The green, green grass of Marsa | Ralph Asciak

On our small, over-populated urban island, the Marsa Sports Club (MSC) provides a haven of greenery and countryside for sports enthusiasts and socialites alike. Chairman Ralph Asciak tells Rachel Zammit Cutajar that running the club is like running a big family, trying to keep the naughty kids in check.

For over a century, the smell of lush green grass and fresh air at Marsa has provided a playground for members and their families, in an environment where family values are paramount.

It has also contributed to a common misconception that the Marsa Sports Club is the exclusive preserve of rich snobs.

Ralph Asciak, chairman since 2005, assures me that though some members are indeed rich influential people, and others make sacrifices to pay the membership fees, most members are in fact average Maltese people from all classes of society. 

“It is not our intention to exclude anyone from the club unless they pose a threat the well-being of any of our members.”

The Marsa Sports Club (MSC) was set up by the British in 1901 to act a recreational centre for the British Forces stationed on the island. One hundred and nine years later the club is still going strong, boasting some 2,300 members.

The club prides itself on having the largest number of sporting facilities under one “roof”, many of which are the only ones of their kind on the island. The MRC hosts Malta’s only golf course, cricket pitch and clay tennis courts. There are 19 tennis courts in all, five air-conditioned squash courts, two billiard rooms, a swimming pool and a fitness studio. This summer saw the inauguration of Malta’s first croquet court.

“We are investing in the future,” Ralph Asciak says. “Living in an ageing society we have to try to think of new things for people of all ages to enjoy. It has already received a good response with over 30 members – all over 65 – who play regularly.”

Each sport section has its own club, which organises the day-to-day operations as well as the different tournaments. All of these fall under the supervision of the MRC committee, and Asciak talks fondly of this responsibility.

“It’s like having a big family and having to control the kids. Some are naughtier than others, pushing for more than their share of ‘cake’ – the clubs land and finances.”

The most popular sport at the club is tennis, with an average of 800 members. Golf is second in line with 550 members, followed by squash with 200 members. Aside from the sport enthusiasts the MSC also has many social members who make use of the swimming pool and two restaurants on the premises.

“We also offer our members a good opportunity for social networking, and a safe environment for children to be outdoors in the fresh air.”

A brand new barbeque area seating approximately 120 people has been set up where patrons can enjoy the great outdoors every evening in the summer and lunch in the winter. The restaurant is also open to non-members.

The MSC is run by a private committee which pays government some €80,000 a year for the lease of the land.  Asciak has been chairman for some five years.

“It’s completely privately run. We do not acquire any sort of funding from government.”

Financing of the club is gained from mem berships and sponsors, and all profits are ploughed back into the club. No dividends are paid out.

“Over the past five years we have tightened controls, becoming stricter with entrance of non-members, who can only enter the club if they are accompanied by another member as their guest.

 “The feeling of exclusivity associated with membership actually increased the number of applicants.”

New members must be proposed and seconded by other members. Foreigners – which make up 20% of the club’s membership – may gain access to the club through an interview. The club reserves the right to refuse membership to anyone, though Asciak confirms that this right is only exercised when membership of a person may pose a threat to the well-being of other members.

“Clean conduct is one of the criteria necessary for membership to ensure the safety, particularly of our younger members.”

Working on the committee is a voluntary job consuming many man-hours. Asciak jokes that if he had just one euro for every hour he put in there would be quite a sum in the kitty. However he says that devoting his free time to club matters is rewarding.

“I feel a sense of satisfaction watching other members enjoy the fruits of all the hard work we all put in. Hearing the occasional ‘well done!’ from members makes it all worthwhile.

“I’ve been a part of the club for the last 45 years and plan to be for a long time to come. I feel honoured to be able to be part of the committee and be able to feel like I have given my two cents worth to make the club the best it can be.”

The people responsible for making the club such a special place consist of voluntary workers who run the individual sports sections and those who sit on the main committee as well as core staff, some of who have been employed with the club for a great number of years. I personally remember the gatekeeper chasing me off the golf course as a child. Today he still gives me grief if ever – as a non-member – I try to slip into the club car park to go for lunch.

Asciak says that none of his employees ever leaves the club. In as long as he can remember only two employees have left of their own accord, one to travel overseas and another to return to her old job.

“We believe in providing a good environment for our employees as well as our members. Besides that they get to work in the open air in beautiful surroundings. That must account for some of their reason to stay.”

Life in management of the club is not without its headaches. Health and safety regarding fireworks and related accidents is an issue all over the island.

When the government gave over the land to the committee, one of the conditions was that the land be available to St Sebastian’s Fireworks Society to use for two weeks a year to let off fireworks. This poses a huge danger for members and their children during these times, despite closing the golf course.  The roof of the locker room at the golf club was set on fire during one display on the 28 July 2009.

“The danger remains even after the displays have ended. Unexploded debris litters the club, exposing our members, especially children, to huge dangers as they pick up the fireworks and play with them, risking injury.”

His concern is further fuelled by the 11 year-old boy who was admitted to hospital suffering from serious burns resulting from playing with unexploded firework debris in Kirkop earlier this week.

Santa Venera’s fireworks were suspended from launching their fireworks from the town and these were moved to Marsa. Though not on MSC land, they are launched closer to the clubhouse, bringing the danger closer to members.

The MSC contested this move in court but lost the case. Concerned for public safety, Judge De Gaetano was sympathetic towards the MRC but could find no law prohibiting the launch of fireworks from the proposed area, and therefore had to dismiss the case.

Fireworks can only be let off in an area where fewer than 100 people live. This makes the sports club an ideal ground for this dangerous activity.

“Just because we don’t live there doesn’t take the danger away. So many members and their young children spend their days and evenings at the club. They are at just as much risk as the residents of Santa Venera.”

The people who look after the displays are meant to come and clean up after themselves, as cleaning up also involves risk to whoever is doing it. However this is never done.

“Last year the Santa Venera fireworks people sent a clean-up crew for an hour. That hardly created a dent in the cleaning that was required.”

There are also no authorities present to ensure the number and type of fireworks that are let off in accordance to regulations. Talking about the fireworks before they are let off Asciak compares them to a war scene.

“Seeing them all ready to be fired off is like a scene out of the Second World War before Hitler attacked Poland. Is this the environment we want our children to grow up in?”

Asciak talks about the future with optimism. “We plan to continue revamping the club wherever needed to ensure state of the art facilities.”

Recent refurbishment includes the resurfacing of some tennis courts, a new car park has been put in and the cricket pitch has been floodlit, along with renovations to the reception area.

Finite lands are a problem for every sporting entity, and more land is always necessary for improvements.

“We are in talks with government to gain access to more land. The plans include improving the children’s academies to promote sports to our youngsters at a time when obesity among children is becoming a growing concern.”

Lobbying against the launch of fireworks in the vicinity is also an ongoing concern.

“Fireworks – including their production and launch – have to be removed from areas where they may endanger the public, or remove the public from areas where dangerous fireworks are made or launched.”

Another concern of the MRC is improvement of the area surrounding the club. The area where racehorses are kept is unsafe as well as dirty. Matthew Brincat, Chairman of the Malta Racing Club, has been working to improve the situation with good results. However, more needs to be done on the part of the local authorities to make the area safer as well as more aesthetically pleasing.

“We have requested simple sleeping policemen to be put on blind corners where accidents occur on a daily basis, but our requests have fallen on deaf ears. Parking on racing days is haphazard at best. Some yellow lines and police or warden patrol will improve the situation significantly with minimal investment.”

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