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Sunday, February 7, 2016

MALTA'S FOOTBALL GROUNDS: THE EMPIRE STADIUM

Football as we would recognise it today has been played in Malta since the 1870s, when it was played by British soldiers stationed on the island, although a game under the "old" Cambridge rules was played at a location called The Ditch next to the Porte des Bombes in Floriana on Christmas Eve 1863. In 1877, the Jesuit-run St. Ignatius College in St. Julian's was founded and a school team under the tutelage of John Thomas Walford was created soon after. 

The sport caught on quickly among the locals, and the first recorded match on the island took place in 1886 at Zabbar Ground, near to the Zabbar, or Notre Dame, Gate at the edge of Cottonera (now known as Vittoriosa). A local side, Cospicua St. Andrew's drew 2:2 with a team from the Shropshire Regiment. St. George's were founded in 1890 and are the oldest-surviving team in the country. The Malta Football Association was founded in 1900, though the first edition of what became known as the National League was played for in 1909-10 and was won by Floriana. 

Two years later, in January 2912, the Mile End Ground was opened in the town of Hamrun and he first match to be played at the new ground, which had previously been the site of an RAF balloon station, was between the KOMR (King's Own Malta Regiment) and the Northamptonshire Regiment on 12/1/12, and ended in a 1:1 draw. The KOMR were to go on to win the 1918-19 league championship and remain the only military team to have won the competition. 

The Mile End Ground was the venue of choice of the MFA until November 1922, when the Empire Sports Ground was opened in Gzira on the Rue D'Argens. The MFA continued to use the Mile End Ground for lower-division fixtures for a number of years before it crumbled away. The ground appears on maps of the area dating from 1945, and was apparently situated just down the road from the present-day Victor Tedesco Stadium, which was itself inaugurated in 1996. 

The owners of the plot of ground at the time of the construction of the Empire Sports Ground were the Testaferrata family, a local family of noble stock, and it was Baron Testaferrata Moroni Viani who leased it to his brother-in-law, Carmelo (Meme) Scicluna.

The first match to be played at the Empire Sports Ground, which had previously been the site of an RAF balloon station, was on 4/11/22 between a MFA XI and a team drawn from HMS Ajax (which was part of the Royal Navy's Mediterranean Fleet at the time), and a 2:2 draw ensued. Like the old Mile End Ground, the new ground was to see many an important game played there, but it had more in the way of facilities than its predecessor. It possessed a grandstand, four dressing-rooms, a first-aid station and an eight-foot wall around the perimeter of the pitch which was used to deter any pitch-invasions, which were commonplace in Maltese football at the time.

By the beginning of the 1930s, however, the Empire Sports Ground was beginning to look more than a litle frayed around the edges and was in need of renovation. Scicluna had signed a contract with a British company to hold greyhound racing at the ground, and the whole complex was pretty much razed to the ground and rebuilt during the course of 1933.

 The Empire Stadium was not used solely for football; the above photograph features an athletics meeting held at the stadium, though the date is unknown (Photo courtesy of Louis Micallef/Malta Football Association)

The Empire Stadium, as it was now known, was inaugurated on Christmas Eve 1933 with the opening match of a Christmas tournament between a MFA XI and SK Viktoria Plzen of Czechoslovakia, which the Czechs won by 5 goals to 1. A good crowd had turned up; although the score had gone against the Maltese side, Scicluna was still happy enough. A stadium had to be paid for and maintained, after all. But, Scicluna had no need to be worried; football was still far and away the most popular sport in the Maltese archipelago, and more well-attended Christmas tournaments featuring a host of foreign clubs of the calibre of Rapid Wien, Admira Wacker and Ferencvaros would follow.

Matches between Maltese teams and British armed forces sides were still popular,and an estimated 16000 crammed into the Empire Stadium in February 1934 to watch Hibernians take on HMS Royal Sovereign in the semi-final of the Cassar Cup, the premier cup competition in Malta at the time. A year later, the Old Firm of Sliema Wanderers and Floriana attracted 15000 to the final of the same competition, with the Blues winning 1:0 to lift the cup for the second year in a row. The same two teams would meet in the final of the inaugural FA Trophy final later that year, with Sliema again coming out on top, this time by 4 goals to 0.

After the Second World War had put a stop to just about all footballing activity in the islands, the Maltese took to football again with abandon, and foreign teams returned to the country. Activity in the Maltese football league resumed in 1944, with Valletta taking the 1944-45 and 1945-46 championships.

Hadjuk Split, who were the first-ever continental team to visit the country, did so again in late March 1945, and Chelsea visited to play three games in 1949. Still, matches featuring the Old Firm, not to mention Valletta - who were a constant thorn in the side of the traditional big two and who, along with Birkirkara, have eclipsed both sides during the first fifteen years of the 21st century - and later Hibernians, continued to draw in the crowds.

Teams from British armed forces team still played local teams on occasion, and one such encounter, between Sliema Wanderers and an Army/RAF Combined Services team on 6/3/51, was an occasion to remember, not so much for what happened on the pitch but what happened off it. It was the first football match in Malta to be played under floodlights, and the Combined Services team won 2:1. The response was positive, though the lamps used barely illuminated the centre of the pitch. The floodlights were used from time to time, but, popular as they were, they fell into disrepair and the experiment was quietly shelved.

Perhaps the stadium's finest moment - or perhaps the most emotional for those who were there that day - came on 24/2/57, when the Maltese finally played their first-ever full international match, a friendly against Austria, before a crowd of 17421 paying spectators. The visitors raced into a 3:0 with 25 minutes remaining before Floriana striker Tony Cauchi scored Malta's first-ever goal in a FIFA-recognised international fixture with three minutes remaining. Not long after, Sammy Nicholl netted Malta's second and the Austrians were suddenly on the ropes. A final push by the Maltese was in vain, however, with Austria hanging on to win 3:2. It was still a creditable result for a Malta team making its international bow under manager Joe H Griffiths.

 The Empire Stadium, post-1945; again, the date is unknown but it would appear that the photograph dates from the 1960s (Photo courtesy of Louis Micallef/Malta Football Association)

Malta took on Denmark in January 1958 and won their second-ever full international by 3 goals to 0..or did they? The match was claimed as a full international by the MFA, but the DBU later insisted that they had sent a combination side drawn from a couple of First Division clubs and not their full national squad. As the match was played without the nod from FIFA, it was not considered as a full international but it was still a good test for the Malta team, which it had passed admirably. 

The Maltese entered international competition for the first time in November 1959, when they were drawn against Tunisia and Morocco at the Empire Stadium during the qualifying rounds of the 1960 Olympic Games. Two games in the space of a week at the Empire Stadium attracted thousands of local supporters, who, unfortunately for them, witnessed only a scoreless draw and a 2:2 tie against their respective opponents. The return fixtures saw Malta lose 2:0 in Tunis and 2:1 in Casablanca.

Malta did get their maiden international victory against Tunisia in December 1960, when Floriana's Lolly Borg scored the only goal of what was, by all accounts, a rather dour match at the Empire Stadium which ended with the home team receiving a somewhat subdued cheer from the crowd. It would be another six years before Malta would win another match, and under a dark cloud, at that.

The early 1960s saw Maltese teams, both club sides and national sides, enter European competitions for the very first time. Hibernians lost 7:1 on aggregate to Servette Geneva, but had the consolation of Leli Sultana making history at the Empire Stadium by scoring the first-ever goal by any Maltese team, club or national, in a mainstream European tournament. Malta's national team took part in the qualifying rounds for the 1964 European Championships, but lost 6:1 in Denmark and 3:1 in Gzira.

Meanwhile, the MFA XI, or Pick Malta as they were more popularly known, were still playing friendlies against teams such as Manchester United and Chelsea in the early 1960s, but after the full national team's elimination from the 1964 European Championship qualifying round in December 1962, they did not play another international until February 1966.

The opponents were Libya, whose national team (not to mention football in general) was very much in its infancy, and the game did not take place at the Empire Stadium, but at the Manoel Island Ground just down the road. There had been a dispute between the MFA and the Empire Stadium management over how gate-money would be divided during the 1965-66 season; this had been an almost annual occurrence, but the clubs and, by extension, the MFA, eventually lost patience this time round and football moved lock, stock and barrel to Manoel Island. The stand-off lasted for much of the 1965-66 season; during this time, the MFA played one international match on Manoel Island, and it was that match against Libya, which was played on 13/2/66, and Malta won the match by a goal to nil courtesy of a goal by Edward Aquilina.

 The Empire Stadium from the Triq-D'Argens (Photo: Author's own)

Football returned to the Empire Stadium in time for the kick-off of the 1966-67 season, which saw Hibernians win the First Division title for the second time in their history, and what a reward they received: they were drawn against Manchester United in the first round of the 1967-68 European Cup. (Note to younger readers: Manchester United existed as a club long before 1992.) United beat the team from Paola comfortably enough in the first leg at Old Trafford, where they ran out 4:0 winners. 

A record crowd of 23000 filled the Empire Stadium for the second leg on 27/9/67, which ended in a scoreless draw, much to the chagrin of the large contingent of local United fans who were at the match, and to the joy of the Hibs fans, who had seen their team match their more illustrious opponents stride for stride. United, of course, would go on to win the competition. Three years later, the Empire Stadium was witness to another famous night involving Hibs as they drew 0:0 against Real Madrid in their first round, first-leg fixture in the 1970-71 Cup Winners' Cup before losing 4:0 in the second leg at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu.

In between times, Sliema Wanderers were the first Maltese club to reach the second round of a European competition when they defeated Luxembourg side US Rumelange 1:0 in front of 14000 in the first round of the 1968-69 European Cup-Winners' Cup. Hibernians did the same three years later when they defeated Fram Reykjavík in the first round of the same competition; both Sliema and Hibernians fell at the second hurdle in their respective campaigns. By the beginning of the 1970s, ownership of the stadium had fully returned to the Testaferrata family, the lease having long since been given up by the Sciclunas.

 View of the south-eastern corner of the Empire Stadium; this appears to be of the perimeter fence surrounding the pitch (Photo: Author's own)

On the international front, Malta drew 0:0 at home to Greece in their opening match in the 1972 European Championship qualifiers in late 1970, and then faced England at the Empire Stadium early February 1971. Needless to say, this was an emotional occasion for Malta as a whole, not just those Maltese who followed football; Malta had gained independence from the UK only in September 1964 and the links between both countries were still as strong as steel, despite the ridicule which flowed from all sides of the British press. 

The Empire Stadium's pitch garnered much criticism for its sandy yet hard surface, and the team were, apparently, curiously described as a "a bunch of Spanish waiters." An estimated crowd of more than thirty thousand crammed into the stadium, which by this time could hold barely half that number, saw England struggle to a fortunate 1:0 victory with both Louis Arpa and Joe Cini coming close to embarassing England. (Nowadays, of course, a 1:0 victory for England against Malta would be greeted with hysterical headlines containing the word "humilitation.")

Malta were already reckoned to be one of European football's minnows and were usually on the receiving end of a defeat, but the Empire Stadium's surface and the athmosphere generated by home crowds often left visiting teams feeling uncomfortable and were what would probably nowadays be described as Malta's twelfth and thirteenth men. Sweden, who escaped with a 2:1 victory in late 1973 (Malta's Sliema Wanderers' Toninu Camilieri giving the hosts the lead), and then the recently-crowned world champions West Germany, who won their game in Gzira by a goal to nil just before Christmas 1974, were witness to this.

The Empire Stadium was witness to another historic moment on 22/2/75, and it was one that Maltese football had waited almost eighteen long years for. The "Reds" had never won a competitive fixture in either the European Championship or World Cup qualifying, but, as the old saying goes, everything comes to those who wait. Malta defeated Greece in European Championship qualifying action that day by two goals to nil, the goals coming from Richard Aquilina of Sliema Wanderers and Valletta's Vincent (Maxi) Magro.

Sadly, the rest of the decade was to bring mostly misery for Maltese football, at least as far as the full national team was concerned; apart from a scoreless draw against Tunisia in 1977 and a 1:0 victory against the same country's B-team a year later, there was very litle for local supporters to cheer about. There was, however, one very bright spot: inspired by a man-of-the-match performance from Hibernians débutant Guzi Xuereb and sterling displays from the likes of Magro, Ernest Spiteri-Gonzi, John Holland and Ray Xuereb, Malta ground out a 0:0 draw against West Germany in February 1979 in front of yet another packed house at the Empire Stadium.

Off the pitch, plans had been made to build a modern sports stadium at Ta'Qali, in the centre of the island of Malta, by the country's Labour government under the auspices of the then Sports Minister Lorry Sant, and work, partly funded by the Libyan government, began on the stadium in 1980. The stadium was inaugurated on 14/12/80.

The MFA did not make immediate use of the stadium due to a dispute between themselves and the Sports Ministry over, amongst other things, the allocation of gate receipts; in the meantime, they continued to use the Empire Stadium until 29/11/81, when Sliema Wanderers and Senglea Athletics met in a Premier League fixture.


 View of the Empire Stadium from the junction of the Triq D'Argens and the Triq San Gorg; note the shell of the grandstand at the northern end of the stadium (Photo: Author's own)

Since then, the site of the stadium in Gzira has, sadly, fallen into a state of ruin: there was even a mini-forest inside the surrounding walls at one point, but this has been cleared. Now, only the surrounding walls, the shell of the grandstand on the northern side and pockets of terracing remain. The Testaferrata family still own the land upon which the stadium was built, but what is to be done with it, no-one seems to know. With the rise of property prices in Gzira in recent years, the MFA have perhaps missed a trick by themselves not buying the land during the 1980s and putting it to good use. It would have been an ideal location for a small stadium suitable for use by lower-division clubs, and also for an MFA football museum. 

For now, it stands empty, forlorn and decaying, its doors locked, a testament to the changing times in Maltese football history. It might not yet be too late for the MFA to come to some arrangement with the Testaferrata family with regard to using the site in some way or another. It would be a fitting tribute to the likes of the Cauchi brothers, Tony Nicholl, Salvu Sammut, Pullu Demanuele, Frankie Zammit, the Theobalds, Freddie Mizzi, Freddie Debono, those already mentioned in the article and many more who are not, if life could be breathed into the old Empire Stadium as the site of a new football ground and not as yet another shopping centre or block of exclusive appartments.

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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the material in the above article was taken from a pair of superlative books written by the esteemed Maltese journalist and author Carmel Baldacchino: "Great Moments in Football" (2008) and "Maltese Footballers - Hundred of the Best" (2004). Other sources of information include the Malta Football Association's Yearbook 2007-2008, the Times of Malta website and personal archives.

Many thanks to Louis Micallef from the MFA for permission to use the photograph featured in the article; the other photographs are the author's own, and can be used upon acknowledgement of source.

Any errors are the author's own; these shall gladly be corrected upon notification of same.