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Local foreigners on clubs’ agenda as Maltese basketball season tips off on Sunday

The Maltese basketball season is back after a summer of international commitments which saw Malta win a silver medal in the men’s tournament at the 2023 Games of the Small States of Europe, as well as a semi-final finish for the women’s GSSE team and the women’s 3×3 side at the FIBA Europe Cup qualifiers.

Now, another campaign is set to begin with the Malta Basketball Association (MBA) Super Cup on Sunday between Malta champions Starlites JSD and Mellieha Libertas in the men’s game while Starlites’ women team face Caffe Moak Luxol, before the rest of the clubs’ commitments begin from October onwards.

The new season will be characterised by a new ‘local-foreigner’ change within the league which has been targeted by coaches as they built up their new squads over the summer. Another is the addition of Valletta Fighters to MBA’s roster of men’s teams this coming season.

The Times of Malta recalls the happenings of the summer and looks at what’s in store for the new season…

Local foreigners

Over the summer, the MBA commenced its new ruling proposed last year which now entitles players who have lived, worked, and paid taxes in Malta for the past three years to play in the BOV Division One as local players.

While any foreigner living in Malta would have to abide by the import players quota in previous seasons, this time around, coaches will only have to focus their rotation of non-Maltese players around the professional import players who join the teams solely for their basketball season.

In fact, since the rule change, every local team, bar title holders Starlites, has signed or retained one or more local-foreign players who will now play freely together with a maximum of two import players on court at all times.

While it was Starlites themselves who made use of a similar system when they signed Matt Attard last season – a player they have now retained for yet another season – this was only due to the fact that Attard is Maltese-Australian, giving the sharpshooting guard the license to play as a local.

This season, inhabitancy will be the only requirement for players from Serbia, Italy, Greece, and other nations to fit into the new system.

This should bring about a difference in the way teams will field their roster.

Female clubs like Fusion Quest should now also be able to compete for a title in spite of a tough start to life in the MSV Women’s League last season. While they were initially allowed to take part but ineligible for the playoffs, this may change due to the improved number of Maltese and local foreigners on the team.

While all of this has already over the summer caused concern over the age-old argument that with the inclusion of more foreign players comes less game-time for Maltese players, the change could spell a better challenge for these same players to level up and compete.

One may also argue that as Malta continues to be more exposed to foreign integration, the number of local-foreign players will only continue to rise, forcing the need for more teams to accommodate the number of players to avoid drop-outs.

Capital club

This need may have indirectly already inspired a new club for the new season as Valletta will have its own competing team in Division One called Valletta Fighters BC.

A well-needed addition to the six men’s teams present, the Capital club is set to offer more competition to the league, as was the plan in the women’s game with the inclusion of Fusion last season.

Introduced in August, Valletta confirmed a Times of Malta report a month prior which said that the MBA had seen interest from a new overseas club looking to start a team in Malta. Back then, there were no details about the team per se, only that the interested party would have to register by the end of the month.

Since then, the new club appointed Harry Savaya as the team’s technical director and former Depiro coach Daniel Bugeja as the assistant coach.

Speaking to the Times of Malta, Bugeja said the focus will be on building up the team throughout this coming season.

“We can’t focus immediately on winning the title in our first year, that’s not how things work,” he said.

“You need to build solid foundations and for now we’re establishing that, and we’ll improve on what we have as time goes by.”

However, the club had already projected their ambitions and sporting director David Bellinzona had admitted they would aim for international competition in a few years’ time.

“Our main goal after a few years is to compete in international competitions such as the FIBA Europe Cup,” he had explained.

This goal appears to be shared with other clubs too, one of whom is Depiro, who have made it clear that competing overseas is their long-term plan in both their male and female rosters with investment in new signings like Malta international Josh Tomasi and three local-foreigners: Nenad Bukva from Mellieħa Libertas, Nikola Bozovic, and Bogdan Mrkosevic who both joined from Fusion in Division Two.

Depiro have done this also in their women’s team, pairing up two Malta internationals – Kristy Galea and Sophie Abela who have both returned from the US, to play under new coach Adrian Baldacchino.

This phenomenon is something champions Starlites have also discussed, with coach Paul Ferrante having already admitted that it was on their agenda at club meetings.

“I believe that there are categories we could fit in, even if preliminaries, and that one could play to try to get into these tournaments. I think it is a beautiful thing and an important thing. Obviously, there are logistics behind all this, so it takes much more,” Ferrante had said in an interview.

Youth call-ups

The summer signing announcements of foreign import players always spark excitement among clubs’ supporters; this summer’s local foreigners added to it.

But the major highlight remains the signing of a Malta international who makes a high-profile move. While last season it was that of Malta captain David Bugeja from Hibernians to Mellieħa as part of their transfer coup to try and avenge their finals defeat to Starlites, this summer’s blockbuster signing was former Gżira Athleta guard Nathan Xuereb’s move to BUPA Luxol in August.

Xuereb’s move came after 13 years at Athleta and performances which have now established him as a go-to player for Malta’s national team.

The 21-year-old was linked with new side Valletta after his self-announced departure from Athleta in July but the side led by coach Duncan Fenech swooped in for the Malta guard over the summer as their focus looks to be based upon local youth.

Xuereb will be able to play in both the Seniors and Under-23 divisions for Luxol, as will former Starlites trio Sebastian Pace, Adam Azzopardi and Isaac Azzopardi who joined after playing under Fenech with the Malta Under-18s at the FIBA competition.

Asked about how they will fit in back then, coach Fenech had told the Times of Malta that due to their young age, they would not be exclusively part of the senior team in order to continue their development with their own age groups.

In the women’s game, the Pembroke-based club has kept its youth at its core with the continuous emergence of Fenech Pace sisters Anna and Sarah who were key players, together with Danika Galea, in Malta’s Under-18 FIBA Division C championship triumph.

The pair have become important players for both club and country after the mentorship from Luxol coach Santino Coppa, a coach known for promoting youngsters.

Added to them are Malta Under-16 powerhouses Vanya Baldacchino and Jada Said who were instrumental to the team in its fourth-place finish this summer.

The MBA Super Cup opens the curtain for another basketball season on Sunday. Following that is the start of the newly named John Tabone Shield a week later.

The MBA announced that it will be now called by this name in memory of the legendary former player and coach John Tabone who passed away last year.

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