The Malta Independent 15 April 2024, Monday
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The Rise of Football in Malta

Friday, 7 July 2023, 11:05 Last update: about 10 months ago

Although the Maltese top flight sits at 46th place out of 55 members of the UEFA association, football is the most popular sport in this country. We have witnessed a rise in popularity in the last several years in particular as teams from Malta are no longer considered amateurs based on the latest results in the continental competition.

As an illustration of the significant growth in the quality of football in Malta, we have decided to do a small breakthrough of how their teams' results look now compared to the past years. John Pentin, football head of content of betting tips site bettingtips4you, has helped us with the following analysis.

Maltese Teams in the European Cup

Maltese outfits debuted in the qualifications for the elite continental competition in the 1961/62 season when champions Hibernians faced Swiss side Servette in the first qualifying round. Servette advanced 7-1 on aggregate with a 5-0 win in the game played on Swiss soil. Floriana, Valletta, and Sliema Wanderers then suffered proper catastrophes in the next three years, losing by at least seven goals difference on aggregate each to the likes of Ipswich Town, Dukla Prague, and Dinamo Bucharest respectively. Ipswich Town demolished Floriana 10-0 in England in the 1962/63 season.

Sliema Wanderers secured the first-ever European Cup win for a Maltese team in the 1965/66 first qualifying round, beating Panathinaikos 1-0 in the home fixture. It was not enough for the second round, though, as the Greek side claimed a 4-1 win in Athens.

Sliema were also responsible for the first-ever qualification to the second round of the European Cup by going past Icelandic side IA Akranes 4-0 on aggregate in the 1971/72 season. Sliema (one of the two most successful teams in Maltese history) were then stopped by Celtic in the second round, losing 1-7 on aggregate on the occasion. No other Maltese team has ever advanced from a European Cup tie.

Breakthrough Years in the UEFA Champions League

Maltese teams have gained more success since the 1992/93 campaign when the continent's elite competition changed its name to the current one, UEFA Champions League. We've thus seen wins for Floriana over Ekranas (2-0 on aggregate), Valletta over Barry Town (3-2 on aggregate), Hibernians over Shelbourne (3-2 on aggregate), and Sliema Wanderers over Skonto Riga (3-3 on aggregate) up until the 2002/03 campaign.

Since the 2010/11 season, Maltese teams have played the second qualifying round in eight consecutive years. Hibernians ruined the positive record with successive eliminations at the hands of Flora Tallinn and Shamrock Rovers in the last two seasons.

Maltese Outfits in UEFA Cup

It is fair to say that teams from Malta have not had any success in UEFA Cup historically. They have managed only two wins in total from 1971 to 2009. Things have changed drastically since the arrival of the UEFA Europa League as Valletta immediately eliminated Icelandic Keflavik in the first qualifying round of the competition in the 2009/10 season.

The real breakthrough occurred in the 2016/17 season when Birkirkara stunned Bosnian side Siroki Brijeg (3-1 on aggregate) and Scottish Hearts (2-1 on aggregate) to reach the third qualifying round where they fell to Russian Krasnodar. Valletta offered two great displays against Dutch side FC Utrecht the next year while Balzan eliminated Azerbaijani Kesla before pushing Slovan Bratislava to limits in the 2018/19 season. Gzira United shocked Hajduk Split in the summer of 2019 while Valletta played the third qualifying round against Astana that same year. Floriana were on the brink of the Europa League playoffs after suffering an elimination on penalties to Flora Tallinn in the third qualifying round.

Hamrun Spartans and Their Run to the Conference League Playoffs

Hamrun Spartans, who won their ninth Maltese Premier League title last year, are responsible for the greatest success in the history of football in this country. They have eliminated three teams on the way to the UEFA Europa Conference League playoffs in the 2022/23 campaign. Their run included shocking wins over Alashkert, Velez Mostar, and Levski Sofia before a defeat to Partizan Belgrade in the final step.

Hibernians and Gzira United contributed to the best-ever year for Maltese football by reaching the third qualifying round of the same competition each.  Hibernians eliminated Estonian side FCI Levadia 4-3 on aggregate before falling to Latvian RFS in two tight affairs (2-4 on aggregate). Gzira United jumped above two obstacles in the same year. While the narrow aggregate win over Andorran Atletic Club d’Escaldes can by no means be considered an upset, the shocking elimination of Serbian Radnicki Nis can. Gzira offered a couple of fabulous displays on the occasion, beating the rivals on penalties after the outfits scored five goals each over two legs.

We can only expect the positive trend to be continued by Maltese clubs as they have slowly but surely transformed from being amateurs to genuinely competitive sides capable of facing opponents from much more powerful European leagues.

Brought to you by John Pentin

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