"We have failed to make the same improvements that our counterparts have managed at an international level."
It is no secret that, despite football being Malta's favourite sport by far, we have failed to make the same improvements that our similarly-sized counterparts have managed at an international level. Understandably, Malta struggles against the largest nations, but everyone should start asking why, as of June 2021, the Maltese national football team has only ever won 2 out of 102 World Cup qualifier matches.
Whilst some used to blame the tactics employed by different managers, there is a wide consensus amongst the majority of football enthusiasts that the problem lies within our youth development. However, that claim is the equivalent of blaming the rain for getting wet on a rainy day. The explanation is too generic and lacks an understanding of the detail.
Yes, the problem lies with our youth development system, but where exactly is that system going wrong?
Some factors are easy to point out. Coaching education is still lagging behind, compared to our counterparts. Only in the last decade has there been a proper push from the Malta Football Association (MFA) Technical Centre in coaching education. While the number of qualified coaches is increasing, figures still trail behind those of similar-sized nations such as Iceland, who in 2015 could boast 430 UEFA B, qualified coaches. The MFA is working hard on this problem and is trying to increase the number of professional courses to dilute the bottleneck of applicants that have risen due to a lack of courses in the past.
Many complain that the facilities, in general, are sub-par. Despite efforts to establish a substantial amount of football pitches around the island, most of these facilities lack the proper structure to train professional squads and nurture future prospects. Problems vary from one place to another. Some are too small, others lack proper maintenance, and the list of problems goes on.
"too many football clubs in a country of half a million people"
Others believe that Maltese players are reluctant to go abroad and play there. Whilst it may be true that some gifted players do not wish to pursue an international football career, it is very unlikely that all of the local talents shy away from their chance to play professionally abroad, a dream most of them start having at a very young age.
Further claims are directed towards over-enthusiastic parents and a club culture that, whether we care to admit it or not, revolves around winning rather than development. Whilst these issues are indeed a reality, these last two are problems that all other countries face. Despite all of the above being valid issues that need addressing, efforts are being directed to fix them.
Unfortunately, the major problem that everyone seems to ignore, or chooses not to mention, is that there are too many football clubs in a country of half a million people. This creates a wide spectrum of other issues that further hinder progress.
First of all, we must talk about club and nursery administration. One needs to acknowledge the reality that these clubs are run mainly by part-time volunteers who, despite their best efforts, will never be capable of reaching the heights of their foreign counterparts who operate on a full-time basis. Had there been fewer clubs in operation, efforts would have been better pooled together to form a more professional set up.
The same applies to club financing. Right now, more than 50 clubs fight over a limited amount of sponsors who are willing to fork out cash to support a team with a small following and, therefore, little to gain in return. With a more limited number of clubs, more funds would be available to invest in better administration, better facilities, better youth development setups and more attractive deals for senior players, thus making football a less risky career to pursue locally. From an administrative point of view, there are other advantages to this solution. However, one must also understand the benefits this would bring from a technical perspective.
Good players need to train with other good players to better their skill. Training sessions will undoubtedly have more intensity, and these players have harder challenges to overcome in training, leading to faster development of the players themselves. No good comes from a system where poor players train with good players. Had Leo Messi trained against one of the Spunt writers, he would have an easy task in each training session, hindering his improvement. At the same time, the subpar player (in this case, the Spunt writer) would have learnt nothing as the challenge would be too difficult to overcome. All the good players are currently dispersed amongst different nurseries in the country. How much better would it be if these players trained together?
Clubs are not going to just cease to exist for reasons such as local pride and cultural ties. Going forward, therefore, the MFA should work around the problem and develop a system where the best players are scouted at a young age and then proceed to assume responsibility for the development of these players by having them train together under its supervision. At the same time, the MFA avoids the risk of having good players being coached by less qualified individuals or having parents confront clubs over the child's development. Scouting should also take place continuously so that late developers can also have their slice of the cake whilst making sure that no talent is squandered.
A similar system was trialled out after Malta was chosen to host the 2014 U17 European Championships. Players selected to represent the country were allowed to train together on a more regular basis. The success of this system was proven with a record amount of points the U21 national team obtained in the 2016 qualifiers and resulting in the current national team boasting a very young average age. Had these players been scouted and trained together at an earlier stage, the results might have been even better.
Maltese football needs a shakeup to avoid being left behind. Recent results from the senior national team have renewed enthusiasm towards the sport. Still, the relevant stakeholders must ignore their personal interests and work on this newly gained momentum so that one day we might see our country fly higher in the footballing world.