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Tuesday, May 5, 2020

GREENLAND - REVIEW OF 2019: GSS RETAIN WOMEN'S TITLE

The 2019 Greenlandic women's championship was held in the capital, Nuuk, last August, and took on a new form after the KAK (the Greenlandic FA) decided that it would culminate in a four-team mini-tournament for the first time. This was in part due to the fact that, in recent years, there have been a number of teams taking part in regional championships and teams qualifying for the final tournament and then dropping out, but also because the KAK felt that there were too many one-sided matches at previous tournaments, something they claimed spectators didn't enjoy.



Three of the four teams who made it through to the "Final 4", as the tournament was christened - champions GSS, last year's runners-up NÛK and B-67 - featured in last year's edition, whilst I-69, who, along with NÛK, had dominated Greenlandic women's football in recent years but who had declined to take part in last year's competition due to a lack of interest and a decision to rebuild the team, made it through the regional qualifiers to have a crack at regaining top spot. The other three teams qualified via the Mid-Greenland regional championship.


B-67 finished runners-up in 2017, though the bulk of the team played for GSS' all-conquering handball side as their club didn't have a women's team at the time. Once this was established, they defected to GSS and won last year's tournament with ease. B-67's squad was a mix of youth and experience, with a clutch of players under 16 years old. At least four of the squad over 40 years old, and two of them were in their mid-50s. They were swept aside by NÛK, a team eager to gain revenge for last year's 6:1 drubbing in the final against GSS, and got off to a flying start, scoring eleven against B-67 without reply, Arnaq Egede scoring five of their total and Pilu Chemnitz bagging a hat-trick.


Many of the GSS squad had also starred in their national championship triumph three months before the football tournament began. They beat NÛK in the final, and several of the losing side then would be also taking part in this competition for NÛK. GSS' footballers started their title defence in some style, beating I-69 7:1; their 15-year-old goal-machine Asii Kleist Berthelsen, now resident in Denmark and playing for Danish champions Hjørring, continued her fine goalscoring form at national championships by scoring twice, as did Najaaja Anja Lyberth and Nunuu-Marie Lukassen.


Berthelsen scored seven, Lukassen scored a hat-trick and Juanita Fleischer and Pillunguaq Broberg each scored twice as GSS swept aside B-67 15:0 in their next match, as they qualified for the final with ease, where they would meet NÛK, who disposed of I-69 by six goals to nil. Arnaq Egede and Emma Hansen scored a brace apiece for the northerners.


The final of round of group matches were little more than dress-rehearsals for both the final and the third-place play-off; the latter would feature I-69 and B-67, and the match gave B-67 a taste of what they could expect in the third-place match as I-69 simply ran riot. Exorcising their demons from the first two games, I-69 steamed into the lead and did not let up. Mikkala Tobiassen scored five goals as they demolished the Nuuk side 18:0; Patricia Semionsen and Niviaq Lange joined in the fun, each scoring a hat-trick as seven different players got on the scoresheet, including goalkeeper Mona Jensen.


As one would expect, the final group game between GSS and NÛK was a somewhat tighter affair, but there was a familiar name on the scoresheet - Asii Kleist Berthelsen put the champions in front just after the quarter-hour mark, but Arnaq Egede levelled after an hour, netting her eighth goal of the competition. However, any hopes NÛK had of gaining a psychological advantage going into the final were quickly snuffed out as Berthelsen quickly put GSS back in front, and then scored her third (and her twelfth of the tournament) to tie up the game with just under twenty minutes to go.


I-69 and B-67 squared up against each other in the third-place play-off, with I-69 very much the favourites to win the bronze medal, and that is exactly how it turned out, with the team from Ilulissat routing the girls from the capital.


Once the bandana-wearing Evie Lerch pounced on a loose ball in the B-67 box and fired the ball into the back of the net after five minutes, the die was cast. I-69 were six goals to the good after half an hour, and despite making a couple of good saves during that period, B-67's veteran goalkeeper Paornannguaq Jessen could have done better with three of the goals she conceded. I-69 added a further three goals before the break, with Lerch grabbing a well-deserved hat-trick, but B-67 did pull a goal back through the impressive - and ebullient - Ina Lynge Pedersen, who had tested Mona Jensen in the I-69 goal on a couple of occasions previously.


She played a one-two with the gutsy Aia Jeppsen, and then went on a run.and ran..and ran, beating one defender and dispossessing another before lifting a shot across Jensen into the far corner to open her team's account in the tournament. The celebrations after the goal were a lovely thing to witness and went on for minutes after the goal; every stoppage saw Pedersen get a high five from one of her team-mates, and also a hug and a whirl from substitute Nivi Vinther, who had just come on for the injured Tippi Ajaaja Geisler.


Alas for the girls from the capital, I-69 continued their goal-spree in the second half, adding another five goals to their tally as early substitute Karen-Louise Vetterlain completed her hat-trick, a just reward for her industry. Mikkala Tobiassen and Maila Clasen scored two apiece; they also hit the woodwork more than once, with the most bizarre miss coming when one of their substitute Niviaq Larsen got on the end of a cross in front of an empty net with goalkeeper Jessen yards away, only to somehow drive the ball against outside of the far post from three yards out, and Vetterlain hit the post seconds later. If that was bad, I-69's final goal, scored with two minutes to go before the end of the statutory 90 minutes, bordered on the farcical.


Linda Løvstrøm delivered a corner from the left-hand side, and the ended up at the far side of the six-yard box, where Monica Mathiessen shinned it forward; it first of all deflected off defender Milla Steenholdt, then rolled down the elbow of hapless team-mate Magdalina Lange, who twisted round, inadvertently back-heeled the ball towards goal, where a surprised - and equally unfortunate - Jessen, got a hand to it, but couldn't prevent it going over the line for I-69's fourteenth.


B-67 were plucky, but there was a clear difference in stamina and technical ability between the two sides. B-67, who have appeared in seven finals and lost them all, didn't qualify for the 2018 tournament, whilst I-69 didn't even enter the 2018 championship in order to rebuild after some in-club ructions and a third-place finish in 2017.


If B-67 can keep hold of the likes of Ina Lynge Pedersen, Nivinnguaq Rasmussen and Juliet Egede, there is a good chance that they will eventually have the makings of a decent team. As it was, all of them, plus the evergreen Louise Jakobsen, who played very well, especially in the second half when she drove the team on, gave the I-69 defence some headaches late on, and captain Laakki Egede did her best to steady the ship at the back alongside namesake Juliet, encouraging one and all to keep their heads up even in the face of inevitable and heavy defeat.And, this team definitely has character; they defended stubbornly and kept trying to pile forward in numbers whilst playing some good football at times. If improvement can be made with regard to all-round fitness and technical skills, this team could go a long way. The enthusiasm is there.


I-69 have some good up-and-coming players, and it will not be a surprise if the team from Ilulissat are back where they would say they belong before too long. Karen-Louise Vetterlain, Mikkala Tobiassen, Evi Lerch, Patricia Semionsen and Linda Løvstrøm are experienced players who will help bring the new generation through, and there are some promising players in the squad. Monika Iversen, the youngest player in the tournament at just 14 years and a couple of weeks old, Niviaq Larsen and Maila Clasen are just three of those who will, all being well, help shape the future of Greenlandic football for years to come, perhaps even at national level. 


Both teams employed a mix of youth and experience; B-67 had the two oldest players in the tournament with the 58-year-old Jessen in goal and Johanne Thorning also in the squad, and Najaaraq Nielsen joining them in the over-50s club. A total of seven players in B-67's squad were over 35 years old, whilst a further seven were 16 or under when the tournament began. Seven of I-69's squad at the championship play-offs were under 16, with Iversen, Larsen and Monica Mathiessen all just 14 years old; three of the squad were over 30 years old. (One small note, however, and it has nothing to do with the players of either team, rather their kit; it would be better for everyone watching matches at the tournament in future if the numbers on the back of the shirts were legible.)


Both I-69 and B-67 will challenge for the title at some point in the future, but at this tournament, it was all about holders GSS and city rivals NÛK, and GSS were looking to retain the title they won for the very first time last year. NÛK, meanwhile, were aiming to regain the title they last won in 2017; title win this time would be their eleventh overall. GSS dominated the first half, with Asii Kleist Berthelsen, Nivi Fleischer Berthelsen and Najaaja Anja Lyberth running the show; Maanguaq Pedersen, Victoria Black and Christina Lange performing heroics for NÛK. Kleist Berthelsen scored with a free-kick which was probably more meant to be a ball into the box, but the flight of the ball deceived Annalunnguaq Møch and it floated over her head and into the back of the net.


NÛK dominated the last 5-10 minutes of the first half, and early on in the second half, Black headed in from a corner-kick, beating the keeper and a defender to the ball to bring NÛK level to cue her being mobbed by delirious team-mates.


Shortly afterwards, NÛK almost took the lead. After a determined run down the left from Egede, she shook off Lykke Hansen and passed the ball into Aili Pedersen, who evaded the attentions of Nivi Fleischer Berthelsen on the left-hand side of the box before digging the ball from between her feet and scuffing the ball towards goal from 15 yards out. The ball trundled towards goal and beat Nivi Petersen, who ponderously flopped to the ground in an attempt to get to the ball, and she got enough of a touch on the ball to divert it on to the inside of the post and away to safety.


After a bit of a lull in play, NÛK began to get more of the ball, though Aili Pedersen was booked for a flying tackle on Juanita Fleischer before Arnaq Egede for NÛK and Asii Kleist Berthelsen sent the ball into orbit with shots on goal at either end.


And, then, against the run of play, GSS took the lead, and the goal was truly something to admire. Truth be told, it was all the work of captain Najaaja Anja Lyberth, and it began when she dispossessed Christina Lange on the left-hand touchline ten yards from the edge of her penalty-area. She simply cut through the NÛK midfield, beating another four players before darting into the opposition box and poking the ball past the hesitant Mørch.


With seven minutes left on the clock, GSS scored a third goal, and Lyberth was again heavily involved, going on yet another rumbustious run before indulging in a one-two with Pillunguaq Broberg and laying the ball in the path of Kleist Berthelsen, who let fly from some thirty yards. Despite the best efforts of players such as Black, Karo Dahl and the effervescent Pedersen, there was no way back for NÛK. As the clock ticked down, GSS were in the ascendancy. Nivi Fleischer Berthelsen had been called to the line and was replaced by Vivi Fleischer, who has been suffering from a rare, debilitating illness for a couple of years and was continuing to receive treatment, but like last year, she had proved her worth in the squad and it was a heartwarming way to end the tournament.


It was a good sporting game played at a good tempo but with relatively few chances. Two players were booked: NÛK's Aili Pedersen for a late lunge which took out her opponent, and, perhaps a little more unusually, GSS' Nuunu-Marie Lukassen for leaving the field without the referee's permission to put on a pair of leggings.


NÛK are a good side, and have improved from last year; many of the players are at, or are approaching, the peak of their careers and the team has gelled well, playing some good football into the bargain. They have a clutch of young players who featured in this tournament alongside those already mentioned here, such as Dahl, Black and Pedersen - plus, of course, Arnaq Egede, who was the team's top scorer and who proved her worth in the group stage - and they will be there or thereabouts for the foreseeable future.


As, of course, will GSS. Perhaps they weren't quite as convincing as in 2018, but they deservedly won the 2019 championship and have a formidable squad. Asii Kleist Berthelsen is enjoying a successful career in Denmark with Fortuna Hjørring (she is also now a Danish under-16 international) and comes back to Greenland during the off-season to play for the girls in green.


Apart from being a terrific distributor of the ball, she still knows where the goal is, as does the lively Najaaja Anja Lyberth; others, such as Juanita Fleischer, Nunuu-Marie Lukassen and Pillunguaq Broberg, can also score goals but there is so much more to their play. They also have a strong trio of Hansen, Ulla Kleist and Andrea Andreassen Karlsen in defence, playing in front of a very competent goalkeeper in Nivi Pedersen. GSS are probably also the fittest team in local women's football; moonlighting as a team of national handball champions certainly does no harm, either.


All augurs well for both GSS and B-67 for this year's tournament, which, the Corona virus notwithstanding, will take place in Sisimuit in the last week of July. It will be difficult to envisage the tournament without either team. One can understand the KAK's decision to limit participation in the women's tournament to four teams, especially with factors such as travel costs rising, the population of East Greenland decreasing and the unwillingness of spectators to watch one-sided matches, but it can only be to the long-term detriment of the women's game in Greenland if only four teams compete in the final stages of a national championship.


There is a steadily increasing pool of female talent in the country, and the only way for that to increase further and improve is to give more teams the chance to take part in tournaments, to give them something to aim for. Might sending an East Greenland combination, drawn from all of the clubs on the east coast, be an option in future?


GROUP STAGE


29/07/19 NÛK 11:0 B-67 (Arnaq Egede 5, Pilu Chemnitz 3, Aili Pedersen 2, Karo Dahl)
29/07/19 GSS 7:1 I-69 (Najaaja Anja Lyberth 2, Asii Kleist Berthelsen 2, Nunuu-Marie Lukassen 2, Aviana Kajangmat; Paneeraq Fleischer)
30/07/19 GSS 15:0 B-67 (Asii Kleist Berthelsen 7, Nuunu-Marie Lukassen 3, Juanita Fleischer 2, Pilunnguaq Broberg 2, Karla Marcussen)
30/07/19 NÛK 6:0 I-69 (Arnaq Egede 2, Emma Hansen 2, Aili Pedersen, Karo Dahl)
31/07/18 B-67 0:18 I-69 (Mikkala Tobiassen 5, Patricia Semionsen 3, Niviaq Lange 3, Maila Clasen 2, Monika Iversen 2, Linda Løvstrøm 2, Mona Jensen)
31/01/19 GSS 3:1 NÛK (Asa Kleist Berthelsen 3; Arnaq Egede)




TEAM
P
W
D
L
GF
GA
PTS
GD
GSS
3
3
0
0
25
2
9
23
NÛK
3
2
0
1
18
3
6
15
I-69
3
1
0
2
19
13
3
6
B-67
3
0
0
3
0
44
0
-44




THIRD-PLACE PLAY-OFF


I-69 14:1 B-67 (Evi Lerch 3, Karen-Louise Vetterlain 3, Maila Clasen 2, Mikkala Tobiassen 2, Linda Løvstrøm, Pilunnguaq Magnussen, Niviaq Larsen, Magdalina Lange OG; Ina Lynge Pedersen)


I-69: 1 Mona JENSEN; 5 Monika IVERSEN, 7 Mikkala TOBIASSEN, 8 Linda LØVSTRØM, 11 Patricia SEMIONSEN (9 Karen-Louise VETTERLAIN), 12 Karla MØRCH (wore 16)(26 Ivalo JØRGENSEN), 14 Evi LERCH (3 Niviaq LARSEN), 15 Heidi JENSEN (C), 18 Maila CLASEN, 23 Paneeraq FLEISCHER (2 Marie BROBERG), 34 Pilunnguaq MAGNUSSEN (6 Monica MATHIESSEN)

B-67: 71 Paornannguaq JESSEN; 5 Tippu Ajaaja GEISLER (10 Nivi VINTHER), 7 Marie MARTINSEN (wore 16) (18 Magdaline LANGE), 8 Sara Maria KREUTZMANN, 9 Arnannguaq OLSEN (19 Juliet EGEDE), 11 Nivinnguaq RASMUSSEN, 17 Ina LYNGE PEDERSEN, 28 Aia JEPPSON (6 Milla STEENHOLDT), 33 Laakki EGEDE (C), 78 Louise JAKOBSEN (wore 2), 84 Laura LYNGE (1 Agot LARSEN)


YELLOW CARD: Linda Løvstrøm (I-69)



FINAL


GSS 3:1 NÛK (Asii Kleist Berthelsen 2, Najaaja Anja Lyberth; Victoria Black)


GSS: 8 Nivi PETERSEN; 2 Nuunu-Marie LUKASSEN, 3 Andrea KARLSEN, 6 Asii KLEIST BERTHELSEN, 7 Ulla KLEIST, 10 Nivi FLEISCHER BERTHELSEN (11 Vivi FLEISCHER), 13 Karla MARCUSSEN, 16 Juanita FLEISCHER, 18 Pilunnguaq BROBERG, 25 Najaaja Anja LYBERTH(C), 29 Lykke F HANSEN

NÛK: 1 Arnaalunnguaq MØRCH; 2 Lisa LIND (28 Emma HANSEN), 3 Maannguaq PEDERSEN (17 Inni KLEIST), 5 Aaqa Q MARKUSSEN (43 Pilu CHEMNITZ), 7 Karo DAHL (C), 9 Aili PEDERSEN, 10 Christina V LANGE, 13 Annica Q JENSEN, 14 Arnaq B EGEDE (22 Ajaana KLEEMANN), 15 Laila BRANDT, 18 Victoria BLACK

YELLOW CARD: Nuunu-Marie Lukassen (GSS); Aili Pedersen (NÛK)


REFEREE: Lars Frederik LUNDBLAD

LINESMEN: John MØLLER; Lars KILIME

FOURTH OFFICIAL: Angerdla POULSEN




SQUADS (where known)


B-67: 1 Agot LARSEN, 71 Paornannguaq JESSEN; 2 Rasmine BERTHELSEN, 5 Tippu Ajaaja GEISLER, 6 Milla STEENHOLDT, 7 Marie MARTINSEN, 8 Sara Maria KREUTZMANN, 9 Arnannguaq OLSEN, 10 Nivi VINTHER, 11 Nivinnguaq RASMUSSEN, 17 Ina Lynge PEDERSEN, 18 Magdaline LANGE, 19 Juliet EGEDE, 21 Johanne THORNING, 28 Aia JEPPSEN, 33 Laakki EGEDE, 61 Aili Liimakka LAUE, 65 Najaaraq NIELSEN, 72 Nivi MATHIASSEN, 78 Louise JAKOBSEN, 84 Laura LYNGE


GSS: 8 Nivi PETERSEN; 2 Nuunu-Marie LUKASSEN, 3 Andrea ANDREASSEN KARLSEN, 6 Asii KLEIST BERTHELSEN, 7 Ulla KLEIST, 9 Aviana KAJANGMAT, 10 Nivi FLEISCHER BERTHELSEN, 11 Vivi FLEISCHER, 13 Karla MARCUSSEN, 17 Sandra THORLEIFSEN, 18 Pilunnguaq BROBERG, 25 Najaaja Anja LYBERTH, 26 Juanita FLEISCHER, 29 Lykke F HANSEN, 89 Nivi FLY

I-69: 1 Mona JENSEN; 2 Marie BROBERG, 3 Niviaq LARSEN, 5 Monika IVERSEN, 6 Monica MATHIESSEN, 7 Mikkala TOBIASSEN, 8 Linda LØVSTRØM, 9 Karen-Louise VETTERLAIN, 11 Patricia SEMIONSEN, 12 Karla MØRCH, 14 Evi LERCH, 15 Heidi JENSEN, 16 Rona SKADE, 18 Maila CLASEN, 23 Paneeraq FLEISCHER, 26 Ivalo JØRGENSEN, 34 Pilunnguaq MAGNUSSEN

NÛK: 1 Arnaalunnguaq MØRCH; 2 Lisa LIND, 3 Mannguaq PEDERSEN, 4 Aili H PLATOU, 5 Aaqa Q MARKUSSEN, 6 Camilla ????, 7 Karo DAHL, 8 Ungaaq AMONDSEN, 9 Aili PEDERSEN, 10 Christina LANGE, 11 Aviana BJEREGAARD, 13 Annica JENSEN, 14 Arnaq EGEDE, 15 Laila BRANDT, 17 Inni KLEIST, 18 Victoria BLACK, 21 Oline MARTINSEN, 22 Ajaana KLEEMANN, 25 Aaqa KVIST MARKUSSEN, 28 Emma HANSEN, 43 Pilu CHEMNITZ




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AUTHOR'S NOTE: The squad-lists were gleaned from the KAK website; all being well, any gaps will be filled in in due course. Any errors or omissions (and there will doubtless be a few) will be corrected as and when notified. Other information came from Sermitsiaq, KNR and Facebook.







Saturday, May 2, 2020

MALTA'S NATIONAL STADIUM: NOT JUST A FOOTBALL GROUND, BUT A POLITICAL BATTLEGROUND

Football has always been a very popular sport in the tiny Mediterranean country of Malta, and the history of the game there goes back to the end of the 19th Century. However, because of the country's size and comparatively large population, space to build football facilities is limited though the number of football pitches is increasing due to a scheme involving the Malta FA, clubs and local councils to build pitches across the country. Or, that is the case on the island of Malta, at least; there are no more than a couple of pitches on Malta's smaller neighbour, Gozo.

The vast majority of football pitches in Malta are used for training; there are only a proper few football stadia in the country. International matches (and, before the MFA's accession to full membership of both UEFA and FIFA, Malta FA XI representative matches) were held at the old Empire Stadium in Gzira until it closed in 1981.

Nowadays, they - and most European club competition matches involving Maltese clubs - are generally held at the National Stadium at Ta'Qali, and not in the Maltese capital Valletta as is generally assumed by many people, including the international media. (Valletta does not possess a full-sized football pitch. Any one who has ever been to Valletta will attest to the fact that there simply isn't the room to build one.) The stadium, known in Maltese as the Grawnd Nazzjonali Ta'Qali, or, more commonly, as plain old Ta'Qali, was completed in 1980 and, according to the 2011 UEFA Handbook, can hold 17797 spectators. 

The National Stadium was envisaged as being just one part of a multi-sports complex, and this finally came to fruition in 1993 when a swimming pool, shooting range and gymnasium were built within the bowels of the stadium. This was later augmented when two squash courts and a technical centre were built. More recently, a fan shop and trophy room were built, and a museum is in the pipeline.

In 2002, the East Stand, which had fallen into a state of complete disrepair, was demolished and the Millennium Stand raised in its place. The new stand contained sky boxes, a separate spectator balcony, a café and fitness suite, and also became the new home of the MFA. A media centre, physiotherapy clinic have since been added. A new pitch was laid in 2016, replacing the old one which had been in use since the stadium was opened in 1981.

But, there is a lot more to the National Stadium and its construction than just bare facts and figures. Malta is a country which has always embraced football, and, apart from one's family, politics is possibly the only thing dearer to the heart of the average Maltese, and politics played an immense role in the creation of the stadium and in the years that followed.

There are two main political parties in Malta: the Labour Party (Partit Laburista, or PL, in Maltese) and the Nationalist Party (Partit Nazzjonalista, or PN), and relations between the two camps are often strained, to say the least, especially at a local level. Violence has been frequently used by one side against another down the years, and came to head in the 1970s, by which time the PL had taken over the reins of government with Dom Mintoff becoming prime minister in 1971.

Under Mintoff's leadership. the PL undertook a programme of welfare reform, nationalisation and internationalism, which saw Malta become more aligned with countries which had Socialist and Communist governments, and with other nations such as Tunisia and Libya, with which Malta had traditionally strong ties.


 Birkirkara fans ready themselves for a match at the National Stadium against Valletta in 2014 (Photo: Author's own)


There is a story that the construction of the National Stadium was a result of a question posed by the Libyan leader of the time, Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, who had asked how could Libya assist Malta materially, as the governments of both countries had been on good terms for some years and were growing closer, both economically and ideologically. 

Ironically, it was apparently an opposition Nationalist MP, George Bonello-Dupuis, who answered Qaddafi's question by advising him that Libya provide the funds necessary to build a new stadium, and that is exactly what transpired. Bonello-Dupuis was well known in Maltese sporting circles; he had been a sprinter in his youth and had represented Malta in the first edition of the Mediterranean Games in 1951, taking part in the 100 and 200 metres track events. 

Bonello-Dupuis played football for the University FT side, Sliema Wanderers, Melita and Mosta Gunners, and served as Sliema Wanderers president from 1962 until 1987 (when he became Finance Minister in the new Nationalist Party government), and again from 1995 to 1996, so he was well-placed to state the case for improved facilities for Malta's sportsmen and women. He later served as Malta's High Commissioner to the UK, and died in 2019, aged 82.

Perhaps surprisingly, Gaddafi agreed to the proposal, which some claim had been made by the Labour Party government and its Minister for Public Works, Housing and Sport, Lorry Sant and under whose jurisdiction such a project would fall. Work on the National Stadium, which is situated on the site of a former British military airport at Ta'Qali, began in the mid-1970s and the ground was built by the Maltese government, under the guidance of a firm of local architects, with financial assistance from their Libyan counterparts to the tune of US$750000. The construction of the new stadium was seen as the first step in improving Malta's sporting infrastructure as well as providing a showpiece stadium.

Apparently, Poland and West Germany had complained about the state of the pitch at the Empire Stadium after playing European Championship fixtures at the stadium in Gzira, and UEFA were deliberating whether or not to allow the MFA to continue use the old stadium; if they had agreed with the Polish and West German FAs, the MFA would have been left with nowhere to play. In the event, UEFA had dismissed the Polish FA's concerns, but the matter only added urgency to the new stadium's construction.

The stadium was inaugurated on 14 December 1980, and an estimated 25000 people attended the ceremony, which included a march-past by athletes from Malta's sports associations. Demonstrations of various sports and pastimes, including cycling, athletics, sky-diving, a model aircraft "battle", gymnastics, karate, kite-flying and - briefly, football, courtesy of youngsters from the Marsa Sports Centre - were also included in the programme.

But, the MFA was nowhere to be seen at the opening ceremony. They and the then Labour Party government were locked in a long-running dispute concerning various topics at the time, such as the allocation of gate-money. During the inauguration, Sant lambasted the MFA in absentia for refusing to contribute any technical assistance towards building the stadium.

There is a rather curious angle to this dispute between the MFA and the Maltese government of the day, one which was distinctly more political than sporting. Malta was governed by the Labour Party - the Partit Laburista, or PL, in Maltese - at the time of the National Stadium's inauguration, whilst the MFA president, Giuseppe "JJ" Mifsud-Bonnici, also known as Ġoġo, was a Nationalist Party - Partit Nazzjonalista, or PN - supporter.

Mifsud-Bonnici had had a long association with sport before his appointment as association president in 1968; he was national chess champion in 1955, and was St. George's representative on the MFA council before his accession to Maltese football's top job. However, he became embroiled in a dispute with Sant which became more fraught as time went on, to the extent that - after receiving the assent of FIFA and UEFA - the MFA was briefly, and bizarrely, re-named the Main Football Association.


To add to the ill-feeling between the Maltese government and the MFA, Sant and his governmental department had already taken over the running of several football grounds around Malta, from Marsa to Pembroke, from St. Andrew's to Luqa, Mtarfa and Corradino before the construction of the National Stadium.







View of the West Stand at the National Stadium taken from the offices of the Malta Football Association in the Millenium Stand (Photo: Author's own)

After the MFA and the Maltese government finally buried the hatchet and set up a committee to administer gate-money and allocate grounds for football matches, the way was finally clear for the country's football clubs to use the National Stadium and the first MFA-organised football match played at Ta'Qali took place in December 1981, when Zurrieq took on Senglea Athletic in a Maltese Premier League clash. (The Empire Stadium closed its doors for the last time just a few weeks earlier.) It was also the first time that a Maltese football match was played on a grass pitch.

Having said that, there appears to be evidence that the stadium was already in use before then; newspaper reports from May of that year suggest that Valletta Vanguards played Birkirkara St. Joseph SC in the final of a competition organised by the short-lived Malta Football Federation.

Mifsud-Bonnici and the MFA refused to move their offices to the National stadium, and so it went on until he was eventually voted out of office by a majority of the country's football clubs in 1982. He was replaced by George Abela, an ex-candidate for, and a vice-president of, the PL who had married into a family of PN supporters (and was a man who went on to become Maltese president). Abela was widely seen as the man who could steer the MFA back on course after years of squabbling with the Maltese government, and he was the man who oversaw the MFA's move to the National Stadium in 1983. Mifsud-Bonnici, meanwhile, took the position of Honorary President, served on UEFA and FIFA committees, and later became Malta's Chief Justice. He died last year, aged 88.

But, there were still problems between Sant and the MFA, who were allowed to use the National Stadium. The national team are reputed to have turned up at the stadium to play an international match early in the 1980s only to find the gates locked. Sant apparently demanded that the MFA pay a fee in order to use the stadium. Abela met with Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in order to find a solution to the problem, and it was agreed that the MFA pay a yearly rental of 10000 Maltese Lira (over 5000 Euros) in order to use, and have all control over, the National Stadium.

Lorry Sant, meanwhile, continued on as Minister for Works until the PL were voted out of office in 1987; he was later expelled from the party. Sant died of cancer in 1995, and he still divides opinion in Malta to this day. Many Maltese saw, and continue to see, him as a hero for assisting Prime Minister Dom Mintoff in pushing through a policy of welfare state reform and Socialist internationalism in the country. At the same time, he was deeply unpopular within Malta and is still regarded by many as nothing more than a gangster, a corrupt thug who was not above using blackmail and third parties with a propensity towards violence in order to get his way. In 2010, Sant was posthumously found to have violated the human rights of a government employment during the 1970s.


Sliema Wanderers take on Birkirkara at the National Stadium in 2015; the Millenium Stand and the MFA offices are on the far side (Photo: Author's own)

Most controversially of all, but never fully proven, Sant was accused of possessing photographs of Mintoff and his brother's wife - in what was described in an article in the Malta Today newspaper in 2015 as a "compromising dalliance" - and placing them on the Maltese parliament's Speaker of the House's table in a show of theatre in 1989 directed at Mintoff's nephew, Wenzu, who was a sitting MP, and perhaps at Mintoff himself. Daphne Caruana Galizia, a Maltese journalist and avowed PN supporter who was murdered in a car-bomb attack in 2017, was perhaps the first person to openly publish the allegation, the day after Mintoff, a man, like Sant, revered and reviled in equal measure in Malta, and who had turned a blind eye to Sant's activities for so long - in fear of his supposed infidelity being revealed, perhaps? - died in 2012.

But, back to the present day, and plans are apparently afoot to redevelop the stadium further, which is slowly but surely becoming rather ramshackle, especially the North and South Stands, which are rarely used, to the extent that they are, in parts, becoming ever so slightly overgrown. Under FIFA's Goal programme, much of the seating in both stands is being (or has been) replaced, and it may come to pass that both stands will be razed and new stands, situated directly behind the goal-lines, will be built, with a new Futsal mini-stadium being built in the vacant space behind one of the stands. A new technical centre is slated to be built, as are stands for the training pitches.

If the plans come to fruition, the new facilities will surely be a boon to football in Malta; their eventual construction may well be the impetus needed to improve Maltese fortunes on the pitch. What must be beyond dispute is that that they are both sorely needed and long overdue.
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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Information for the above article was gleaned from a host of different sources: Malta Today, the Times of Malta, the Malta Independent, Facebook and Wikipedia. "Global and Local Football: Politics and Europeanisation on the Fringes of the EU" and Football Cultures and Identies" (both written by Gary Armstrong, with Jon P Mitchell co-writing the former) were consulted, as were Carmel Baldacchino's book "Great Moments in Football" and the MFA's "100th Anniversary of the National League." As ever, any errors or omissions will, of course, be gladly corrected upon notification.





Monday, April 20, 2020

PFB ON TOUR: LIMBURG IN PICTURES (PART 1)

For many football fans, Dutch football starts and ends with Johan Cruijff, Oranje, Ajax, Feyenoord and PSV. But, there's an awful lot more to it than that, of course. This season, the country's southernmost province, Limburg, has two clubs in the Eredivisie, the highest level of the country's pyramid: VVV Venlo and Fortuna Sittard. But, football is played from north to south in the province, and this little selection of photographs taken over the past few years will hopefully give groundhoppers and others a taste of some of Limburg's smaller clubs.






Sportcomplex de Tevent, VV Partij '33 (Partij-Wittem)


Two men, Willem Simons and Sjef Keulen, were responsible for the founding of a football club in the village of Partij, situated in south Limburg, and it was done in the most simple of ways: they advertised a meeting to create a club in the village by sticking up a poster a tree in front of the village pub. If they were worried that no-one would turn up, their worries were unfounded; the idea of setting up a club proved so popular that one was founded on 20 August 1933.

The intention was to call the club IVO - In Vriendschap Opwarts - but a club with that name (IVO Velden) already existed in Limburg, so the members of the newly-formed organisation settled on VV Partij '33. The club, now in the tenth level (Vijfde Klasse) of Dutch football, plays its home games at the Sportcomplex de Tevent, and, in addition to a number of fielding youth teams in conjunction with RK Mechelse VC (from the neighbouring village of Mechelen), has a first and second team, a veterans' team and also a walking football section.





 Sportpark aan de Ringweg te Gulpen, FC Gulpen (Gulpen)


The town of Gulpen lies just to the west of Partij, and the local club, FC Gulpen, is based at the Sportpark aan de Ringweg te Gulpen on the eastern edge of the town. Gulpen has a footballing history dating back to 1920, with the foundation of the short-lived Galopia. Six years later, Excelsior Gulpen was formed, but folded in 1930. Later came RKGVV before the foundation of what is now known as FC Gulpen on 10 March 1940.

The club's first home was at Rosgats, before it briefly moved to De Laan and then back to Rosgats. The club moved again to De Wieldergracht, and then to the tiny hamlet of Cartils in around 1960, but were forced to find other accommodation. FC Gulpen moved to their present home in 1962, which was renovated in 2011, and the first team now plays in the ninth level (Vierde Klasse) of Dutch football. In addition to three senior teams, the club has seven youth teams competing up to and including under-11 level, ten youth teams teams in conjunction with neighbouring clubs RKVVM and FC Sibbe, and a veterans team.








Sportpark 't Spansel, Sparta '18 (Sevenum)


The village of Sevenum lies in north Limburg, just a few miles outside Venlo, home of Eredivisie side VVV Venlo, and and football was introduced to the village during the First World War by Dutch soldiers stationed along the border with Germany. It was a certain curate by the name of Houben who introduced the local youth to the joys of football, and a club, Zwart Wit, was founded at the then Café Timmermans on 19 May 1918. Zwart Wit, as the name suggests, played in black and white shirts, and were based in the hamlet of Siberie, situated between Sevenum and Maasbree.

The club changed its name and colours in 1927, when it became known as Sparta '18 and the strip changed to red and white striped-shirts and black shorts, presumably in homage to the more famous Sparta Rotterdam. After a couple of temporary moves, the club moved 1935 to a new ground, replete with two small stands, at Sondertseveld, near the centre of Sevenum. Unfortunately for Sparta '18, the local council had their eye on the ground, and the club were forced to move to their present home, the Sportpark 't Spanse in 1999. Sparta's first team plays in the Derde Klasse (eighth division); the club currently has 5 senior men's teams, a veterans team, 2 women's team - the first of which celebrated its half-century in 2019 - 11 youth teams from under-7 up to and including under-19, and 2 veterans' teams.





 Sportpark D'n Haspel, GFC '33 (Grubbenvorst)


Grubbenvorst lies just a few miles to the north-east of Sevenum, and football there dates from around the end of the First World War, with the creation of the short-lived Blauw Wit. This was followed by the setting-up of another club whose existence was short: GLC, or, to give it its proper name, the Grubbenvorst Lottum Combinatie, a combination of forces between Grubbenvorst's football lovers and those from the nearby village of Lottum.

A third attempt to set up a village team saw the birth of GVV in 1926, and this team lasted until the founding of RKGFC (Rooms Katholieke Grubbenvorster Football Club) on 20 April 1933, which changed its name to GFC '33 in 1977. The club played for years at De Comert, at the northern edge of Grubbenvorst, until the early 1980s, when it moved to its present home at the Sportpark D'n Haspel on the other side of the village. The first team now plays in the Vierde Klasse, and has a total of four senior teams and a veterans section.





 Sportpark de Bakenbos, Sportclub Irene (Tegelen)


Immediately to the south of Venlo lies the town of Tegelen, which has hosted football clubs for well over a hundred years. Most of them have merged and/or come and gone since TVV were founded on 12 May 1907. TVV were eventually replaced by VV Tegelen, which, along with Tegelse Herten and RKVV Steyl, merged on 1 August 1949 to create Sportclub Irene, who play at the Sportpark de Bakenbos on the outskirts of town.


Sportclub Irene, better known as plain old Irene, have shown the potential to progress to the semi-professional reaches of Dutch football in the past, but prefer to remain amateur with an eye to providing talent for the larger local clubs, such as VVV Venlo. It is also a favourite venue for clubs from near or far looking to hold training camps away from the public eye, such as PSV Eindhoven, FC Porto, Anderlecht and Racing Genk.







But, the Sportpark de Bakenbos isn't only home to one football ground, but two..



 Sportpark de Bakenbos, TSC '04 (Tegelen)

The second club residing at the Sportpark de Bakenbos complex (with, as stated above) its own ground, is TSC '04. Its full name is Sportvereniging Tiglieja-Steyl Combinatie '04, and, as the name suggests, is the result of a merger between Tiglieja and FC Steyl '67, which was set in stone on 1 July 2004. However, the club regards its founding as having taken place on 22 June 1925 with the creation of RKVV Tiglia, one of a couple of clubs which themselves eventually merged to form Tiglieja.

Despite following Sportclub Irene's lead and hosting a number of clubs on pre-season tours and training camps, such as German side FSV Mainz and the UAE's Al-Jazira (seen above after defeating EVV Echt 3:0 in 2018), the club has found itself in financial difficulties in recent times and has been haemorraging members. So much so, in fact, that TSC '04, which plays in the ninth level of Dutch football, have considered merging with their next-door neighbours, and there is a distinct possibility that this will happen in the next few months.








 Sportpark de Stikker, SV Helenaveen-Griendstveen (Helenaveen)


Two clubs which did merge back in 2016 were RKSV Helenaveen and RKSV Griendstveen. The tiny village of Griendstveen lies just inside Limburg, where the local club was founded on 1 May 1948. The club played their home games at the Sportpark de Wiek, which lay parallel to the intercity railway line between Eindhoven and Venlo; now, only the now boarded-up social club remains. RKSV Griendstveen spent its existence bumping along the bottom of the Dutch football pyramid, as did RKSV Helenaveen, founded on 27 September 1935.


RKSV Helenaveen, from a village of the same name not much bigger than - and five miles from - Griendstveen, played its home games at the Sportpark de Stikker, which is the home of the now SV Helenaveen Griendstveen, and spent its existence playing in the lowest reaches of Dutch football.


The two clubs decided to merge their youth teams in 2015; Griendstveen's first team had been hampered by the loss of more and more players, so much so that, in 2016, both teams decided to merge their second strings. At the end, Griendstveen were hardly able to field a full first team, making a merger with their near neighbours an inevitability, and both clubs came together to form ST Helenaveen/Griendstveen. The club changed its name to SV Helenaveen Griendstveen in 2018, and now plays in the bottom division of the Dutch pyramid.



 Sportpark Dijckerhof, VV Reuver (Reuver)


Further south in Limburg is the town of Reuver, and the local football team, VV Reuver, celebrated its 90th anniversary in 2018. The club, currently in the Vierde Klasse (ninth level), has had some success in the past and has played as high as the seventh level, mostly in the 1970s and 1980s, but dropped down to the tenth and bottom division in 2013 before winning it in 2015. They were relegated again in 2016, but bounced back up a year later. The club's women's team made waves in Dutch football during the late 1990s, but fell on lean times and actually disbanded for a spell before returning to action a few years ago.


The club has plans to develop their home ground, the Sportpark Dijckerhof, in the near future, and having already successfully revamped their social club, the hope is a small stand will be built - with a tea-hut beside it, an innovation which is actually quite rare outside professional Dutch football.





Sportcomplex Noorbeek, SNC '14 (Noorbeek)


Perhaps the southernmost football club in the Netherlands is located a mile or so from the Belgian border, in the small village of Noorbeek, and plays at the football ground which bears the name of the village. SNC '14, or Slenakse Noorbeekse Combinatie 14, was, as the name suggests, created in 2014 due to - you guessed it - a merger between Sportclub Slenaken 1963, which was founded in, surprisingly enough, 1963, and Noorbeekse Boys.

Sportclub Slenaken reached the eighth level in the 1990s and Noorbeekse Boys the ninth, three years before the two clubs officially merged, though the two teams had been pooling their more youthful resources for a while before then. SNC '14 currently play in the bottom level of Dutch football, though their youth teams merged with the larger BMR (based in the nearby village of Mesch) a couple of years ago, and the club fears for its future as it now consists of just the first team and reserves. The club's facilities are basic but spotless, and the staff are thoroughly friendly. It would be a shame to see the club disappear during what has now become the close-season.











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AUTHOR'S NOTE: Much of the information contained above was taken from the various club websites and, to a lesser extent, from social media. All photographs are the author's own. A small article on SNC '14 will be published in the very near future.