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Lolly Debattista – the last of the great Floriana Ajax legends

Maltese football fans, especially those who like me remember the domestic game in the Fifties and Sixties yesterday woke up to the sad news of the death of one of the greatest players and coaches in the history of the local game.

This time, it was the turn of Lolly Debattista to pass to eternal life at the age of 91.

As far as the Maltese game is concerned, they do not come any bigger than Lolly Debattista.

The Floriana and Malta stalwart had one of the longest and successful careers in the history of Maltese football. It was a career which spanned over 20 glorious seasons. 

A prominent member of the legendary Floriana Ajax FT, he made his league debut for Floriana on February 28, 1948 against Melita FC.

On that day, the Floriana committee took a gamble and introduced their Under-18 team en-bloc in the First Division.

Debattista was born on December 21, 1929 and like many of his Ajax colleges, he started playing football at the Floriana Primary School. Rather short and tubby with a cherubic face crowned by a mop of curly hair, he gave the impression of softness.

However, Debattista was no softy, and it was not long before he developed into one of the finest defenders on the island. 

At a time when fullbacks were judged by the length of their clearances, Lolly possessed a remarkable sense of positional place and skill which were missing in many defenders of his era.

Somewhat of a rebel, he was sent off in the league match against Hibernians on February 28, 1949.  He was suspended and lost his place in the team, but won his place back in time to help Floriana beat arch-rivals Sliema Wanderers 5-1 in the 1949-50 FA Trophy final.

It was the start of the most glorious period in the club’s history and Debattista was always at the centre of attention.

1949-50 was an important season in the history of Floriana FC.

Led by English international coach George Shaw, the team developed into a formidable combination. They beat all kinds of opposition and won the first triple in the club’s history.

Title success

Floriana retained the championship for four consecutive seasons, a record which still stands to this day and won another triple in 1952-53. 

By 1953, when he was barely out of his teens, Debattista had already won all the honours that the local game could offer. Season 1953-54 can be considered as the last season of the great ‘Ajax’ era.

In seven glorious seasons, the team had won no less than 14 major honours and Debattista had figured prominently in all of them.

Prematurely bald, he gave the impression of being much older than he actually was. 

For some, he gave the impression of being slow, but nothing could have been further from the truth.  He played his heart out in every game and was always the heart and soul of every defence he played in.

Debattista kept on playing up to the start of the 1966-67 season when, in his last game he helped Floriana beat Sliema 3-1 in the Independence Cup Final.

A great clubman, he spent his entire playing career with Floriana during which he won no less than 25 major honours.

These included seven championships, eight FA Trophies, six Cassar Cups, two Scicluna Cups and one Independence Cup medals.

Debattista’s international career was also note-worthy. 

Although he only played in three full internationals, he played 19 times for the MFA XI against some of the best European clubs of the era. 

In 1954-55, he capped a great career when he was voted as Malta’s Footballer of the Year.  He was the first player to win this coveted award.

After he retired, Debattista had another long and glorious career in coaching.

He began coaching at youth level for Floriana, and later in 1961-62 was assistant coach of the first team under the leadership of that other great Ajax legend, Lolly Borg.

In 1966-67, he went out on his own and joined Siġġiewi FC but his first big appointment came in 1975-76 when he became head coach of Ħamrun Spartans. Success came quickly and in his first season, he led the Spartans to the First Division.

The next season, he went to Valletta, where he led the team to the League Championship in 1977-78 and two FA Trophy finals in a row, defeating his old club Floriana on both occasions.

Lolly Debattista holding the Player of the Year award.

However, his best period as a coach was between 1990 and 1993 when he led Ħamrun Spartans to the championship, two FA Trophy victories, two Super Cup medals, two Euro Cup triumphs and once a Super Five victory.

In 1993-94, after an uneventful season with Senglea Athletic, he decided to retire from football completely.

Debattista’s demise brought to an end the famous Floriana Ajax’s legend.

There was never a team like them and probably there would never be.

To his family, therefore I send my deepest condolences and may the Lord give him eternal peace.

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