The Malta FA are set for a testing two weeks when the local governing body of football hosts the UEFA U-19 Championship finals between tomorrow and July 16. general secretary Angelo Chetcuti spoke with Valhmor Camilleri about the challenges and opportunities associated with this tournament…
Malta may not have vast experience in hosting major championship finals in world and European football.
In fact, the last time the Malta FA was given the opportunity to organise a major championship final was in 2014 when the UEFA U-17 finals were held here.
Despite the evident limitations, the organising committee have left no stone unturned to ensure that the next two weeks will offer a memorable experience not only to the eight participating teams – Malta, Greece Iceland, Poland, Italy, Norway, Portugal, and Spain but also to all football fans who will flock to our stadia to watch the action unfold.
The tournament will get underway on Monday when Poland face Portugal at the Tony Bezzina Stadium before Malta kicks off its campaign against Italy at the National Stadium (kick-off: 21.00).
Malta FA general secretary Angelo Chetcuti said the organisation of this championship was a major test for the local governing body of football.
“Our international football calendar this year had two high-profile international matches as we hosted England and Italy in the Euro 2024 qualifiers, which while they were great experiences, attracted huge media attention but at the same time put a huge stress on our infrastructure,” Dr Chetcuti said.
“But those matches have shown how valuable our organisational team and they are continuing to show their worth for this championship as they are working every day, for very long hours to ensure we put up the best possible championship.”
Dr Chetcuti then spoke about the infrastructure investment the Malta FA put in to ensure that the country met the high standards set by UEFA.
“It’s pertinent to point out that we faced an uphill task as we don’t have the resources of other countries who have a developed sports infrastructure that enables you to host a number of football matches in a short period of time, so it was already a tough challenge,” Dr Chetcuti said.
“Added to that, our initial plan was to host the 2024 finals but during the COVID-19 pandemic there were some candidate countries who decided to withdraw their bid and then the opportunity came up for us to host these championships a year ahead, and we accepted.
“That reduced our period of preparation and it also meant that venues, such as the proposed National Football Centre, which has been earmarked to host matches during the tournament, couldn’t be included among the stadiums to be used.
“Then UEFA gave its green light to have matches played on artificial turf and we could therefore make use of the Centenary Stadium.
Dr Chetcuti explained the investment the Malta FA made in the infrastructure to make sure that the country met the high standards set by UEFA.
“To organise this kind of championship, the host country needs to have venues that meet certain UEFA standards and the MFA had to carry out upgrading works in various stadia,” he said.
“The Tony Bezzina Stadium is certainly the one where these works are most visible. A lot of work was done in the spectators’ stands, the technical area, dressing rooms and ground offices.
“Obviously there is still a lot of work to be done to elevate all our stadiums to a higher level but it’s not easy as you need an enormous amount of financial investment. But these have been very positive upgrades, also in other stadia such as the Centenary Stadium and the Gozo Stadium, that the Maltese football community can benefit from after these championships.”
The Malta FA general secretary believes that the best legacy this U-19 championship can have on Maltese football is that it can inspire young players to embark on a football career themselves and maybe one day represent their country in such a prestigious tournament.
“We hope that this tournament will stimulate and create that sense of belonging that can inspire young players to dream of a successful career in football,” Dr Chetcuti said.
“The build-up for the UEFA U-19 Championship had a number of promotional events at the grassroots level which also adds up to the work we are doing in the schools. Today, football has a huge presence in the education system with the main aim being to create a sporting culture and encourage children to practise a sport.
“Our coaches, from the Inħobb il-Futbol Foundation, are going to schools around Malta and Gozo, with the support of the Ministry of Education, and hold sessions so that every student experiences a football session with the aim that they enjoy practising the sport.
“These sessions have been used to promote this tournament and had a very positive effect as, when children have role models to look up to, such as the tournament ambassadors Michael Mifsud and Joseph Mbong, they are more inclined to participate.
“We have also organised promotion campaigns through our Football Social Responsibility Department and held events with the participation of elderly people, detention centres and many more. In fact, this week delegations from the teams of Norway and Portugal visited charitable institutions.
“Hopefully, these events will attract children towards a life in sport and inspire them, particularly those who are with football nursery, to dream that one day they too can have the opportunity to play in such a prestigious championship.”
The Malta U-19 team are heading into the tournament on the back of a thorough preparation process spanning more than two years, with the team having the opportunity of playing over 30 international matches… a massive commitment, both financially and logistically, by the Malta FA when it comes to the national youth teams.
Dr Chetcuti said that this decision reflects the Malta FA’s stance of investing heavily in their teams’ technical preparation, despite the expenses involved.
“When this administration took office we had made it clear that one of our strategic priorities was to invest in the technical aspect,” Dr Chetcuti said.
“It’s not easy to convince everyone to get on board our project, football is made of many stakeholders, there are some who believe that we invest a lot of our money on the national teams and sometimes they feel that those funds are being taken away from them.
“That is why these strategic priorities have to be supported and more importantly agreed upon by everyone, as once there is consensus everyone will be more receptive and understanding in negotiations on certain aspects.
“Three or four years down the line things will not get easier as the rewards of this investment will only be seen in the long term.”
Dr Chetcuti said that although many people will perceive our financial investment as a hefty one when one sees what other countries of similar size are doing, there is not much of a difference.
“Last week our national team was in Luxembourg and their football association have adopted the same system of having regional hubs as we have here,” he said.
“If you had to compare the two countries, Luxembourg have over 90 U-19 players who are registered with foreign-based teams. But they have some factors that work in their favour, such as their geographical position, where players just need to take a coach to move to another country. For these players, it’s easier to register with clubs in Germany, France and Belgium.
Testing their skills
“We are not doing anything different and I feel that we are doing everything that is needed to be done.
“Countries have been following the same our approach as us for the past ten years, and Germany and Italy too.
“This tournament is an important opportunity for our players to test their skills with the elite. But it’s not the end of the process. just an important step in their development.”
The Malta U-19 is one of few national teams that have no fewer than 10 players who are currently plying their trade away from our shores. Dr Chetcuti believes this is the way forward to have a more competitive national team in the future.
“It’s one thing for a Maltese player to compete in domestic football than to go and play for a foreign club where you are up against 1,000 players of the same age group,” he said.
“The earlier a promising young player goes to play abroad the better for them as he/she would be able to play in games at a much higher intensity and have a much bigger exposure.
Added to that, they will be subjected to a higher level of training regime where the intensity is higher.
“Still I believe that until players move abroad it’s important to have more home-grown players who are given the opportunity to play at the highest level of Maltese football.
“We understand that clubs have their own priorities and it’s up to us to provide them with incentives that encourage them to give more playing time to Maltese players as they represent the future of our national team.
“I am sure we will be watching a lot of good football in these two weeks. It is a unique opportunity for the Maltese sporting public.
“Our young players have worked hard for this, and so has the association to ensure that this event leaves a lasting legacy.”
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