Trailblazing reds: The ladies making history for Maltese football

Malta’s successes in football have been few and far between, but the women’s national team is breaking the mould

The Malta women's national team is set to win the Nation's League Group B
The Malta women's national team is set to win the Nation's League Group B

Malta’s successes in football have been few and far between, but the women’s national team is breaking the mould.

Led by Malta’s biggest footballing talent, Haley Bugeja, the women’s team is on the brink of winning UEFA Women’s Nations League Group C.

Bugeja’s six-minute hat-trick last Tuesday, paved the way for an away victory against Andorra. The team is now one point away from winning the group for the first time in Malta’s history.

Women’s football is experiencing significant global growth, and its upward momentum shows no signs of diminishing. In parallel, Malta’s women’s team is also on an upward trajectory.

The viewership for the World Cup held in Australia over the summer crossed two billion, doubling from 2019. On the BBC, it was second only to the Coronation of King Charles III in May as the most watched event of the year.

The Maltese side has now opened a five-point lead at the top of Group C after Latvia slipped to a surprising draw at Moldova, who are bottom of the group with just one point.

Haley Bugeja (left) and Manuela Tesse
Haley Bugeja (left) and Manuela Tesse

Malta will now travel to Chisinau where they face hosts Moldova on 1 December, a match that could clinch League B promotion. If Malta draw and Latvia fail to beat Andorra away, would also guarantee promotion for the team.

But significantly, Malta has yet to concede a single goal. The team has kept a clean sheet in all its matches, while Bugeja tops the goal scoring charts for the tournament. These are developments never experienced before.

The recipe for success

MaltaToday spoke to Pierre Brincat, Director of Women’s Football at the Malta FA, who said the project has been 20 years in the making.

“We started slowly and established a proper youth system, as it is the secret to a successful and long-term project,” Brincat said. “We now have an under-12, under-14, under-15, under-17 and under-19 academy.”

The youth setup has produced talents like Bugeja, who now plays with Inter Milan, and Rachel Cuschieri, who won three domestic leagues abroad in Cyprus and Belgium.

He also said changes were made to the league’s format and structure.

“Now we are seeing Maltese clubs attracting good foreign talent, who play with their respective international squads, which can only serve to improve the local game,” he said.

Instilling the philosophy

Malta women’s national coach Manuela Tesse speaks of the way the team’s philosophy and playing style has been revolutionised.

“We changed the team’s philosophy, and the way we played. The team before used to have a more defensive style, while now we have instilled the philosophy of pressing, of playing possession football and involving the fullbacks in the attack. We have to fight for every ball,” she said.

Asked whether it was a question of relying on star players to carry the team, she insisted on playing as a squad.

“I have called up 46 different players during my tenure as coach over the past six months. All players understand that we have to retain a good level for every game,” she said.

Looking ahead, she said the most important and immediate goal is that of winning Group C to gain promotion.

“We have to advance to Group B and that puts us in a favourable position for the European qualifiers,” she said.

But Tesse isn’t afraid of aiming even higher.

“Why can’t we go to the Europeans? Why can’t we not dream… dreaming is free isn’t it not?” she said. “We have a good youth system, we have good senior players, and we have good young players. Malta has the potential of becoming a good established team.”

A story of contrasts

The story of the women’s national team contrasts with that of the men’s, who despite their much lengthier history, seem to be stuck in a loop of failures, shortcomings and the occasional scandal.

Following Malta’s match with European giants Italy last month, social media was awash with calls for coach Michele Marcolini to be sacked. While supporters acknowledge that Malta’s success should not be judged based on the result against the Italians, many have voiced their discontent regarding the squad and management, citing a lack of passion and tactical prowess as primary concerns.

The appointment of former coach Devis Mangia looked to be yielding positive results, with Mangia leading the team for 26 games, winning 9 of them and drawing a further five, equating to a win rate of 34.6% - the highest in history.

But his success was short-lived, as allegations into sexual misconduct led to his resignation in 2022.

But his replacement Michele Marcolini has not be able to emulate Mangia’s success. Supporters are not expecting Malta to sweep the European qualifiers, but with talents like Ligue 1 midfielder Teddy Teuma, and Notts Country striker Jodie Jones, better results are expected.

The contrast could not be bigger with their female counterparts hitting all the right notes.