Rebranding Muscat: redemption through football magic?

Former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat could head Malta’s top-tier league football clubs industry association. Could he reinvigorate local football the same way he transformed Malta, or will the dark cloud of disgrace still overshadow the role he seeks in football and beyond?

Joseph Muscat refuses to disappear as many of his critics augured when he was forced to resign in the wake of the arrest of Yorgen Fenech, whose proximity to chief of staff Keith Schembri raised questions on whether the former prime minister was involved in the greatest cover-up ever in recent Maltese history. The fact that this question remains unresolved obviously casts a dark shadow on any role assumed by Muscat.

Muscat himself may have realised that with a political comeback extremely unlikely, even inside Labour there is a political consensus that the former Labour leader was guilty of a gross error of judgement in keeping Schembri by his side, despite knowing his connection to Fenech through the 17 Black offshore company.

That in itself showed a tolerance for questionable behaviour. So can he be trusted in a sector like football which is just as blighted by big business interests and corruption as politics? Apparently with a few exceptions – Valletta and Gudja FC – the bosses of the majority of the football clubs involved have no such qualms. This is not so surprising considering that Maltese clubs are also led by the likes of construction magnate Joseph Portelli, who also use football to curry favour amongst the masses while literally pillaging the country’s landscapes, also thanks to complicity with the Labour administration. After all, this is the same world in which Portelli had the audacity to present himself as a registered footballer to score Nadur FC’s winning penalty in a competitive football match.

But can people dismiss Joseph Muscat and really expect him to vanish or rot away in some inglorious exile in the same way Bettino Craxi ended his days in Hammamet? So far Muscat does not stand accused of anything illegal in any court of law. He has already been absolved by the Egrant inquiry over his wife’s alleged ownership of a secret Panama company and other links to the Azeri ruling family. And despite gross political misjudgements and dubious complicities, he may have never crossed the line of criminal responsibility. Even if he did... prosecution remains unlikely in a country with such a poor record in hounding past and present politicians of all political hues. 

And after his opponents raised the stakes so high by entertaining the possibility of his active involvement in murder, anything short of that now sounds like an absolution.

The rise of the Muscat ‘power couple’ brand

Still relatively young and ambitious, Muscat remains adulated in his own party, which never dumped him the same way the German Social Democrats recently did with former PM Gerhard Schroeder after retaining his links to Russian-owned Gazprom after Putin’s invasion of the Ukraine.

Muscat remains obsessed with legacy, a task made more urgent by his fall from grace. There is no surprise that Muscat desperately needs to reinvent his brand, in the same way that others did. Despite his fall from grace over the disastrous Iraq invasion, Tony Blair reinvented himself as an advisor of Central Asian despots; the Clintons remained in the limelight thanks to the activities of their money-raking foundation. Like Malta’s own Beckhams, the Muscats retain a cherished celebrity status and the perks which come with it, with Michelle presiding over a BOV-backed charity foundation and Joseph possibly starting to work his way up in the lucrative world of international football.

Reckless, ambitious and skilled

Nobody can underestimate Muscat’s ambitions. After all this is the same man who harboured big ambitions of European statesmanship, having been touted for the post of EU Council President and persisting in lobbying for the post at a time when he was not just aware of the 17 Black connection, but that police were closing on the alleged mastermind of Caruana Galizia’s murder. Just imagine had Fenech been arrested while Muscat was already serving in the top EU post he craved for. This in itself raises questions on how unscrupulous Muscat can be in pursuing his goals.

Indeed, it must be hard for Muscat to swallow the bitter pill of assisting to the rise of Roberta Metsola, the MEP who rebuked him by refusing his handshake, to the prominent role of president of the  European Parliament.

Now Muscat may have found an alternative avenue to fame, influence and power, and possibly a golden opportunity to nurture future contacts on a global level.  Muscat’s interest in football is not some fad, and he boasts of contacts within the Italian football league where he supports his beloved Milan. With a world ‘shocked’ by the trial of ex-FIFA boss Sepp Blatter and heir apparent Michel Platini over bribery charges on Qatar’s bid to host the World Cup, football remains a welcoming salon for shady operators like Bernard Tapie, Silvio Berlusconi and Roman Abramovich, more tolerant of dubious connections than the political world itself.

The office of Dr Joseph Muscat

Muscat’s consultancy service, to him not simply a job, remains part of his personal brand as a one-time ‘public institution’ who changed the face of Malta. Now no longer accountable to anyone but himself, his “Office Of Joseph Muscat” website gets to rewrite the last of his political days by stating that he resigned his office in 2020 “following ten consecutive national, European and local elections wins with record majorities”.

Shifting into football keeps him in a familiar arena that offers the kick of adulation as well as the networking of Maltese football’s big men, who want Muscat to unlock the doors to their sports commercialisation projects. If this means more money for the clubs, it could guarantee Muscat the dose of national acclaim he craves. For Muscat loves to be loved. And he may well have the qualities to deliver.

Even critics have to recognise that Joseph Muscat has both the business acumen and skills as well as a charisma that can captivate any audience, from dull European social democrats to ravenous Maltese developers. Continental socialists like Martin Schulz were captivated by Muscat’s drive when he served as an MEP, and endorsed him in Labour’s leadership race. Ever the ambitious gambler, S&D support never stopped Muscat along with his friend Matteo Renzi, from considering breaking-up with the socialist group to form a new alliance with the neoliberal Emmanuel Macron.

Playing Muscat’s game

Muscat might never be able to exorcise the cloud of suspicion hanging over him, but he can take pride in his track-record of transformative change. His website refers to his instrumental role in “strengthening civil liberties”, the legalisation of same-sex marriage, a 9% increase in female participation in the labour market and world-class legislation for the processing of medical cannabis products.

Muscat did change Malta from a conservative backwater into a vibrant socially liberal and cosmopolitan hub, albeit one which in some aspects serves like a playground for the global rich. Despite his stomach-churning accommodation of the fat cats pillaging the environment while living the high life, the Muscat model changed the life of many a Maltese for the better, including a growing number of “little rich men and women”. It is this change in daily life and not just tribal ignorance or tolerance for corruption, which explains why Muscat remains an idol for many.

But by appointing him as their representative, football club presidents send a message that the cloud still hanging on his head is no impediment to his rise in the parallel world of soccer. Will Muscat’s football ambitions definitely end any political plans, or could the goal of bathing himself in football glory enable him to wield more political influence at a later stage. The football club presidents seem happy to come out and play in Muscat’s grand game, where the trophy is not just perks and contacts but popularity and redemption.