[WATCH] Maria Azzopardi: ‘New premier league format just first step in wider reform’

Maria Azzopardi was recently elected as the first female vice-president of the Malta Football Association. She sits down with Karl Azzopardi to discuss the new Premier league format, the different fortunes of the women’s and men’s national teams and Joseph Muscat

MFA vice-president Maria Azzopardi (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)
MFA vice-president Maria Azzopardi (Photo: James Bianchi/MaltaToday)

Malta Football Association vice-president Maria Azzopardi insists the new Premier league format is just the first step in a wider reform of the country’s top tier football competition. 

Azzopardi sits down for an interview with MaltaToday a month after being elected as the MFA’s first ever female vice-president. 

Her election to the association’s administration comes at an exciting time for female football and at a controversial junction for Malta’s top men’s league. 

A former football player herself, Azzopardi says having a woman in the role highlights the sport’s evolution in the women’s game, and shows the MFA is keeping up with the times.  

“Women’s football is on the rise, and we want to show that a woman can hold this important role,” Azzopardi tells me in the boardroom of the Millenium Stand at the Ta’ Qali national stadium. 

But her work will also go beyond just women’s football. She is tasked, together with the MFA’s other top executives, with implementing the association’s strategy and youth development programme. 

Maltese football enters a new era with a radically changed premier league format that was unveiled earlier this month by the Malta Premier League (MPL) and its chairman Joseph Muscat. The new format comes into effect in the new season.  

The format has received wide criticism for its unorthodox set-up, which traces its roots to South American football. Muscat and the MPL insist the format will help in keeping the league exciting all the way to the playoff and final games. These crucial games will eventually determine who is relegated and who is crowned ultimate champion. 

Azzopardi insists the new format is just one of the many changes which are expected to come into force in the coming seasons. She says that the format alone will do little to improve the sport locally.  

“On whether one agrees or not with the format is debatable. One has to see what will happen in practice. This is not the first time changes have been implemented in the premier division. One must see whether the results are achieved,” she says in a cautious tone. 

Azzopardi says it is an ongoing project, and certain aspects like organisation and commercialisation will also be handed over to the MPL. “The project is still evolving, and I feel it is still early to determine its success or failure.” 

With the Vitals inquiry concluded and passed to the Attorney General, there is growing expectation that Joseph Muscat will eventually be charged. I ask Azzopardi whether this could have a reputational impact on football, given Muscat’s role in the MPL. 

The vice-president is adamant that any negative circumstances should not be linked to the MFA. “Whatever happens beyond football, the country has its own institutions which have their sperate procedures,” she says. 

I ask her about the disconnect that exists between the success of the male and female senior national teams. In the last season, the women’s team secured a historic promotion to League B in the Nations League, while the men’s team continues to underwhelm on the international stage.  

But for Azzopardi, looking at short-term results does not truly reflect the progress the teams have made.  

“When it comes to men’s football, I don’t think it’s a question of regression. If you look at the past games, the national team has played football power houses like Italy and England. In Malta, like abroad, unfortunately, we only look at the results,” she says.

The following is an excerpt from the interview. 

The full interview can also be viewed on Facebook and Spotify.

Maltese football is at an interesting juncture. For the first time we will see the premier league functioning as a separate entity from the MFA. Why are you doing this? 

As everyone knows, the premier league and its clubs have certain needs which lower leagues do not. Even European qualification comes into play, and the expectations are higher when it comes to administration. Through this change, more liberties and leeway will be allowed on certain aspects like commercialisation, and this is aimed at helping both the clubs and the league to evolve and grow.

Do you agree with the new league format? 

The new league format is just a single aspect of the reform, and more changes will come into play. On whether one agrees or not with the format is debatable. One has to see what will happen in practice. This is not the first time changes have been implemented in the premier division. There are other aspects like commercialisation which will contribute to this so-called revolution. There are other items on the agenda which will help move the premier league forward.

Some have criticised the new format, as they claim it will open up the league to more corruption and match fixing. Do you agree? 

Allegations of corruption are made across the footballing world. I don’t think it’s a local issue, and I don’t think it will be aided or unaided by the new league format. The MFA has its procedures in place which will remain in place, no matter what format or structure the league will take. If there are situations like in the past, where evidence backs up the allegation, we will take the needed action and carry out the investigations.

At the helm of the MPL is Joseph Muscat, with him he brings all the heavy baggage linked to the Vitals inquiry. Are you afraid it could affect the MFA’s reputation? 

What happens beyond football, the country has its own institutions which will deal with the ongoing procedures. The MFA is purely focussed on football. The regulation and administration of football are its roles, and these will continue irrespective of what happens at the MPL. I feel one should not mix up what is being carried out by the MPL with the work and function of the MFA.

Georgia have just qualified for this year’s Euro finals. A decade ago, Malta was able to get a good result against Georgia, but now they will play in the Euros and Malta has remained at the same level. What’s going wrong? 

I think it’s important to note that the majority of their players are playing abroad. It is the same situation we have at the women’s national team, with a large cohort of players playing in other countries. Leagues abroad are much more competitive, and you improve more as a player, so that is the reason behind their success.

Is it a cultural problem that Maltese players don’t succeed abroad? 

I think the situation has improved at younger levels, but yes, I do feel it is a cultural problem. We enjoy the family and comfort around us, while abroad you must make that extra effort that not everyone is willing to commit to.