Looking Back 2023: The female athletes who set the blueprint for sporting success

Sporting success and Malta are not used regularly in the same sentence, but women athletes this year have gone against the grain

The women’s national footbal team
The women’s national footbal team

Sporting success and Malta are not used regularly in the same sentence, but women athletes this year have gone against the grain.

Never has women’s sport bristled so bright as it has in 2023.

From promotion in the UEFA Nations League achieved by the female national team to dominating the Games of the Small States of Europe; from the U-18 female national basketball team winning gold in the FIBA European Championships to Francesca Curmi’s victory against a top 100 ranked tennis player were all made possible through the efforts of the remarkable women athletes who stepped forward and etched their names in history.

Making football history

Football, both in Malta and abroad, has always been dominated by men, but the tide is turning, and it was the women who donned the red shirt, who made history in 2023.

The women’s game is a project two decades in the making.

Speaking to MaltaToday earlier this year, Pierre Brincat, Director of Women’s Football at the Malta FA, said the aim was to establish a proper system at grass-roots level, before aiming higher.

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

Tennis player Francesca Curmi
Tennis player Francesca Curmi

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

Changes were also made to the Maltese 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,” Brincat had said.

For coach Manuela Tesse it was also a question of instilling a different mentality in the squad. “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 had told MaltaToday.

This cultural shift was in full display as the team managed to turn a 0-1 setback into a 2-1 win on the last day of the Women’s Nations League to secure promotion to group B.

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.”

Athlete Claire Azzopardi
Athlete Claire Azzopardi

Topping the table at the GSSEs

Early in the summer, the Games for the Small States of Europe dominated the news cycle, as Maltese athletes continued to add to the medal tally as the games progressed.

It was a rare occurrence but one that saw Team Malta top the medals table for the first time in the games’ history. Malta finished the week-long sporting bonanza with a record-breaking 97 medals, including 38 gold medals across all sporting disciplines.

Malta’s previous best performance in the GSSE, which are open to European states with fewer than 1 million people, was a fourth place in the two previous editions it hosted – in 1993 and 2003 – as well as in the 2011 games held in Liechtenstein.

Women athletes were the top performers with Gina McNamara winning four medals (three gold and one silver), Claire Azzopardi winning three medals (all gold), Georgi Kate Bohl (two gold, one silver and one bronze) and Janet Richard winning four medals (two gold, one silver and one bronze).

The games showed the result of long-term planning and investment in the country’s elite athletes. In 2021, a record €4.9 million from the National Development and Social Fund was handed to the 10 sporting federations which represented Malta in the games. A previous €2.7 million had also been granted to the MOC by government to disseminate amongst affiliated federations.

The athletes who made Malta proud in the GSSEs now look to next Summer as they hope to emulate their success in the biggest stage of them all – the 2024 Paris Olympics.

Honourable mentions

During the past year tennis player Francesca Curmi – also a gold medal winner in the GSSE – continued to make waves.

Last October, Curmi got herself a win against world-renowned Slovenian player Tamara Zidansek.

This victory was a historic moment in Curmi’s tennis career, marking the first time she defeated a top 100 ranked player.

Just 21-years-old, Curmi’s tennis future looks bright, and is testament to her sacrifice and dedication.

In a tense finale to an outstanding performance throughout the tournament for Malta’s women basketball players, the U-18 team won gold at this year’s FIBA European Championships in Albania.

Under coach Giovanni Gebbia they blasted through their opposition on their way to the top spot.

Whatever the future holds for Malta’s sporting scene it seems men have much to learn from the perseverance and determination shown by women athletes in 2023.