 1996/97 team was more convincing since we won the league in style.”

Agius played for a short period of time with Pisa in Italy. Looking back he recounts that this was a great experience. “After the six-cup success an agent contacted me and told me that he saw my videos in Bulgaria. He asked me about going for a trial with Pisa. After some initial hiccups they gave me a contract. I started playing but for our first league match the national team wanted me over for a friendly, which was Sigi Held’s debut as coach. So, I lost the first match though I started playing on my return. A few weeks later I had an injury which kept me out for about three months.  But all kinds of things cropped up and life was becoming difficult. There was also a change in the team coach. But finally I decided to return back home and where to? The place where I belong, Valletta FC, though I regret only one thing, since I was offered to drop down a division and go with Prato and I refused.”

Gilbert made his international debut on 7 November 1993 in a 2-1 victory for Malta against Gabon. “It was under Pietro Ghedin with whom I also played at Under 21 level. I was called instead of Ray ‘Mundu’ Vella who had an injury and Ghedin chose me for a tournament in Tunisia.  A few months later we had matches in both levels against Luxembourg. I scored for the Under 21s in a 1-0 win whereas the National ‘A’ Team lost. And that was practically the start of a long international career in which I played 120 times for my country scoring eight goals.”

But looking back at all these years there were good and bad times. “I think my best period was way back when Duzan Fitzel was over here as head coach. He was a very intelligent coach in fact he still holds the record, which was equalled just a few weeks ago, of the most points gained in a qualifying group. As for bad times I remember the time when all the experienced players like Busuttil, Buttigieg, Mundu, Laferla and more ended their career. This was a transitional period and it was a difficult time. We lost a number of matches by a tennis score but for me it was a learning curve.”

Agius is now the coach of the Under 21 national team and he spoke about the current situation. “I think that presently there is a mixture of experience and new blood in the national team. Devis Mangia has created a new philosophy that across the board every team from every category adopts the same style of play. I think that in the National A Team it is already giving results. In other categories it is still early days to assess. I think that with more hard work in the next few years we will be better in all sectors.”

Agius won the Player of the Year three times and can be considered a football legend. But what does he think about the present local footballing scene? “I think that the trend is changing nowadays. Teams are now going for more foreign players instead of young local players. If you don’t find a player in a certain position you can go on the foreign market and get your player. I was given the chance at 16 so I truly believe in giving young players more time to show their worth. Now I’m following lower divisions due to my role with the Under 21 team, because it’s difficult to find a player to be considered for selection from the Premier League. As regards the number of teams in the Premier League my favourite number is 10 but 12 will also do. For me 14 is too much.”

Turning onto more personal things Gilbert mentioned his favourite culinary tastes. “I love to eat practically everything as I’m not that fussy. But as regards my top two dishes I would go for seafood and eggs.”

And any favourite travel destination? “There is no particular place though I’ve travelled a lot. Could be Italy since it’s a country close to us and their cuisine is among the best in the world.”

Gilbert hasn’t got any particular hobbies since time on his hands is very limited. “It is difficult to find free time and when I have, I leave it for football matters. But I like reading too.”

One final word from Gilbert, one of the giants of Maltese football. “I wish that parents consider sport as something which is important and helps one develop his academical abilities. Sports helps a lot in all aspects. It makes a person socialize more and be more him/herself. The world is finally recognising that sport is important in our every day life, both physically and mentally.”

 

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