A 13-year-old who plays football and – many people – flees the country. Black shirts used as a last resort in putting an end to the Second World War. Small islands, big passions, young children meeting their idols, and among it all an awakening call happened during the World Trade Centre’s terrorist attack.
Gozo island is twenty minutes away by ferry from the main Maltese island. Just by crossing the calm waters of the Mediterranean Sea, you would never imagine how much history and patriotic identity this island contains. Gozo is a world of its own, which you can access only by speaking to its people.
Gozitan people are proud, they’re fierce, but before everything else they’re committed football players. In fact, in the small island of Gozo, 6 km wide and 14,4 km long, only 39.000 people live, but an impressive number of people play.
Between Malta and Gozo there’s high respect, but the pride runs deep in the Gozitan people. It’s surprising to discover that the two islands actually play in two separate leagues. Given its limited population, it’s impressive that Gozo manages to organise their own football league with a first and a second division (14 and six teams each), all throughout the lower categories starting from the younger kids.
Football in Gozo started in 1936, when the U.K army was posted in the Island. In their free time English soldiers would challenge each other playing football under the curious eyes of the native residents.
The Gozitan people became so fascinated by the peculiarity of the sport that they decided to start playing it as well.
‘’When they started playing for the first time the colours of the shirts were yellow and green’’ Alex, an expert in local history, explains – ‘’but after the war Gozitan people lost everything. When they started playing football again men couldn’t afford to pay for a uniform. The only item available was a black shirt usually used for funerals.’’
At that point the black shirt became a symbol of passion and resilience. If black was all they had, then black was all they were going to need. Playing football was the most important thing, anyway.
When someone dared to say that they could not play football with a completely black shirt only meant for funerals, ‘’Gozitan people cut off their sleeves and added some white fabric to it. Until this day, black and white stripes are still the colours of the team.’’ Alex says with pride.
Alex is native from Gozo and he and his island have lived through many years and challenges together. He started playing football at 13.
‘’I’m still, to this day, the youngest player on record in the senior Ghajnsielem Football Club’s registers.’’ He explains with a proud giggle.
‘’The fact is that in the 70s, a lot of people started going to America, and all the best football players emigrated abroad. There was no one left to play.’’ Alex decided to stay, instead, because he loved Gozo and because he loved football. He played for years, stuck by his team and island for better and for worse.
Then he left like the others and decided to live abroad.
He travelled and wandered, he went to the U.S. and settled for living in New York City for a few years. ‘’Home is always home’’: it’s his answer after he’s asked why he decided to come back in the end. It’s not exactly uncommon for travellers to become homesick after a few years spent abroad, but Alex’s story is highly compelling. ‘’You know, in New York, I used to work next to the World Trade Centre, every day I went to work right next to it. When I saw the terrorist attack happening and the twin towers collapsing not long after I had left the city, it made me reflect. Maybe it’s better if I come home, I said.’’
GOZO RIVALRY WITH MALTA
Once he was back in Gozo, Alex started coaching. He’s taught for years to the younger divisions of the teams, helping to spread and keep alive the sport in the island. In December 2022 he won the ‘Gieh Ghajnsielem’ award, for his contribution to the team as a player, coach, president and secretary. Football has been running through his veins since he was a child, and now he’s helping young boys and girls to achieve their dreams.
Little by little, small and big satisfactions didn’t fail to arrive through the years.
Benjamin Hili, one of the boys Alex used to coach as a kid, is currently playing in the Euro Under-19 UEFA Championship for the Maltese national team. When asked about Benjamin, Alex answers with a fond smile ‘’I always knew he was naturally gifted. There are four brothers in the family, and they all play football, but I knew he was the best. I hope to see him play in Europe someday- but with a small hint of melancholy he admits that ‘’it was hard to see him leave, even if it was good for him to be playing with a bigger team.’’
It is extremely rare and trickly for a Gozitan kid to end up playing in the national team. As of right now, Ferdinando Apap is the only Gozitan footballer playing in the senior Maltese national team.
This situation comes from a juxtaposition of various factors. For the younger players it is not an easy task to train and play for the Maltese teams; it takes two car rides and a ferry for them to even reach the main island. Almost one hour in total. Between school, the bad conditions of the sea in winter, and the big sacrifices required from the parents, only a small number of players get the chance to reach the Maltese national team.
So it’s always a source of pride when, overcoming all the difficulties, Gozitan players manage to arrive to the senior team. Almost like a miracle.
BETWEEN WHO LEAVES WHO STAYS
Among all the people that, for one reason or another, decides to leave, there’s also someone who chose to move to Gozo island.
Gozo’s league is played around in the various fields of the Island, and the rules state that all the players must be originate from Gozo, apart from four footballers, who can actually be summoned from all over the world.
What is truly interesting is that, instead of just playing for a few seasons and then going back to their own countries, some of these former players decided to settle in Gozo. Slowly but steadily, they must have fallen for the island, for its quiet life, the pristine water, the summer breeze, and why not maybe also with some local soul. There are a few stories about ex-players marrying local people and starting a family in Gozo. ‘’One day their kids will play football as well’’ – Alex jokes. After the talent loss of the 70s this is a quiet but steady way in for the island to call back for new talent, in one way or the other.
THE DAY POGBA CAME GOZO
Thinking about the future, especially the future of the younger generations, is never a waste of time. Gozo is a small island, with its own pride, and with its own football league. Other sports like triathlon and water polo are becoming more and more popular, but Alex remains a big defender of the football’s legacy of the island, and is aware of the invaluable opportunity given to the young kids by the Euro Under-19 Championship.
As the Gozo Stadium fills with foreign players, Alex explains what it feels like seeing these big national teams playing in the historical stadium of their own league: ‘’it’s a true honour, the kids are excited, they’re meeting their idols! Some of these players will be very famous in a few years. I remember when fifteen years ago Manchester United came to play in Gozo with their Under-16, I managed to take a picture with Pogba! He’s so famous now!’’
Gozo Island may be small, but its connections with football’s world are deeply rooted in its history, and have been running through the people’s veins for decades. The players face difficulties and challenges but all throughout the island football is practised, nourished, and played with astonishing passion. And thanks to people like Alex, the younger generations will always have more and more opportunities in the future.
Credit: AIPS Media