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Two decades of steady progress for the Malta women’s team

The Malta selection who made their international debut in a qualifying tournament in Romania for the Euro 2005 qualifiers. Photo: MFA Women's Football

Another record-breaking Women’s World Cup edition is drawing to a close, with millions of people flocking to the Australia and New Zealand stadia to follow the biggest superstars of the Beautiful Game.

For the first time, 32 teams participated in this expanded World Cup which allowed countries to make their tournament debut namely Haiti, Morocco, Panama, Philippines, Portugal, Republic of Ireland, Vietnam, and Zambia.

Three of those countries faced Malta including Haiti and Morocco who played against our local selection in the last two years as they were preparing for this summer’s showdown.

The other nation that crossed swords with Malta was Ireland who were the first team to face the women’s side on Maltese soil, in 2003.

While the expansion to 32 teams drew some criticism due to the gap between nations across the globe, this year’s tournament showed that although the much-quoted teams continue to lead the pack, the women’s game is showing huge signs of growth in other areas of the world.

The Philippines beating hosts New Zealand and England beating Haiti by a single penalty are a reflection that football has no stereotypes.

Speaking of stereotypes, the women’s game has come a long way especially in recent years.

From an unofficial world tournament with 80-minute games to a well-organised World Cup in front of sell-out stadia.

From a 50-year ban in England to the Three Lionesses becoming European champions last year. The stories keep on rolling and the female players continue to blaze the trail and forge a path to the future generations.

The Malta women’s national team is not an exception. Since its international debut in 2003, the Maltese side has made huge strides in becoming a respectable nation in the women’s game.

Malta’s first step

On August 10, 2003, the Malta women’s national team travelled to make its maiden appearance in an international tournament.

Led by coach Pierre Brincat, now Director of Women’s Football at the Malta FA, the Maltese selection was tasked to face Romania in the UEFA Women’s Euro 2005 qualifications opener.

In Bucharest, Rebecca D’Agostino – who last year was on the books of Mġarr United – wore the armband, becoming Malta’s first captain on this stage. The defensive player went on to collect 57 caps and scored four goals while representing Malta.

“The international debut against Romania is one of the best memories I have with the team, since it was our first taste of international football,” D’Agostino told the Times of Malta.

“Although we had no information about Romania, we prepared as much as possible with our limited resources.”

“We were very excited to sing our national anthem at this level and we managed to give our best against a strong opponent.”

“Although we lost 3-0, we were pleased with our performance, having also managed keep a clean sheet in the first 45 minutes.”

Forming part of that first selection was a young Dorianne Theuma, who went on to feature in almost every single game of the national team.

Theuma, now captain of Swieqi United after an illustrious career at Hibernians where she won every domestic silverware, is one of local football’s hall of famers.

In 2020, she became the first Maltese woman player to collect 100 caps and joining a list that includes some of the best male players including Gilbert Agius and Michael Mifsud.

Still part of the current national team selection, Theuma’s appearance record stands at 114 games with 26 goals in the process.

Ranked in a respectable 86th position in the FIFA rankings, a few places behind the least-ranked side that participated in this year’s World Cup, Zambia, Malta earned this position thanks to some memorable milestones in recent years.

Historic goals, wins and points were recorded in both the Women’s Euro 2022 and the 2023 Women’s World Cup qualifiers as Malta started to grab the headlines as well.

“Malta join the party, USA stay top” was FIFA’s headline on its official website when the then Mark Gatt-led selection scored 37 points and moved 16 places to 85th – the best position in three years.

Between 2019 and 2021, Malta managed to secure its highest placings in both proper qualification group for a European Championship and for a World Cup, a record number of points in both competitions and winning the coveted Malta Sports Journalists Association’s Team of the Year Award as well.

However, the current flux of positive results is the result of the commitment, dedication, and sacrifice of that 2003 national team who had already been playing at club level as well, with the first official women’s league held by the MFA organised in 1995-96.

These pioneers did not have it easy. While the women’s game was still a newbie in Malta, in other countries it was already a culture.

Nonetheless, that discrepancy did not dishearten the Maltese who found the net for the first time in November 2003, in a defeat to Croatia – Sarah Caruana scoring that historic goal.

“I remember that we faced Croatia in Gozo and I can recall that it was a very difficult game,” D’Agostino said.

“Our target was not to lose with a big margin, and we were successful, managing also to score our first-ever goal which injected a lot of confidence in us because we started to believe more in our abilities.”

Dorianne Theuma in action for Malta against Slovenia in 2006.

Three years later, Malta recorded another major feat – the first-ever point as Dorianne Theuma scored Malta’s goal in a 1-1 draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the 2007 Women’s World Cup qualifiers.

“A special memory,” Theuma recalls, “We hosted Bosnia-Herzegovina at the Hibs Stadium in front of a pretty decent crowd and I remember we also managed to take the lead thanks to a goal that I scored and that I will cherish for all my life.

“Honestly, we should have won that game having put up a very strong performance but nonetheless we were still pleased with that result.”

In 2008, Malta managed to halt its winless run when Ylenia Carabott’s goal handed her nation a victory over Estonia in a UEFA Mini-Tournament which included Croatia and Turkey.

“This will always remain a special game as we finally managed to clinch our first-ever victory at international level,” D’Agostino explained.

“We believed from the start that we could win this game and although Estonia might have dominated proceedings, we were never out of the contest.

“I remember Ylenia Carabott capitalising on a Dorianne Theuma freekick with ten minutes left and after surviving the final minutes, we started to celebrate what will remain a historic moment for the local women’s game.”

Malta’s first major success was registered in 2013 when coach Brincat guided Malta to a first place in the 2015 Women’s World Cup preliminary round, making it to the traditional qualifications in what was the previous method to progress to major tournaments in the women’s game.

After an opening 1-1 draw against Albania, the Maltese recorded two straight wins against Luxembourg (6-0) and Latvia (2-0), sealing a historic qualification to the next round. The scorers of the nine goals netted in those three games were Dorianne Theuma (four), Rachel Cuschieri (two), Nikki Buttigieg (two) and Ylenia Carabott.

“Qualifying from the preliminary round was crucial because it reflected the potential that our national team was nurturing,” Theuma explained.

“We were backed by a strong crowd during that tournament and the local media started to dedicate more pages to us, which was important for our growth as well.

“From that tournament onwards, we started to play with more confidence hence the positive results that followed especially against par-level sides.”

A former World Cup player with Italy in Manuela Tesse is now at the helm of this much-improved selection as they usher into a new era.

Present day Malta

The Italian tactician is assisted by Dionne Tonna, a former national team player herself who was part of that famous Romania expedition in 2003.

Tesse, who has also coached in the women’s Serie A, has the task to take this side to the next level, starting with September’s Nations League where Malta will be eyeing a promotion into League B in the first edition of this competition which would add another memorable chapter to the history of this movement.

At the same time, the future of the senior national team goes through the development in the below categories, where in recent years there has been crucial growth as well.

Most notably was the U-19 success, who under coach Frank Schembri managed to earn promotion to League A in the European Championship qualifiers, rubbing shoulders with some of the world’s best such as Norway, Belgium and Portugal.

“The individual talent is continuing to grow on our shores,” Theuma said.

“Now is the right time to make sure that we take our domestic championship to another level with the right investment because otherwise this will be a huge missed opportunity for the growth of this movement.”

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