[WATCH] Maltese footballers need to play abroad, MFA presidency hopefuls insist

Contenders for the post of Malta Football Association president, Bjorn Vassallo and Chris Bonnett, propose different routes for more Maltese players to ply their trade abroad

Chris Bonnett (left) and Bjorn Vassallo (right) with Xtra Sajf host Saviour Balzan
Chris Bonnett (left) and Bjorn Vassallo (right) with Xtra Sajf host Saviour Balzan

A team made up of Maltese and foreign players that competes abroad could be key to the improving the national team’s quality of football, according to Malta Football Association presidency hopeful Bjorn Vassallo.

Vassallo was a guest on current affairs programme Xtra Sajf, together with Chris Bonnett, who is also a candidate for the role.

Bonnett is the former vice president of the MFA and currently a senior consultant at the parliamentary secretariat for sport. Vassallo was formerly the secretary general of the MFA and currently FIFA’s Director for Europe.

“On professionalization, I am proposing having a team made up of Maltese and foreigners that plays abroad,” Vassallo said, adding that the system was often used beyond Malta’s shores.  

Vassallo insisted that for Malta to start winning, its national team players must play abroad.

“Our players are in a comfort zone, living in a nice country that nobody wants to leave. I think that for our national team to achieve results we need to have 20, 30 players who are playing abroad,” Vassallo said.

His experience at FIFA meant that he knew what strategies were being employed by other countries, stressing that while Bonnett’s strategy was more of a long-term one, he believed that people wanted to start seeing the national team winning now.

He also emphasised the need for the MFA to work with clubs on a regional level to ensure that the country had a big enough pool of talent.

Finally, he said the MFA also needed to undergo a number of reforms for the people’s perception of it to change. In this regard, he said the MFA needed to be more transparent and accountable, adding that it also needed to be in a position to attract the necessary talent to bring it forward.

Maltese football at a crossroads

Both men were asked about their priorities for moving the sport forward, and while both agreed on the need for the professionalisation of the game.

Maltese football was at a crossroads, Bonnett said, insisting that something needed to be done before Malta fell further behind.

“There are countries which up until a few years ago were considered to be on our level and who in recent years have improved substantially more than we have,” he said.

Another priority, he said, was decentralisation of certain decision-making functions of the association. Bonnett said the MFA couldn’t keep deciding everything itself, stressing the need for clubs to be involved in the decision-making process.

Bonnett acknowledged that this might be perceived as increasing bureaucracy but insisted that if implemented well, it could allow the sport to grow. He said there was also a need for the sport to be commercialised further, especially when it came to the national stadium.

Here he suggested that clubs should have a portion of the profits generated by the national stadium funneled to them to be used for the development of players. Ultimately, clubs were the ones that worked on the ground and who attracted young talent to the sport.

Substantial investment required

Both Bonnett and Vassallo stressed the need for a considerable investment in Malta’s football infrastructure.

Bonnett explained that every one of his proposals had been costed, with his strategy estimated to require an investment of between €40 million and €50 million. Among his proposals are the development of a strategic plan that will see young players sent abroad and a revamp of the MFA’s academy.

Bonnett noted that the Prime Minister had recently said that in instances were sports associations are able to come up with a clear long-term strategy, the government would be willing to step in and help out.  

“We have a programme that costs €2.6 million a year and which will see coaches and scouts from abroad coming to Malta to train youths professionally including their lifestyle,” Bonnett said.

Another €4.5 million were required to change all of Malta’s pitches.

Vassallo said he would require €30 million to redevelop the Ta Qali national stadium, to build a second stadium in Gozo, as well as a regional stadium in the south. Vassallo said the money would also go towards the creation of two hubs that would allow the MFA to work more closely with clubs, as well as a new technical centre.

Turning to the commercialisation of the sport, Bonnett said he believed that the MFA needed to start viewing football as a product. He said that before, the association might have been a bit too arrogant in believing that people would simply go to the stadium because matches were played at the weekend.

A priority, he said, was understanding the reasons the national stadium was not welcoming to people, insisting that the Maltese league was exciting enough and that problem lay in the fact that it wasn’t being “packaged and presented” to the public in an effective manner.