The Malta Premier League era begins: A new dawn or false hope?

On the cusp of a new dawn for Maltese football, MFA President Bjorn Vassallo and Malta Premier League chief Joseph Muscat chart out the future for the island’s top league

Malta Premier League Chairman Joseph Muscat
Malta Premier League Chairman Joseph Muscat

In a country where the heartbeat of football resonates through every corner, Malta’s domestic league has long grappled with a perplexing paradox.

Despite an unflinching love for the beautiful game, its own football landscape has been marred by dwindling attendance figures, persistent whispers of corruption, and a noticeable gap in skill when compared to the international stage.

Ta' Qali National Stadium (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Ta' Qali National Stadium (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

For years, fervent fans have packed bars to watch overseas footballing giants grace the screen, while their own league struggled to capture the same fervour. The mismatch between the nation’s passion for the sport and the indifferent turnouts at domestic matches has perplexed many.

But a new chapter beckons, with the Malta Premier League taking centre stage in an audacious bid to revolutionize the sport. But as the league edges towards quasi-privatization, a veil of scepticism hangs in the air, leaving enthusiasts and sceptics pondering the future of the Maltese game.

The Malta Premier League is taking decisive steps towards an unprecedented transformation. The move aims to inject fresh enthusiasm, resources, and expertise into a league that has long yearned for a facelift.

However, this radical shift doesn’t come without scepticism, with former prime minister Joseph Muscat – who is no stranger to controversy – acting as the poster boy for this revolution.

Earlier this week, the Malta Football Association (MFA) and the Malta Premier League (MPL) officially announced the start of the 2023/24 BOV Premier League on 15 September. In a joint press conference, the two bodies labelled it a transitional season, with several changes to the format, and new club incentives.

Malta Premier League chairman Joseph Muscat (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Malta Premier League chairman Joseph Muscat (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

Among the most prolific changes was the announcement that this year four teams will be relegated to the Challenge League, and fiscal incentives for clubs to develop local talent, which according to them would then bolster the national team squad.

Speaking to MaltaToday following the press conference, MPL chairman Joseph Muscat said new formats and regulations aim to make the league more competitive.

Muscat said leagues across Europe and the world depend on three income streams: attendance, television rights and competitiveness, which he said are all tied together.

“If the league is more competitive, it will lead to more teams entering the group stage of a European competition, which will in turn see a larger sum of money awarded to the MFA by UEFA,” he said. “Having a more competitive league will also attract more crowds to our stadia and make TV rights easier to sell. It’s a cycle.”

He said the MPL’s plans are spread over five years and wants to see a structure where clubs’ faiths do not depend on a “sugar daddy” to fund the club. “The league and clubs need to be sustainable.”

Malta Football Association President Bjorn Vassallo (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Malta Football Association President Bjorn Vassallo (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

MFA President Bjorn Vassallo said the MPL brought about a new dynamic, which stemmed from the association’s decision to “privatise” the country’s top-tier football league.

He said the MFA has been very open with the MPL, and provided crucial information like financials, structures and requirements to organise the league.

“It is also being done with the whole football eco-system in mind and has seen active participation from a number of stakeholders,” he said.

The investor conundrum

In what seems to be the age-old story of Maltese football, the issue of investor revolving doors has longed troubled club administrations and the MFA.

Investors, local and sometimes foreign, approach club administrations with big ideas and plans to help them win silverware. While some have actually transformed that investment into success on the pitch, like Hamrun Spartans’ Joseph Portelli, other have not been as successful. This failure results in fines, relegation and sometimes bans from European competitions.

Football is Malta’s most followed sport and yet the domestic leagues fail to attract significant stadium audiences
Football is Malta’s most followed sport and yet the domestic leagues fail to attract significant stadium audiences

As part of its 2020-2024 strategy, the MFA introduced new regulations and safeguards to prevent the symptom which has plagued the game in Malta for years.

“We have stopped people from becoming club administrators if they are not fit for purpose. There are regulations intended to safeguard the clubs from money laundering and prevent bad investments. We have an independent ethics board, we have our inspectors, disciplinary officers. We have created a strong judicial system,” the MFA head said. “While there are still things to be done, the work is being carried out at a good pace.”

Ta' Qali National Stadium's Millennium Stand (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)
Ta' Qali National Stadium's Millennium Stand (Photo: James Bianchi/mediatoday)

Muscat said that from his experience during the year and half he has been in charge of the MPL, he feels investors which remain are there for the love of football, “because if you look at the system, it does not make financial sense.”

He said clubs must be seen as a good investment. “I agree with the MFA’s efforts to create a structure where one invests in the club, where you have a system which makes owners responsible. The system should also reward the investor, as they should have financial and fiscal incentives to carry out that investment.”

Club assets and their use

Marsaxlokk FC wants to develop an old people’s home, along with a hostel, next to an upgraded football pitch, all located outside development zone in an area that is presently used as a garden and a car park.

The planning application seeks to turn the site of 13,225 square metres, which is outside the development zone, into a 188-bed hostel and 255-room old people’s home. Photomontages indicate that the complex will be an urban sprawl of a building and will include a childcare centre, a social club, food and drink establishments and a physiotherapy clinic.

The proposed project has irked many, including two environmental organisations - Flimkien Għal Ambjent Aħjar and Din L-Art Ħelwa – who have branded such applications as nothing more than ‘fake’ business opportunities on public land obtained on the cheap.

A photomontage of the proposed project in Marsaxlokk. The football ground will be at the centre of both the hostel and the old people’s home
A photomontage of the proposed project in Marsaxlokk. The football ground will be at the centre of both the hostel and the old people’s home

Muscat said such projects should be in line with government regulation to ensure there is no exploitation of public land.

“Rather than how the land is used, I feel it is important to take note on how proceeds are used to help the club’s development. The reality is that there are those who cannot have a pitch at their locality, and so these clubs should use that land to fund their organisation’s growth,” he said.

Vassallo echoed Muscat’s statements, stating approved developments must be in line with legal notices issued by the authorities.

“What most interests me is how this commercial investment will impact the club’s sporting aspect, and I hope these funds go towards assisting the clubs in making them sustainable,” he said.

Meanwhile, the BOV Premier League returns on 15 September and will see 14 clubs compete over the span of 26 matchdays. It will be played over two rounds and will see 182 matches played throughout the season.

This is a transition period promising a new dawn for Maltese football but in Muscat’s words at the launch event, one should not expect immediate results. “We will start seeing results two, three years down the line,” Muscat said.

For football enthusiasts there is no greater hope than seeing Maltese clubs achieve more on the European stage and have a hotly contested domestic league that attracts the crowds. One can only wait and see.