The appointment of Joseph Muscat as chairman of the Malta Premier League was met by excitement from the local football family who are keen to see the elite championship become a more attractive competition. The former Prime Minister discussed with Valhmor Camilleri the reforms he wants to introduce that would put Malta’s top-tier championship on a stronger foundation…
When the news broke out that the Malta Professional Football Clubs Association had approached Dr Joseph Muscat to take over the reins of the body that represents Premier League clubs, the initial reaction was one of surprise.
This was because Dr Muscat had established himself as one of the country’s leading politicians, having served as Prime Minister for seven years between 2013 and 2020, but had never been involved in football administration.
However, it’s an open secret that Dr Muscat always had a great passion for football, particularly of AC Milan, and is a keen follower of the game in Malta and says that the challenge of revamping the existent structure in a bid to bring the top-flight clubs working closer together convinced him to take the role.
“When a few months ago a number of Premier League clubs asked me if I was interested to take this voluntary role, I was immediately interested,” Dr Muscat told the Times of Malta.
“To be given the opportunity to revamp the existent structure to help clubs work closer together was an exciting challenge for me.
“Personally, I believe that the majority of the Premier League clubs have a very good structure individually but are lacking the ability to work together.
“It’s in the nature of sport and of the Maltese society that you look at everyone as your rival and it’s not easy to discuss issues with other club representatives with calm and level headedness.
“My role is to try and inject this sense of unity between clubs to safeguard their interests and together embark on an ambitious project to organise the Maltese Premier League on a new format.”
Dr Muscat said that one of the biggest positives he sees in the Premier League is a huge element of voluntary work and a great willingness to succeed. He argues that it is important that this passion for the game is preserved.
“But away from this, we need to ensure that our football clubs remain financially sustainable,” he said.
“Clubs cannot depend on individuals who give their free time only or on others who decide to enter in football administration and spend a lot of money and when they decide to leave the club they either take the debt they created for themselves or leave it on the clubs books, creating a disastrous scenario. These ups-and-downs surely need to be removed.
“One negative element that stands out for me is the fact that as a football supporter, the Maltese Premier League is not attractive enough, and I’m saying this not from a technical level, as recent results have shown that there is great potential from a football point of view.
“But for me it’s a huge turn off that you see empty stadiums for Premier League matches.
“We need to open a discussion so that the Premier League is relocated into smaller stadiums and we leave the National Stadium at Ta’ Qali for matches that will attract huge crowds.
“Added to that I believe that there is a huge demographic misbalance between clubs in the north and south of Malta. There are a number of localities, who boast a huge population that until today have failed to establish themselves in the Maltese top-flight but these are all an opportunity to go for a new format.”
Dr Muscat said that the need to introduce a new format for the Premier League was a no-brainer.
“It is clear that the Premier League is craving for a new format,” Dr Muscat said.
“In the coming weeks, the Malta Premier League will launch a public consultation process that will involve Challenge League clubs, referees, the Malta Football Players Association, the media and the supporters for a new format. This will help to increase interest, turn the championship into a more competitive one and help the clubs that are playing in UEFA club competitions that when they arrive in the latter part of their qualifying campaign, they will be in a good position to challenge for a place in the group stages.
“We want to ensure there is a public debate that will see the involvement of the supporters who are a very important player and who at the end of the day are the ones who want to see an attractive Premier League championship.”
Dr Muscat said that financial stability was a key issue that needs to be addressed in the top-flight.
“It’s clear that Premier League clubs need to be administered in a more professional manner,” Dr Muscat said.
“The basis for this is already there and I believe that we need to have more predictability which means that clubs will be able to plan for the next three or four years and not ending up chasing their president each year for more money.
“We need to look at various mechanisms that can generate more revenue such as marketing and TV rights. More importantly, clubs need to come together to try and limit their expenditure by means of a chain procurement that will see them buy certain services together.
“We need to try and restructure the games in themselves. Malta is one of few countries in Europe where one sees a huge police presence in the stadiums.
“For me, that is off-putting, with all due respect to the police. In many countries they use stewards and the police is only used in case fan trouble happens. Our clubs’ officials should be able to provide a good example of good behaviour in the stands to their fans and having fewer members of the Police Force will scale down the number of expenses.
“Besides we need to adopt internal restructuring to find new means of revenue that can be shared by all clubs in the division from one year to another.”
In his first statement since his appointment as Malta Premier League chairman, Dr Muscat had announced the importance of strengthening the concept of solidarity payments from which clubs can benefit.
“As I said, I believe that there are a number of revenue streams that are not being exploited fully or that so far do not exist in Maltese football,” Dr Muscat said.
“If we know where we want to arrive we need to prevent future problems. In my opinion, we are in a situation whereby the next three or four years we will have one team who will qualify for the group stages of the UEFA Conference League and possibly the Europa League. This year, Ħamrun Spartans came agonsingly close while Hibernians also were on course in the past two seasons.
“Such result would be a huge boost for Maltese football but inevitably it would create a financial misbalance as the clubs that will qualify will pocket at present €4 million and under the proposed new format up to €7 million, which would mean that they are guaranteed to win the league for the next ten years – a scenario we don’t want.
“There is a mechanism, which presently is only being used in the Netherlands, where a percentage of the money earned from the qualification of one or two teams to the group stages will go into the Solidarity Payment scheme and will be shared by all clubs. The qualified teams will still get the biggest share of the money but at least the other clubs would not be put far behind economically from such results.”
Dr Muscat said that in the coming weeks, the Malta Premier League will start talks with the MFA with a view of starting organising the competition. He said that they need to understand what is involved in terms of expenditure and organisational needs before deciding a way forward.
“It’s still too early to say if this transition will happen from one season to another or there would be a transitional period. But what I can say is that we are taking into consideration all options available and discussions will continue before taking a final decision.”
The Malta Premier League chairman said that at the moment the clubs are discussing a plan to try and help Maltese clubs to be more competitive in UEFA club competitions.
One possible change which is currently being considered is that the football season will no longer be held from August to May, but will start in February/March and come to a close in November.
“At the moment, we are considering everything, including changing to a seasonal calendar,” Muscat said.
“I spoke with various people who administer league championship in various countries and while switching to a seasonal calendar would benefit our hopes of qualifying for the group stages, there is the disadvantage that once the group stages start the players will be tired.
“But at present our priority is to have teams qualifying for the group stages. This proposal is part of our reform and will be included in the consultation process as there are many other things to consider as such change can have an effect on the Challenge League, the youth competitions and the national teams among others.
“But I believe that if there is the readiness to make these things happen we will arrive to a compromise.”
One major problem in the Premier League is the limited first-team football being given to young Maltese players.
Dr Muscat said that this was a problem that existed not only in Malta but around the world, with statistics in Italy showing that 67 per cent of foreign players were utilised in the first three matchdays in the Italian Serie A.
The MFA has been trying to create incentive schemes which would see clubs receive money for every young player they use in the Premier League.
However, Dr Muscat said rules not always are enough to solve such problems.
“This is a problem that exists around Europe,” he said.
“If a club in Malta will include two homegrown players in his line-up he still needs another two as back-up. And do you think that in Malta we have 56 young homegrown players that can play in the Premier League?
“I think we need to look at systems being used in other countries. Say in Austria, the FA rewards the clubs for every minute young Austrian players play in the league with a monetary pot.
“The priority for us in Malta has to be to ensure that young players can maximise their potential. We need to look at the third pillar of incentivising young players to continue their career abroad.
“We need to create incentives for foreign teams to make young Maltese players more attractive to be acquired.”
Asked in what way this can be done, Dr Muscat said: “We have to create a centralised system where we make direct contacts with agents and offer bonuses and fiscal incentives for those clubs that are ready to sign young Maltese players.
“If you are a sportsman, and I am not just limiting this to footballers but in all sport, and you want to make a career abroad, we should give these players fiscal incentives that would make them more attractive to foreign clubs who can pay less to get the player’s signature as they know that the player will still receive the difference as he will pay less taxes.
“It’s important that we promote Maltese talent abroad and help them to continue their formation in better leagues than ours. If you look at our favourite teams abroad, how many of them have players from their country?
“The national teams that succeed more are not those that force their clubs to play young players but those that push young players to go and play abroad. And that is the key for our country to be more successful in international football.”
Dr Muscat said that the Premier League in Malta needed to see more women involved in administration as currently it is a male-dominated arena and it was important not to create barriers for those females who are interested in being involved.
Asked whether he was in favour of seeing Premier League clubs having teams competing in the women’s league, Dr Muscat said: “Absolutely.
“When I speak to the clubs individually, one of the major barriers that they mention is that it carries with it an administrative structure that takes a lot of time, but I don’t think that it is a good excuse.
“Away from my role as Premier League chairman, I believe that if there is one area where we can get good results on the international scene on the short term is in women’s football. The gap that exists with other countries is smaller than in the men’s game.
“In women’s football we are third-tier and with a bit of effort, we can climb to second-tier.
“For me, it’s unacceptable that the majority of the Premier League clubs do not have a women’s team and in my opinion, they are hurting themselves as there are streams of revenues from which they are not taking advantage, and it’s a short-sighted approach from those who refuse to have a women’s team.
“I would like to see the historical top teams in Malta to have their own women’s team.”
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