“UEFA Under-19 Championship is taking place in Malta! Tickets are on sale! Buy yours!”, announces a voice on the radio of the taxi, as it waits for visitors and fans at the Malta international airport. A short phrase, but an important one, because it tells you something unique: this is the biggest football tournament ever staged in the country.
While still building a football culture, Malta are participating in the finals as hosts and compete with seven other teams — starting today, with Italy, at 9pm in the National Stadium, at Ta’Qali. The challenge, however, will not be easy, and their coach, Tozé Mendes, knows it. Not only because of the opponents, but mostly from a mental perspective.
“I believe that all of them are facing Italy for the first time,” says Tozé, a Portuguese that took over Malta with a clear mind. “So one of the things that I’m most concerned about is not the tactics, physics or techniques, but it’s how we are managing our emotions. Entering the National Stadium, listening to the national anthem, play in front of their fans and families,” he explains.
FRIENDS OR RIVALS?
Facing Italy adds an extra ingredient for the game. Both countries maintain a strong relationship with deep roots in politics, culture, commercial ties and, of course, football. Walking down the street near AX Odycy hotel, it’s not hard to find football fans to explain it. At a store that sells tour cruises in Qawra, there is Steve Saliba, a man who became a football lover because of the Brazilian way of playing and still follows the sport.
“The Maltese have the support here and everybody likes that. But the players know that when you get the support, you also get a bit of pressure”, he says, before adding an element of surprise. “The thing is that Malta is divided between Italy and England, as national fans, so I think that could even be more supporters with Italy than Malta.”
At the same time, It’s not usual to find big signs about the tournament on the streets. Selling souvenirs at a store nearby, Jovy says that she heard about it last week on the radio. “I think that It will have people there, because these kind of event doesn’t happen here often.” Not far away, in a supermarket, Massimo, an Italian from Sicily, thinks otherwise.
“I don’t think It will be a full stadium, maybe 4.000 to 5.000 people. We have a lot of Italians here, they can be there to support Italy,” he says.
FAMILIES ARE HERE
Although, the experience itself will already be new for the players. They are at their own home and the national team is only formed by young players from 17 to 19 years old. As a captain for the Maltese, the midfielder Jake Micaleff sees it as an opportunity for them to meet with the fans and also with their families – since he plays in Portugal, for Boavista FC, and doesn’t always get his guests at the stadium.
“It will be nice to play for our fans. We worked hard and we are here to fight,” the 19-year-old says, with an sentimental thought. “I am usually away from my family, so It’s nice to play with them here. They always support me, but they never put pressure on me. So I just play my game and try to make them happier”, he adds with a smile.
THEY CAN DREAM
It won’t be easy to stand out among these teams – since they have been working with more experience than Malta -, but the Maltese have a goal. As the coach Tozé Mendes just said, if the opponents play better, he will accept the result, but his boys must have personality. They must manage emotions and especially focus on one thought: “Do not be afraid.”
“Be fearless,” he advises. “Give everything you have. Don’t be afraid. Play. Many times the underdogs beat their opponents. These players have the right to dream, why not?”
Credit: AIPS Media