Interest in football booming on island
9 May ~ "An opportunity to watch the stars of tomorrow" is the fairly typical pitch used to generate interest in any age-category football tournament. So the possibility of catching a first glimpse of a future Thierry Henry or Luís Figo is being used to attract fans to the stadiums hosting the European Under-17 Championship in Malta for 12 days starting today.
The draws of the early rounds of European competitions used to provide similar opportunities for Maltese fans. Those games almost invariably ended with heavy defeats for the local sides but that mattered little if it meant getting to watch Manchester United (1967), Juventus (1971 and 1987) or Barcelona (1980).
There are still Euro and World Cup qualifiers too but this may not be for much longer. Whenever a minnow gets thrashed there are calls for a restructuring of the qualification process and it looks like the recently announced Nations League will be doing just that, albeit in a subtle manner.
All this while interest of the Maltese in European football – particularly the English and Italian leagues as well as the Champions League – has continued to explode. With practically all games from those competitions being screened live on local television, attendances in domestic football have been hit hard.
That is not to say that the increasing commercialisation of the game has been all bad. The past decade has completely changed Maltese football with artificial pitches replacing the gravel-covered ones that used to be the norm. Much of this has been achieved largely thanks to the aid provided by both FIFA and UEFA with the latter’s competitions also offering bigger financial returns for local clubs.
The pressure will now be on the Maltese FA to show it can handle staging an international tournament but everything is in place for it to do so. Both the Hibernians stadium in Paola and Gozo Stadium have hosted international games in the past while the Ta’ Qali National Stadium in the centre of the island where all of the national team's home games are played. (There are no stadiums in the capital, Valletta, as you would expect in a walled fort-city built in 1566.)
Regardless of whether the tournament actually does witness the birth of a future star or not, it promises to be quite an entertaining competition. Spain, such a dominant force in youth football, failed to qualify but Holland, England, Portugal and Germany will all be present. Recent editions of the tournament have also seen some surprises – Slovakia and Georgia finished third in the past two years – and it will be interesting to see whether any of Turkey, Scotland or Switzerland will be able to match that or perhaps do even better this year.
When this tournament was held in Lichtenstein in 2010, the host nation opted against fielding a team as they was felt that they wouldn’t be competitive enough. Malta could have done the same but a lot of work has been carried out to ensure that the players at least get the best preparation possible. Hopefully their results won’t end up validating the arguments of those who want to bring to an end any games between the stronger and weaker countries. Paul Grech