New chapter, same philosophy? Malta national football team hopes to retain momentum

A positive run for the Maltese national football team was brought to an end by the departure of the Italian Devis Mangia over sexual harassment claims. But will the young national team’s attacking style of football continue under replacement Michele Marcolini?

Just as Malta’s national team was started to churn out positive results, the country’s footballing community was rocked by sexual harassment claims against head coach Devis Mangia.

The future looked bright for Malta’s national team, with Devis Mangia managing the team to its longest undefeated streak in its history – seven matches – between 6 September 2020 and 24 March 2021. The also took a more positive approach to the game, looking to get on the front foot while playing attacking football. Mangia’s proactive style of football saw Malta get wins against Gibraltar, Latvia, Lichtenstein, Andorra, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Kuwait, San Marino and Israel. In September Malta also drew with the 2004 European champions Greece.

Mangia was appointed on a four-year contract in December 2019, having previously managed the Italian U21 team, guiding the Azzurrini to qualification to the 2013 UEFA European Under-21 Championship, where the Italian team made it to the final, before being defeated 4–2 by Spain. He stepped down from his role after the end of the tournament.

Previously he had been temporary head coach for Italian side Palermo, following the dismissal of Stefano Pioli. Under Mangia’s tenure, Palermo significantly improved and achieved three wins and 10 points in the first five Serie A games.

With Malta, under Mangia’s tenure, veteran players were phased out and new young players got the call. The decisions were translated into positive, attacking football, and names like Teddy Theuma and Jurgen Degabriele had become household names during Mangia’s tenure.

Quick halt

But the momentum was quickly halted after sexual harassment allegations against the now former coach made headlines. It was alleged he had made advances of a sexual nature on a player in the Malta squad. He has denied all allegations.

He was suspended from his post pending an investigation by the association, but has now tendered his resignation. The MFA’s safeguarding officer had requested additional time to complete his investigations into the case some three weeks ago.

Mangia, who married in 2019, was already accused of entertaining intimate relations with footballers when he coached University of Craiova in Romania. The accusations were made by another former coach, Victor Pițurcă, who said Mangia had made advances to footballer Răzvan Popa when he coached the team between 2017 and 2019.  Club owner Mihai Rotaru had stated that Mangia was not fired, but that he had agreed to leave following discussions. “We really care about Devis, he was part of our family,” Rotaru stated at the time.

But similar accounts abound from yet another surprise departure by Mangia in 2016, from Ascoli, when the coach claimed he had to leave the club due to health problems. Mangia was implicated in an incident that took place at a Novara hotel in May 2016 when he and another football player were reported to have left the football team’s retreat for hours on end.

The MFA said that Mangia was ready to cooperate in its safeguarding hearings on the allegations levelled against him, which revolved around the alleged “inappropriate conversations”. But it is unclear whether this was the conclusion reached by the Safeguarding Officer.

It is also unclear whether Mangia’s decision to resign was linked to the conclusion of the Safeguarding Officer’s investigation.

Meanwhile, in a statement released to the media through his lawyer Giannella de Marco, Mangia said his decision to step down was reached “after long deliberation”.

He again denied allegations of wrongdoing. “I would like to reiterate unequivocally, that not only have I not behaved in a manner that offends the dignity of any person sexual or otherwise, but nor has there been any allegation by MFA of any sexual abuse or harassment in my regard.”

Mangia said it is “regrettable that the situation created in these past weeks”, risks disturbing the serenity within the MFA and the future progress of the Maltese team.

Head coach Devis Mangia resigned after being accused of making advances of a sexual nature on a player in the Malta squad
Head coach Devis Mangia resigned after being accused of making advances of a sexual nature on a player in the Malta squad

Out with Mangia, in with Marcolini

The Italian has now been replaced by compatriot Michele Marcolini, a former player who has played for a number of clubs in Italy, including Bari, Torino, Atalanta and Chievo Verona, and with junior Italian National Team selections.

Marcolini has coached several Serie B and C teams and won the Coppa Italia Serie C with Piedmont club Alessandria in season 2017-18.

Announcing his appointment, the MFA said Marcolini fits the managerial profile it was looking for.

His appointment did not go down too well with a number of national team followers, who have criticised the “hurried decision”. Despite coaching a number of second and third-tier Italian clubs, and playing elite football in Italy, he has not coached any top sides.

His appointment came almost at the same time that the EURO 2024 fixtures were announced by UEFA. Malta kicks off its adventure away against North Macedonia on Thursday 23 March.

Three days later, Malta’s first home game at Ta’ Qali will be against Italy. The next home game will be against England on Friday 16 June.

Malta will play away against Italy on Saturday 14 October and against England in Wembley on 17 November.

The draw has pitted Malta for the first time in the same group as Italy and England, to the delight of football enthusiasts.

Malta Football Association President Bjorn Vassallo, who was present for the draw, described it “a historic draw”. With the new coach yet to make his debut, it remains to be seen whether he will opt for continuity from his predecessor, and manage a more attacking side, or go for a more defensive style of football associated with Italian managerial style.

MFA president confident on new appointment

Speaking to MaltaToday, the MFA President said Marcolini’s appointment was in line with its strategic objectives already set for the period 2020-24. “A major goal is to strengthen the national teams at all levels through a developed unified game philosophy. Today, three years from the start of implementation, the performances and results already show that the work carried out by the MFA Technical Centre in collaboration with the clubs has given our national teams the needed identity.”

“When I was elected president, among the first things I worked on was to setup a technical department that can give us unison towards a common objective – build from the bottom and sustain this work with all our resources through a player dedicated pathway so that the legacy would see our national teams become consistently competitive. Although it’s a long-term strategy, we have already seen improvements and now Michele Marcolini will be taking over with the aim of continuing this job,” Vassallo said.

“The idea from the outset was to have a game play which would be consolidated for all teams, obviously depending on the skills of the squad and the opponents’ tactical shape. Coaches can modify the system accordingly. It’s mainly starting with three players at the back and building from deep in our half with ample space for possession and attacking through the flanks.”

He said this “unified game philosophy” must be drilled at every level. “We wanted to stop this idea that we change our playing style according to our opponents, and to have that mentality, you need to practice it at every level. Today we are not perfect but we are more at ease at kick-off knowing that we have to follow a game plan which many times is also entertaining for those watching at the stadium or remotely.”

Vassallo said Marcolini ticked all the boxes when it came to continuing in the same style adopted in 2020. “He might not have the international experience at national team level, but he played so many Serie A matches that he can read and impose the tactical shapes with no trouble.”