[Athletics] Mike McFarlane Interview

Paul Grech Wednesday, December 31, 2008 , ,

British athletics' coach Mike McFarlane has been in Malta conducting a training camp this fortnight and I had the opportunity to meet up with him yesterday. Always enjoy such meetings and hopefully so will those who eventually read my write up which should be ready within a couple of days.

Top 5: Best Books of the Year

Paul Grech Tuesday, December 30, 2008
The end of the year seems to be the ideal time for compiling lists and whereas others have looked at the best goals or their favourite games from 2008, I’ve opted for a completely different list: the best five books I’ve read during 2008.

5:Elephants, Lions and Eagles: A Journey Through African Football by Filippo Ricci
I’ll admit that I expected a bit more from this book. More in the sense of quality – it being a book published by When Saturday Comes I was thinking of something along the lines of Morbo or Tor – and also in the sense of quantity in that this book is actually quite lightweight.

Yet, despite not quite being what I had hoped for, Elephants, lions and eagles was still a very enjoyable book. Ricci, an Italian sports writer in love with the African continent, looks back at a career spent covering the game there and has plenty of anecdotes which he tells in a lighthearted fashion. His tendency to put revert to translations of articles of his that had appeared in the Italian press does seem to be a bit lazy but if you’re willing to overlook that then you’ll like this book.

4: Football Dynamo: Modern Russia and the People's Game' by Marc Bennetts
Having moved to Russia initially for a year after falling in love with its literature, Bennetts has stayed there ever since, and apart from acquainting himself with the fine arts he has also found time to engage in another passion of his: football.

This in turn led him to writing a book which delves into the current situation of the Russian game. His timing was perfect as Football Dynamo was issued just after Russia’s excellent showing in the European championships and Zenit St Petersburg’s triumph in the UEFA Cup but, apart from making the book more appealing to a wider audience, these events don’t have any bearing on the success of Football Dynamo.

For it would be unfair to deflect any of the credit off Bennetts whose personal experience – and work in getting interviews with the great and good of Russian football - have allowed him to offer greater insight on a country that for many remains a huge mystery.

3: The Italian Job by Gianluca Vialli and Gabriele Marcotti
Although this was published some way back, this was the first time that I’d read this book and have to say that within the first few pages I instantaneously regretted not doing so earlier. Vialli isn’t your typical footballer – for one thing he came from a very well to do family – and he is more intelligent then most: in fact far too intelligent, in fact, then try to bore people with an autobiography.

So instead he set out to try and identify the key differences between football in England and Italy. Aided by the excellent Gabriele Marcotti – who I consider one of the top football writers around – he has looked at both his personal experience and that of a number of the top personalities in the game to try and give life to those intricacies that give different flavours to the game in the respective countries.

The result is a book that knocks away any pre-concieved ideas that you might have and one that explains why it is that the same game is viewed in such a different manner.

2: Dynasty: Fifty Years of Shankly's Liverpool' by Paul Tomkins
Tomkins has risen from a punter in a football forum to one of the most respected Liverpool writers around. Despite often being criticized for trying to put a positive spin on any situation, the fact remains that anything he writes is both well researched and well argued.

That is certainly the case for Dynasty, a book that in many ways is his most ambitious project yet. Tomkins tries to determine Liverpool’s greatest ever manager by trying to put values to a number of variables such as the quality of the squad each one inherited and their performance in the transfer market.

If that sounds like a statistical overkill, don’t worry because that element has been kept to a minimum. Ultimately, Tomkins doesn’t come with a definitive answer to his query but this remains a great read nevertheless.

1: You'll Win Nothing with Kids: Fathers, Sons and Football' by Jim White
As with the Italian Job, this book had been around for some time but for some reason I always postponed buying it. When I did, however, it was love at first read and I ended up reading through the night to finish it.

White is a football journalist with a couple of books to his name but rather than Manchester United, his preferred subject in the past, he has looked to his son’s youth football team for inspiration this time round. Indeed, You’ll Win Nothing with Kids is White’s diary of a season spent coaching (and becoming chairman) of his son’s club and if that sounds like an uninspiring topic then you’re well wrong.

It helps, of course, that White can write intelligently and laces his work with loads of humour which ultimately means that he has served up a book that is equally funny, emotional and inspiring.

Current Reading
At the moment I’m juggling between the story of the final days of Soviet football, Futbolstrojka, and Jonathan Wilson’s impressive look at the history of tactics Inverting the Pyramid: A History of Football Tactics.

On My Wish List
Apart from two sports-but-not-football themed books in the form of Michael Lewis’ The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game (gridiron or American football, call it what you will) and Running with the Legends (athletics) I’m looking to use the current favourable Euro to sterling conversion rate to buy James Montague’s When Friday Comes: Football in the War Zone which sound just like the sort of book that I like.

This article originally appeared on the blog A Liverpool Thing.

[Football] A Winger at Last

Paul Grech Monday, December 22, 2008 , ,

Look at it whichever way you want, but it is impossible to escape the fact that Albert Riera was a fall back option. For most of the summer Rafael Benitez tried desperately to sign Gareth Barry who in all probability would have been deployed mostly on the left. It was only once it became obvious that Aston Villa would not be selling at a price acceptable to Liverpool that the name of Riera started being mentioned.

Inevitably, not many were happy. For, if most Liverpool fans were unsure about the wisdom of going after Barry particularly if this meant sacrificing Xabi Alonso, many were outright critical of Riera.

What did it for him at that early stage was his loan period at Manchester City a couple of years back. Riera had spent five months with Stuart Pearce’s team but the move was never made permanent and that was held against him. How can it be, the masses asked, that a player who wasn’t good enough for a team struggling against relegation was now expected to play a prominent role for one with the stated aim of challenging for the league title?

It was undoubtedly a valid question, one for which there still isn’t a clear answer. It would seem that whilst City wanted to sign Riera, their finances didn’t allow him to do so. At the same time he didn’t really do enough to impress anyone else for them to make a bid. In other words, no one really missed him once he went back to Spain.

Riera himself has since admitted that at the time he was still too young to fully express himself and show what he was really capable of doing. It was back home with Espanyol that his game really started to develop. As he matured, he became one of his team’s best players particularly excelling in their unexpected run to the final of the UEFA Cup, form that saw him force his way into the Spanish national team.

It was also the form that put him on Liverpool’s radar. Riera ticked many of the boxes that Benitez must have put down as being of vital importance: mature, with some experience of English football, relatively cheap, determined to play for the club and could provide width to the side.

The latter was perhaps the most important of all. Far too often in the recent past Liverpool had failed to transform draws into victories because too much of their game flowed through the centre of midfield. Riera, with his tendency to stay out as wide as possible coupled with the outrageous flicks that he occasionally tries out, has added another dimension to Liverpool’s game.

That much was seen on his debut against Manchester United where, immediately, the tide of opinion started to turn in his favour. A good game on the day, coupled with a very good win, was enough to guarantee the seal of approval or at least a partial one. Confirmation of that came in subsequent games during which he largely continued playing on the same level.

Yet it would be foolish to deem Riera an outright success: it is still far too early for that. Signs are promising, true, but there have been far too many instances of players who start off brilliantly only to fade away. Does the name of Harry Kewell ring a bell?

In particular there is that nagging doubt about his consistency. Wingers, by their very nature, tend to drift in and out of games and that is part of their game that has to be accepted. Riera fits into that description yet, on occasions, the out parts have been much more frequent than the ins. Equally it is telling that he is frequently substituted hinting that he tends to fade out of games.

So let’s be cautious and say that Riera is proving to be a good buy rather than an exceptional buy at least so far. He has improved a Liverpool’s squad that was desperately lacking someone of his ability yet the end of the season will be a better time to judge whether he was the winger that was needed or if he was simply the fall back option.

This article was published in Issue 55 of Anfield Island.

[General Sport] The State of Our Games

Rather than offer words of congratulations, or at least ones of comfort, the first comment to be posted on a local website, once it uploaded the news that shooter William Chetcuti had finished eight in his discipline at the Beijing Olympics, berated the Maltese sportspeople for not doing better.

How is it, this particular comment asked, that smaller or poorer countries could claim medals whilst we happily celebrate mediocrity? For how much longer were we going to keep on supporting people going on public funded holidays?

Admittedly this comment was a lone voice – subsequent posters rebuked him, to put it mildly, for expressing such views. But it would be foolish to believe that he was alone in thinking like this… his were the type of questions heard far too often.

The Maltese Olympic Committee’s director of sport, and the man responsible for setting out the targets for Maltese athletes, Pippo Psaila, must get asked such questions more than most. Which is why I asked him if the Maltese people were right to expect better performances from their athletes if they are better supported now than ever before.

He explained that many don’t put Malta’s level of funding in its correct perspective and we should only make a cross reference to a country similar to us… like Cyprus.

“For the Beijing Olympic Games’ preparation, each Cypriot athlete who qualified received €2,200 per month to support their training and coaching, plus an international travel grant for competitions of around €50,000.

“Any athlete who placed eighth in an individual event was entitled to receive a bonus of €68,000. Compare this with the local situation where most of our athletes were supported with an annual grant of just €10,000 to cover all aspects of their preparation. The bonus William Chetcuti received for placing eighth was not €68,000, but €5,800.”

He continued to explain that people need to be very careful when mentioning money, funding and government support. “Whilst accepting that government funding was higher this year, on average the Malta Olympic Committee receives €300,000 a year to cover preparation and participation costs for international competitions for 47 national associations and federations… which is nothing really.”

Money, or the lack of it, is at the root of the problem according to Mr Psaila and, contrary to what most people seem to believe, local sport isn’t rolling in it. Ambitions, therefore, have to be drawn up accordingly.

“Expectations for medals are tied to the amount of funds and support available so, if we were funded like other national Olympic Games committees (NOC), then we could start to talk about medal expectations – even athletes from Timbuktu are better funded than us at the moment!”
“This is because Malta’s national Olympic committee is the most under-funded in Europe and, from the 204 national Olympic committees that were present at the games, Malta would fall in the final 10 per cent of the league table for funding – both direct and indirect.”

“Having said this,” he continued, “we did place eighth in Beijing, and we shall be going for Gold in London 2012!”

Viewed in this light, it is impossible not to label 2008 a success. Apart from Chetcuti’s finish – the best placing ever by a Maltese sportsperson at the Olympic Games – there was the more recent silver medal won by shooter Ryan Bugeja in the Commonwealth Youth Games.

The Malta Olympic Committee Awards
Such athletes will be among those honoured at the seventh edition of the Malta Olympic Committee Awards being screened live on television tonight. Every athlete who makes it through the selection process, after being nominated, gets awarded in either the Platinum, Gold, Silver, or Bronze categories in recognition for their highly outstanding achievements and performances on the national, and international, sporting field during 2008.

Mr Psaila plays a critical role in determining who gets what, being the chair of the organising committee, although the final word belongs to the Malta Olympic Committee executive. He sees the awards – and the fact that they are dished out by the Olympic committee itself – as being vital for the recognition of sports peoples’ achievements.

“More than a reward, I must say it’s an acknowledgement for the sacrifices they did during the season and, as such, it is excellent for their self esteem,” he explains. “Plus it gives credibility to local sport as Malta’s parent body sets the tone, and put sports on the national agenda.”

Perhaps a strong sign that local sport is progressing comes from the fact that initially it was something of a struggle to award winners in years where there were no Games for the Small States of Europe, this is no longer the case.

“Due a general improvement in sport, and better results in international participation, it is becoming easier to choose who to nominate. We have world, continental and other leading athletes emerging from different sporting disciplines, highlighting the success of the Malta Olympic Committee Programme.”

That this includes events that can, perhaps, only loosely be defined as sport, doesn’t sit comfortably with some. Indeed, in the past, these awards have had criticism leveled their way for rewarding, among others, sports like table football.

In typical Pippo Psaila fashion, his reaction to this is forthright. “We use the definition of sport as defined by the Council of Europe and yes, by this definition they are sports, even though there is so much subjectivity.

“We carefully scrutinise the nominations in the various levels of the decision making process, so much so that some 30 per cent are thrown out, as notwithstanding them being nominated by their federation, we work up to a standard and never down to a number.”

The message here is clear: this is not an event aimed at pampering athletes who don’t deserve it, but rather a clinical exercise aimed at praising those who truly deserve it. And, even though a medal at the Olympic Games continues to elude Malta, rest assured true progress is being made.

This article was published in the December 2008 issue of Sunday Circle magazine

[General] Charity at Christmas

For the past few months, my daughter has been asking for a horse. Or a pony, it doesn’t really matter to her as long as it is something along those lines. It is, I am told, quite a common request for a three year old girl, quite similar to the desire to be a princess and living in a castle.

Naturally all of these are impossible demands for most of us but as any doting father will confirm, it is hard to disappoint your little treasure. How can I convince her that it is too big an animal too keep at home, that it needs a lot of care and that she’ll probably have to make do with a little orange fish in bowl?

This is what was going through my mind as I was talking to Sue Arnett. A self confessed horse nut, she grew up among horses in her family home and confesses to “skiving school in order to go riding horses.”

And Sue unwittingly presents me with a potential answer to my dilemma. The owner of twenty four horses, she is thinking of letting people adopt some of them. “The plan is to allow people to adopt a horse. They pay for part of its upkeep and they can them come here to help take care of it as well as ride it.”

At this point, it is probably right to point out that Sue’s is not your typical animal farm. You can tell that simply by taking a look at the place’s name: Funny Farm. “It is a bit of a joke from my part,” she tells me with a giggle. “Funny Farm is also what a mental institution is sometimes called and if you think about it you have to be a bit crazy to do the work that we do here.”

There is, however, a very serious edge to her work: most of the horses that live on her farm have been saved from being put down. “I got my first horse when I was about 18 years,” she explains. “In 1993 I moved her to a farm and decided to get a companion. I was referred to a man who had a horse for sale but when I went there I was shocked to find that he was both a dealer and a butcher.”

The common belief is that horses are put down only when they are severely injured or when, due to sickness, it is inhumane to let them live. The horses at the Funny Farm, however, prove otherwise. They also have some horrific stories to tell.

"Some time back we bought a beautiful mare but soon started to notice how she was growing larger and larger. After an examination by the vet, he concluded it was pregnant. We, let alone the butcher, had not known this and it would have been slaughtered if we had not rescued it. The foal is now four years old.”

Inevitably, education is big on her agenda. “Last year we went to a couple of schools to tell them about what we do and you could see that the children were a bit taken aback. Even the teachers came up to us to tell us that they weren’t aware that healthy horses were put down as well.”

Going on is quite a struggle. “It costs around €200 per horse per month and if you stop to think about that it is a hell of a lot of money,” she says. It is hard, however, to see her giving up simply because of monetary reasons. Her passion for horses and the strong belief in what she is doing will see to that.

Yet it would be wrong to leave the impression that it is simply the horses which count. “My dream is to set up an equine therapeutic centre that would enable more people who have problems to come around, spend time with the horses and actually work with them.“

“Horses are very relaxing to be around. If I were to set up an institute then I think that it would help a lot of people.”

She has proof to back this up. “Last year we had some people coming over during their drugs rehabilitation process. Well, today a couple of them have completed their program but keep on coming up to the farm to work as volunteer.”

Her beliefs are shared by Nathan Farrugia who runs another farm, although a completely different one to Sue’s. As the chief executive of the Razzett tal-Hbiberija – literally the Farm of Friendship – he has seen the benefits of children with disabilities interacting with animals.
“We have found that by allowing them to be around animals like horses and also smaller animals, these children open themselves more emotionally and that gives us a window through which to put to work.”

“Take for instance a child who is confined to the wheelchair. Letting them ride horses helps them physically by working on their spine. Yet at the same time, it is boosting them psychologically because it allows them to move around more freely than they are used to doing and with a greater degree of control. It works wonders for children low on self-esteem or confidence”
Stand to reason, then that the Razzett’s animal park is one of the success stories. It is far from the only one. Founded in 1989, Razzett is a non-profit charitable organisation that offers an array of recreational and therapeutic services to persons with a disability free of charge.

“Our aim is to offer for free professional therapy services to people with disabilities. It is for free because we believe that everyone has the right to receive such help and it has to be by professional people because that is how you can get the best results.”

As objectives go, few are nobler than that. “We help everyone who comes,” Nathan continues. “For us, success means improving the quality of life for people with disabilities.”

One of the ways to achieve this is through leisure education. “It is a way to push through a message using leisure activities,” he explains. “For instance, by doing pottery and crafts the children are having fun yet at the same time they are being stimulated creatively. We use play therapy and multi sensory therapy to help them develop without them necessarily realizing that it is a therapy session.”

Inevitably, for a project with such lofty ambitions, money features highly in Nathan’s list of problems. “We need around €1 million each year and 98% if that comes through donations.” That explains the hard work that is routinely put into fund raising activities.

Some of which Nathan has put on himself: in order to raise money this year he is aiming to take on the Malta Half Marathon in February, the London Marathon in April before concluding his tour de force in July at the grueling Ironman in Austria.

Given such passion for the charity, it must be hard for Nathan to switch off. “You need to have a vocation to work in this field. It is important to be trained professionally,” he says. “Yet we are care workers so we have to care for the people we are looking after. That is the attitude that you need in order to work here.”

This article was published in the December 2008 issue of Skylife magazine.

[Pool] Tornado Heading Back for Malta

Far too often, the term hero is wasted on undeserving recipients. None more so than in the world of sport where it is the description that tends trotted out at the merest hint of a positive result.

However, if there is an athlete whose longevity and continued success make him worthy of such a title then it surely is Tony Drago. Consistently ranked among the world’s top snooker players, Drago had the belief and courage to move abroad in order to prove his worth at his sport.

In that respect Drago was the trendsetter, the man who would inspire a generation of athletes and show them that it was possible for a Maltese to prosper abroad in sport. And he truly did prosper, as his exceptionally fast style of play earned him the nickname of ‘tornado’ and a reputation for high scoring breaks.

He was also quite temperamental, a flaw which he himself admits, but this helped endear him to the growing public of snooker enthusiasts, drawn towards the game after its adoption by television.

That all this talk is in the past tense would suggest that Drago’s best days are behind him, that his sporting career is at the end.

And, to a degree it is. Drago is currently off the main snooker circuit, having dropped off the list of the world’s top ranked players. Yet Drago is anything but a spent force. Instead, what he has been doing is dedicate more attention to another cue sport, that of pool.

Earlier this year he won the Predator International 10 Ball championship, a success that confirmed his status as one of the world’s elite pool players whilst adding to his lengthy list of personal triumphs.

“I was playing pool even when I was ranked among the top sixteen snooker players,” he is eager to point out, dispelling the growing myth that his recent interest in the game is purely down to his relative lack of success in snooker. “There are those who seem to think that I’m playing pool because I’m no longer ranked that highly in snooker but that is not true. I’ve been playing pool for a very long time so it is certainly nothing new for me.”

For the uninitiated, the two games appear the same: both are played on tables with cues and balls. Yet there are some major differences such as the size of the table which is smaller in pool than in snooker meaning that the former is played at a much faster pace.

The two games also have different fan bases. Whereas snooker is the favoured option in Europe, pool is the most popular alternative in America.

From a player’s perspective, the differences are quite marked. “The two games are completely different,” Drago confirms. “The pool table is easier to play on whilst the equipment is larger. When I’m playing snooker more frequently I find it quite easy to switch to pool but, on the other hand when I’m playing a lot of pool I tend to find it that little bit harder to switch.”

As a game, however, it is certainly evolving. “In Europe you have some of the world’s most important players such as Darren Appleton. The Americans have perhaps ten good players, five of which you’ll see in Malta soon.”

“The real hot-bed seems to be the east. There are a number of good Asian player coming through and the interest there seems to be growing rapidly.”

“Hopefully it will also take off in Malta thanks to the Mosconi Cup. It is definitely a good introduction.”

That is something of an understatement. Undeniably one of the best tournaments in the world of pool, the Mosconi Cup is a tournament that pits America’s top pool players against their European counterparts much like the Ryder Cup in golf.

Europe won the last time round, the third time in the competition’s fourteen year history. A significant chunk of that success was down to Tony Drago’s efforts so much that he was voted the tournament’s most valuable player.

“Winning the Mosconi Cup was undoubtedly one of the biggest achievements in my career. It certainly ranks on par with anything that I ever achieved in snooker.”

“As far as pressure goes, it doesn’t get any harder than this. Normally if you win a game you’re satisfied but if you lose the only one who is let down is yourself. In the Mosconi Cup it is different because you know that there are four other players depending on you, not to mention the hopes of the continent.”

That the next edition of the Mosconi Cup is due to be held in Malta should notch up the pressure on Drago. After all, in the past it has often been hinted that he found it difficult to handle the expectations facing him whenever playing in Malta.

If that was ever the case, Drago is adamant that it won’t be this time. “The pressure of the Mosconi Cup is completely different,” he repeats. “You don’t have time to think about the spectators. The pressure that we will be feeling in Malta is that of wanting to retain our trophy.”

Even so, it will help to know that most of those watching will be willing his team on hoping that they finally see their hero win a tournament on home soil. Drago certainly seems in confident mood.

“I think that we will be even more competitive then last year. The Americans have a good share of top players even tough they might make a couple of changes,” he says.

All this talk about the Mosconi Cup and the game of pool seems to hint that he’s packing it in from snooker

Yet that couldn’t be any farther away from the truth. “I still adore playing snooker. It is what made me into the man that I am today and opened my door to so many opportunities. I will keep on playing until I can see and can hold a cue in my hands. I cannot see myself any different. I’m confident in my abilities and I’m certain that I’ll win back my place among the world’s best players. Snooker is my game and I’ll never abandon it.”
This article was published in the December 2008 issue of Sunday Circle magazine.

[Athletics] A Life Spent Running

I arrive at the St. Aloysius track slightly after the 7:30 appointment that I’d been set and I find that there’s practically no one there. “Don’t worry,” I’m told, “they decided to run on the streets rather than on the track. They’ll soon be back.”

And so it is that some thirty minutes later I see a group of some twenty athletes making their way to the track headed by a middle-aged man with a long distance runner’s gait and an endless torrent of jokes that keep the rest entertained: it is Gelindo Bordin, the man I am here to meet.

“I hate running on the track,” he tells me. “It is much more enjoyable to do so in the streets. After all, if you’re going to run a marathon it is there that you will have to run it so it is better to get used to the surface.”

Bordin is a true athletics legend. At the 1988 Seoul Olympics he won one of the most exciting marathons in the history of the event after overtaking Douglas Wakiihuri of Kenya and Ahmed Salah of Djibuti with just 1,000m to go to the finishing line. It was a masterful race where Bordin stuck fast to his tactics and belief to beat those who many thought were better athletes.

Unsurprisingly that gold medal ranks as Bordin’s greatest memory along with his success in the Boston marathon in 1990. “Winning the Olympic marathon was a life-long dream,” he says. “But the Boston marathon was important because it confirmed the result that I had achieved two years earlier. There were some very good athletes in Boston and in 1989 I had missed a lot of races through injury so it was important for me to return to victory.” To this day, Bordin remains the only male athlete to have won both the Olympic and the Boston marathon.

Talking about Bordin’s Olympic memories, conversation naturally turns to the memories of the fantastic event held in Beijing.

Bordin agrees. “It was a beautiful edition,” – bellissima is the word he uses and it sounds much more appropriate - “Technically they were very good and the organization was spot on. China put a lot of effort, both financially and non, to ensure that these were a success and even though the weather wasn’t that good there were some exceptional results. It will be hard for anyone to repeat their success.” London 2012 has been warned.

In athletics, the dominant figure was that of Usain Bolt, the young Jamaican so fast that he feels the compulsion to ease off towards the finishing line to let the rest of the field get close to him. It is, finally, a positive image for a sport that far too often has had to face the spectre of doping.

Not all, however, is rosy. “As a whole, athletics has come out of these Olympic games stronger especially since it seems to be winning the battle with doping.”

“The biggest loser, however, was European athletics. Unfortunately we flopped completely on the track. It is sad and a pity since the European one remains a very important market.”

That final comment might seem like a throw-away line but instead it is very relevant for Bordin. Having retired in 1994 there was no way that he was going to return to accountancy, the profession he had left at 24 in order to take up athletics professionally. Instead, he opted to stay in athletics working with the Italian company Diadora for whom he is today the company’s marketing director.

“It is a tough job especially working in a market that is dominated by so many strong brands,” he says. “Yet I love it. I’ve always like a challenge and there’s nothing more difficult than trying to please long distance runners”

“As an Italian company, we naturally try to make comfortable shoes that look nice. It the comfort part, however, that is paramount. Our biggest battle is trying to teach people the importance of wearing good running shoes. Even if you’re simply running on a thread mill, it is important to be wearing running rather than fitness shoes.”

Talk of challenges takes us back the situation in Europe. “Engaging young people to take up sport is becoming more difficult. Talking from my personal perspective, the current situation is great because we have a lot of middle aged people coming into athletics in order to keep fit and, demographically, there isn’t a better segment to have because they have the spending power.”

“That said, it is vital to attract young people to athletics and to do so I feel that we have to change the way we talk to them. For me, athletics gave the possibility to travel and that was a great incentive but that doesn’t hold much relevance today where most kids travel abroad with their parents at least once a year.”

“So we have to work harder to communicate with them and show them the benefits. For me, athletics has allowed me to have a great life both when I was competing and afterwards when it provided me with an opportunity to work within the shoe industry. Not to mention that the gold medal has helped me a lot with the ladies as well!”

That joke breaks off the serious turn that our discussion had taken and we begin talking about the Turin marathon which Bordin ran earlier this year. “After sixteen years I decided to return to running to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of the Olympic gold.”

“That and also to smoothen my belly,’ he adds, jokingly, before continuing “I rediscovered the joy of running among lots of people and thoroughly enjoyed being around people for whom this sport is as much a hobby as it is a passion. There was a lot of joking going about, more at the star then towards the finishing line however.”

As for the future, he plans to run again in Seoul in order to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of his gold medal. What about the Malta Marathon, I ask? “Well, in 2010 I’m going to run in Boston and after that, who knows, perhaps I could come to Malta.”

“As long as after the race we go to swim,” he adds.

I forget to mention that swimming in early March, when the marathon is traditionally held, perhaps wouldn’t be such a good idea. If that’s what it takes to get a gold medal winner to run in Malta, then so be it.
This article was published in the November 2008 issue of Sunday Circle.

[Football] An Island In Love With The Beautiful Game

Paul Grech , ,
Guide books will tell you many things about Valletta, of its history, palaces, churches and architecture. Yet there is another source of great pride for Malta’s grand capital city that is unlikely to garner more than a mere mention: football.

Champions last season and hot favourites again this time round, Valletta possess one of the strongest teams in local football. No one has won as much as they have in the past two decades with seven league titles and six national cups. All of which helps fuel their fans’ passion, with Valletta’s supporters having a reputation of being among the most colourful on the island.

Then again, the whole of Malta is in love with the game of football just as it has since the British servicemen introduced the game in the latter half of the nineteenth century. The British influence can still be felt till this day. Floriana FC, the oldest club on the island play in green and white striped shirts and are known as the Irish, a nod to the founding links with the Royal Dublin Fusiliers.

Only one club has won more than Floriana’s twenty-five league titles and that’s Sliema Wanderers with twenty six. The Blues are expected to challenge for the main honours again this year, along with Birkirkara, Hibernians and Marsaxlokk, with the latter being managed by the former Ipswich, Arsenal and England international Brian Talbot.

Special mentions go to St. George’s FC and Melita FC, two clubs with a rich history which today find themselves in the lower leagues. The first were one of the pioneers of the game in Malta with a league title win to their name, even though that goes back to 1916.

Melita’s place in local folklore is retained by the strict adherence to the Corinthian values on which they were founded: till this day they remain the only truly amateur club in Malta with no one receiving any form of remuneration for their services.

All of which adds to the rich texture of Maltese football where local rivalries are keenly contested events. Indeed watching domestic football in Malta is a unique experience not only because all top flight clubs use the same four stadiums to play their league football but because support is often boosted by brass bands and the atmosphere often mimics that of a village feast. Just as you would expect from an island madly in love with the game of football.

This article was published in the October 2008 edition of Skylife magazine.


Paul Grech Sunday, December 21, 2008
Some fifteen years ago, a friend of mine who knew how passionate I was about football suggested my name to Silvio Catania, the then sports editor of the Maltese weekly IL-GENS, who in turn agreed that to a regular contribution on Maltese football.

Thus came about the realisation of one of my dreams: that of seeing my work published.

Privately, I’d long been writing about sports. My mother still has a number of copybooks on which as a kid - I was probably in my early teens when I started doing this - I would write match reports from games that I'd seen on television.

I don't know where this passion for writing comes from. My grandfather used to say that the great Maltese writer Francis Ebejer was his cousin (one day perhaps I’ll research my family tree to see whether this is true) so that's a possible reason. It surely doesn’t come from my parents, who are neither into writing and much less interested in sports. Yet here I am, fifteen years on still passionately writing about it.

Over the years there have been many wonderful experiences: being asked to write a chapter in a book, meeting some of my heroes, seeing my first article in The Times, the first time I had a piece published in a foreign magazine, reporting about my team's - Birkirkara - first ever league title; all of them great memories.

Today I write for a number of publications as well as trying to maintain three blogs of my own: A Liverpool Thing which is the outlet for all the frustrations that come from following Liverpool FC, Malta Athletics where I try to keep anyone interested updated about what’s happening in Maltese athletics and the sadly neglected blog about Italian football Il Re Calcio.

Which brings me to this site. Initially, I would photocopy every article of mine that was published and bind them together every six months or so. Sadly, I lapsed from that habit - modestly, the sheer volume and frequency of articles made that impracticable - which is why I dreamed up this site: a place where I could store and share my best work as well as talk about future projects.

Hope that it is of interest and keep the comments flowing.

PS: This site is dedicated to Silvano who helped me get started all those years ago.

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Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer