Written by Kurt Aquilina
Saying that Maltese people are an active bunch may sound surprising, considering that Malta has been listed as one of the countries with the highest rate of obesity. However, for a good number of Maltese people, this is surely not the case. To start off the series, I thought of starting with something personal: Amateur football.
I’ve been playing football since elementary school and my love for the sport has kept on growing ever since. Competitive football is something which excites me to a point where I start counting down the days for my next match as soon as the previous one ends. I’ve played for a number of local teams in various divisions. However, the team I play for at the moment is part of the Malta Amateur Football Association League (MAFA).
Despite its lack of popularity, the league is more competitive than ever. It is one Malta’s highest-ranked amateur leagues, recently even considered for becoming a stepping stone into the official football leagues in the near future. It consists of a seven-month-long season for two separate divisions and two ‘knock-out’ type trophies along the way.
Amateur leagues such as MAFA all seem to carry the same ideal, where if you can’t make it here, you probably won’t make it anywhere. Malta is not exactly the mecca of football players, and not being good enough for these league means you’re probably no good at all. Call that tough love, but then again this is probably true. Even as amateur footballers, the team I play for trains twice a week. All of this, without any fancy gear like the top teams of course. Since joining, I must admit I’ve hardly ever seen such dedicated people who give their all towards a league which isn’t recognised anywhere but here.
Match-day is no different. The league is played at a pitch in St. Lucia and the largest attendance at a league game I’ve ever seen is about 30 people, most of them not even in the stands, but rather outside in the pitch’s parking lot watching through the fence. This was a match in the second division where my team is currently playing. It sounded like most of the people in attendance were there for just one player, screaming ‘EJJA REDENT!’ every time the player touched the ball. At the same time, I couldn’t help but admire the amount of support this guy had for an amateur footballer.
I can never fully understand why these people choose not to sit in the perfectly good viewing area, was it maybe because they think they’ll be charged an entrance fee to come in? Unlike the Premier League and first, second and third divisions, MAFA matches are free of charge and yet finding people to come and watch you play has always been our hardest task every time.
Match-day begins as soon as we wake up on the day, but the buzz starts as soon as we arrive at the stadium, about an hour before our match starts in order to prepare. We put on some music from our own speakers to start getting in the mood to play. These are the 90 minutes we have been training for during the week. It was for the time we had on the pitch that we would spend those cold nights in training after work with the boys, practising drills and running around like a bunch of breathless idiots. If it weren’t for the love we have for the sport, none of us would even lift a finger to even try.
The thrill of getting your own kit with your favourite footballer’s number to wear hypes us up even more, knowing we are part of a squad who is fighting for its name out on the turf. Despite it only being an amateur league, it’s not the first time that MAFA scores have been mentioned on live TV, as well as local sports articles online. For this reason, and of course the league table, our motivation before we leave the dressing rooms are always sky high.
After the coach’s inspiring pep talk, we all head out onto the pitch to warm up. The ‘masses’ of supporters begin to enter the stands after having had their beer or coffee, depending on the weather. Captains and club representatives sign their team sheets to hand over to the MAFA secretariat while the referee and his line-men drink coffee to warm up.
Once the referee blows his whistle to signal the end of the warm-up, both teams wait patiently for their captains to determine who would kick-off or choose a side. This is usually decided based on the wind direction and intensity of the sun’s rays. You would think they’d become the meteorological office during this time with both captains feeling the breeze and looking at the sun to determine which side is the best for them.
From then on, it’s just your regular football match. The only difference is that with no high-tech equipment like in the top leagues, match officials have a hard time making certain decisions during the match and this sometimes results in arguments which bring out the amateur nature of the league’s players. It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve seen people running onto the pitch from the stands to fight an opposing team’s players, but that’s Malta.
The final whistle is usually the media’s cue, mainly just one guy who starts conducting post-match interviews with key match players. He is probably the one who brings the most exposure towards the league by featuring it on his weekly radio show and also publishing an article about the league matches every week.
After match-day ends, we all go back to our lives, counting down the days towards our next fixture. The league runs from the End of September through to the end of April, with matches from both divisions overlapping in order to prolong the duration. MAFA has been locally recognised since 1955 and as mentioned above, may become a stepping stone for players into the higher-ranked leagues, particularly the Third Division.