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U-19 Euro

58 minutes, 26 seconds: Malta’s dream turns into nightmare as brave Poland set up final battle against Italy

On the streets of Ta’ Qali, outside the Centenary Stadium, you could hear it and you could feel it. The electric atmosphere on the stands of the small Maltese stadium was heard from a mile away. Every tackle won, every save, every completed pass was celebrated by the sold-out crowd like their team had scored a goal.

Those fans came out in numbers hoping to see history being made, they hoped to see the home team get their first point at a UEFA U19 Championship in 16,849 days.

And for the first 58 minutes and 26 second those fans believed it would happen, it was looking like it was going to happen. But it didn’t. The 10-men Poland emerged as winners and the 2-0 emotional victory left them with chances of qualifying to the semis.

ONLY FOUR TIMES Malta had appeared four times in the competition – which was known earlier as the UEFA U18 Championship – before hosting it this year. Their one and only point before this tournament came on the 19th of May in 1977 in Belgium. The result in question was a goalless draw against Austria.

Malta qualified for this years’ tournament as the hosts, and nobody really expected them to do anything other than lose every game in their group; which consists of Italy, Poland and Italy. In the first game against Italy the Maltese team had some moment to hurt their opponent, but they weren’t able to capitilse and ended up losing 4-0, giving up four penalties in those 90 minutes. They weren’t disciplined and composed enough in their own box and that cost them on that night.

In the underdogs’ second group game, they faced Poland, a team desperate to get a win after losing their first match against Portugal. This time it looked different for Malta, for a long time.

EARLY RED CARD As expected Poland had the upped hand at the start of the game, but Malta defended well. And then, in the 22nd minute Polish defender, Wiktor Matyjewicz, got his second yellow card for a foul close to the touchline. Poland were down to ten men and the momentum changed. Malta looked threatening. Actually, they had looked a little bit dangerous before the red card and the Poland goalkeeper, Oliwier Zych, had to make a good save in the 18th minute.

After half-time Malta had some more opportunities. The home fans celebrated what they thought was the first goal of the game when Alfie Bridgman hit the ball into the side netting from close-range. It looked like a goal but soon the fans realised the ball wasn’t in the net. It wasn’t meant to be.

KNOCK-OUT PUNCH Soon after that, the dream turned into a nightmare for Malta. Igor Strzalek scored the first goal for the game after 58 minutes and 26 seconds. Shortly after that there was another red card. This time it was Malta’s most exciting attacking player, Dylan Scicluna, who was sent off for a bad challenge. After the final whistle the hurt in Scicluna’s eyes was obvious as he sat on the team bus, he was devastated.

Poland got their second goal and sealed the win through Tomasz Pienko, and again Malta wasn’t good enough defending in their own box – they were all over the place for both of Poland’s goals.

Poland celebrated, they showed character and quality to win the game after facing big adversity. They will be going into a big challengel against Italy in the final round of the group stage, a game which they need to win after only beating Malta 2-0. If they had scored one more goal a draw against Italy would have been enough to qualify for the semi-final, but now they need to win.

After the secod goal you could see Lucas Scicluna waving his arms and screaming at his teammates, Basil Tuma sitting on the floor and the fans holding their face in their hands. It was over, the dream of getting that point, or those three points, was over. But with players like Tuma and the Scicluna brother there is some hope. Even though Malta are out of the tournament with one game remaining the nation can afford to have some dreams for the future. Small countries have in the past achieved success in football, even smaller countries than Malta, and dreaming is for free.

Credit: AIPS Media 

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