Bring it back home: how will Malta return to the beautiful game?

Mulling a return to the beautiful game: How players, coaches and the MFA are adapting to an extraordinary circumstance

The coronavirus’s radical change in our daily routines has left football fans with an unprecedented void in their lives, at a time so crucial in bringing home the coveted silverware.

Malta’s football leagues are no exception, with the Maltese championships suspended around mid-March, yet with football fans now asking when and how the season is expected to resume.

Even returning back to playing will offer coaches and players alike both physical and psychological challenges. Orchestrating a return to football is based on various factors, with the situation being a rather complex one, MFA President Bjorn Vassallo says. “There is no one-size-fits-all model for these difficulties,” he says, after the executive committee agreed to return on a final decision on its football leagues by the 25 May.

“The MFA has been monitoring the on-going situation, and has drawn up multiple scenarios on which to base their decision when the time comes. The bottom line is that, at this stage, we will either have the authorisation to continue or not,” he said.

The MFA’s position on the rescheduling of the season is aligned with that of UEFA, which on Thursday said that of the two scenarios assessed by the Calendar Working Group,

both envisage domestic football starting before UEFA club competitions, with one seeking to run the competitions in parallel; and the other to complete domestic matches before restarting UEFA matches.

UEFA club competitions include the Champion’s League and Europa League among others – prestigious competitions which give Maltese teams a much-needed source of finance if they progress through to the initial rounds.

Vassallo, however, said that while the MFA supports the collective commitment to complete the season, “there is a limit on how far we can go and ultimately this is not within our control”.

While the association concentrates on providing a schedule and way forward, coaches have the imminent headache of ensuring their players are up to speed, in

order to hit the ground running at a time which could make or break a season. Coach and football analyst Alfred Attard said the circumstances the footballing world finds itself would required that the MFA issue a two to three weeks’ notice before resuming competitions. “Football is a team sport. Therefore, the team should be allowed to train collectively before starting official competitions,” he said.

Attard said that at Premier league level, players have to be mentally and technically prepared, with such preparedness impossible to achieve on an individual basis. Vassallo agrees, saying the MFA anticipates a minimum of seven to eight weeks will be needed to finish the season fully.

Teams will also have no room for mistakes, according to Attard. “While at the start of the season title-challenging teams have room for minor gaffes, if teams slip up in the return to football, it could mean they lose a chance at qualifying for European competitions or winning trophies.”

Birkirkara F.C. physiotherapist Aaron Saliba said players at the club have been given individualised training programmes to get in shape for the remainder of the season. Asked if the risk of injuries increases in the eventuality that players return to playing, Saliba said the problem is three-fold.

“Firstly, you risk injuries because players are not at their optimal physical level. Secondly, we will probably have to rush through field training from the moment the health authorities give the green light for full squad training up to the time when we actually play the first match,” Saliba said.

The third issue is that of over-loading players if teams are forced through the remaining games in order to finish the season.

And it is not only the physicality of the football player that will be challenging with a return to football, but also his or her psychological approach to the game. Sports psychologist Adele Muscat said while insecurities on aspects like fitness and technique start to grow within the athlete’s brain, top athletes are capable of regaining form. “High profile athletes are tough, they are at the top because they are resilient in getting to the top and are capable of adapting.”

Muscat also said in the same way people are looking forward to returning to their places of work once the pandemic passes, so are players. But it all boils down to personality. “Some will look positively at the situation, while others will have a negative standpoint. What players need to do is make the best out of the situation they are in.”

At the end of the day it is the player who walks the walk on the football pitch, and Floriana F.C. right fullback Alex Cini feels that the lack of squad training is the biggest downside to the situation. “The routine of going to training every day after work was all of a sudden disrupted. Every player is now training at his own pace and time. Now, more than

ever, every player has to be even more responsible, professional and dedicated,” Cini said.

Despite the hurdles, Cini – whose team is poised to win the league if it can fend off a hungry Valletta FC – looks forward to getting back on the pitch, putting in an extra shift to return to top form. “It all depends on how well each player is training individually and how well we get back on track as a whole team. Regaining the same exact form would be difficult, but I’d like to think that our motivation would help us get there.”

Leading the pack by only three points, with rivals Valletta hot on their heels, Cini says Floriana are looking forward to be crowned champions after two decades. “It was a bit of a blow to stop. Having said that, everyone still holds the same desire and hunger to get back on the pitch and show everyone that Floriana FC are worthy winners this season.”

Hibernians F.C. left wingback Myles  Beerman shares Cini’s sentiment, basing a return of form on individual training. “It is a question of having a collective effort which stems from individual performance,” Beerman said.

The Hibs player said the club is giving players training and exercise routines, with the specialised drills made according to the players individual needs.

While maintaining the difficulty in having to recover match fitness, Beerman said the team is hungrier than ever to give that final push.

“It is not a nice situation for anyone, especially us, as we were starting to gain momentum. On the other hand, we are geared up and ready to return back to the game we know and love, so that hopefully we can make something positive of the remainder of the season.”