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2023’s Local sport achievements (5): Women’s national team delivers rare international joy

Malta’s Maria Farrugia scores against Latvia. Photo: Chris Sant Fournier

For all the popularity it enjoys on our shores, the sport of football rarely delivers joy to the local supporters in international competition. Hence, it feels unusual to list the Beautiful Game as one of the sports that produced an important achievement in the 2023 calendar. Gianluca Lia looks at the football achievements over the past year…

Much is owed to the women’s football team whose impressive journey in the newly launched UEFA Women’s Nations League landed a historic promotion during a major international tournament.

Under the tenacious guidance of Italian coach Manuela Tesse, the players dominated League C – beating Latvia, Andorra and Moldova in the process – in a show of force for the growth of this movement.

A record crowd for a Malta women’s game on home soil – 1,008 – witnessed the final showdown against Latvia in which the Maltese cancelled a one-goal deficit and scored a famous comeback that will be etched in history forever.

Malta forward Haley Bugeja. Photo: Matthew Mirabelli

Buoyed by the eight goals of forward Haley Bugeja, Malta scored 13 and conceded just once, demonstrating the compactness of a team whose growth was already shown in the previous Euro (record of 10 points) and World Cup (record of 7 points) qualifying campaigns prior to the Nations League.

Bugeja, who plies her trade at Serie A side Inter, finished just one goal shy from topping the Nations League’s scoring charts across all tiers.

Her solid showings in this competition were enough to see her name on the nomination list for the prestigious IFFHS award for the U-20’s best women’s player of the year.

In addition to her goals, experienced player Rachel Cuschieri – who also plays in Italy with Sampdoria Women – produced the most assists in this competition with six.

Her final two assists teed up Kailey Willis and Maria Farrugia, authors of the two goals that secured the Latvia comeback.

European success for Maltese clubs

The women’s game took centre stage at club level as well after Birkirkara scored Malta’s first-ever home win in the UEFA Women’s Champions League, back in September.

The Stripes, winners of 11 Maltese titles, scored a last-gasp winner to beat Montenegro’s champions Breznica at the Centenary Stadium.

For Jose Borg’s Birkirkara, this was also their second win in this competition after last season’s victory over Glentoran of Northern Ireland.

Shifting to men’s football, there was also a good run for Ħamrun Spartans and Gżira United in the UEFA club competitions where they managed to reach the third qualifying round of the UEFA Conference League for a second successive season.

The Spartans, who started the campaign in the Champions League, managed to knock out Georgian side Dinamo Tbilisi but were then ousted by Ferencvaros while the Maroons, despite losing several key players in the summer, still managed to overcome Glentoran and Vaduz before losing to Viktoria Plzen.

In the domestic scene, Ħamrun Spartans won the Premier League title with a record margin of 19 points over Birkirkara while the Stripes bounced back in the FA Trophy when they beat Marsaxlokk in the final.

There were also some excellent individual showings from Maltese players in foreign championships.

Zach Muscat and Matthew Guillaumier, two homegrown players who are key components of the senior national side, are drawing plaudits for their performances in Portugal and Poland respectively.

Plying his trade with Farense in the Portuguese top tier, 30-year-old Muscat has played 14 matches across two competitions facing the likes of domestic giants Porto, Sporting Lisbon and Benfica.

Against the latter, current league holders, Muscat put on a commanding showing at the back to keep the likes of 2022 World Cup winner Angel Di Maria at bay.

Guillaumier, 2022-23’s MFA Best Player of the Year, has established himself as a regular fixture at Stal Mielec of Poland with whom he has played 21 games.

Most recently, in a 2-2 draw against famous side Wisla Krakow, he registered his first assist with the club’s social media backing his impressive display with a dedicated post about the Malta international.

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