(Not) Lost in Translation

Paul Grech Thursday, November 5, 2009
Sometimes I find myself wondering why I do this. Writing, that is. I have a fairly demanding job as well as a family to handle so that means that there is very little free time for myself. Hence the question as to why I spend most of that time writing for so very little return rather than relaxing.

Most of the time I don't have an answer but then, occasionally, something unexpected happens that provides the answer (and inspiration) that I'm looking for.

That is what happened recently when I was contacted by some Liverpool fans in Russia asking whether they could use a couple of my articles which they wanted to translate into their native tongue. Which is why you can now read my articles in Russian.

Book Review: Born to Run

Paul Grech Monday, November 2, 2009 ,
Let me start with a confession: even though I've been writing about the sport for a number of years, I'd never read a book about athletics. Most of those that I'd come across were either biographies - which I don't really like - or statistical compendiums which I like even less.
'Born To Run', however, promised to be different which is why it was so intriguing. For one thing it dealt with ultra running which is a very particular niche within the sport and therefore hardly likely to follow the same styfied approach of other books.

And so it turned out to be. Indeed it was much more then I ever expected. 'Born To Run' starts from a simple premise: plagued by a number of running injuries and repeatedly told to choose another hobby, author Chris McDougall asked himself why his ankle hurt when running, particulalrly given the research that goes into the technology of modern running shoes.

Accidentally coming across a native American tribe called the Tarahumara who live in the Mexican desert and who can run for long distances over prohibitive terrain in sandals proved to be the tipping point as he set out to discover their secret.

That he manages to do, ultimately curing himself and taking part in a race involving the both Tarahumara and a number of leading ultra runners.

It is this journey - which ultimately is one of self discovery - that he talks about in this book.

The beauty of 'Born To Run' is that McDougall manages to balance the personal side of the story with the wider picture of running as an act. Throughout his talk diverts into an attack on the shoe industry, confirmation of the theory that man was indeed built to run and into talks about nutrition.

In doing so, his risk was that of adopting a preacher's tone with the result of boring the reader. McDougall, however avoids this purely because he has no intention of trying to convert people to his way of thinking but rather is relaying his excitement and fascination at learning about each one.

And this, his ability to relay his emotion, is what makes this book work so well. 'Born to Run' is a truly wonderful book, among the best that I've read this year. Irrespective of whether you have an interest in athletics or whether you are a runner yourself, this is a book that must be read.


The Waning Power of Pisa

Paul Grech Sunday, September 6, 2009 , ,
For a city that has been made famous by its gravity defying leaning tower, there's a bit of irony in Pisa AC's penchant for tragic and spectacular crashes. Even so, it will be a long time before anyone does so in more spectacular fashion then they did last season which, to further boost the ironical undercurrent, also happened to be the year when the club was celebrating its centenary.

Having kicked off in the hope of winning a place in the play-offs, Pisa opened up with two defeats and their season never really took off. There were a couple of famous victories - those against Parma and local rivals Livorno stand out - but they weren't enough to push the clubs in the top six. Nor was it good enough to save manager Giampiero Ventura's job as the frustration about the failure to press-on saw him being sacked.

In his place came Bruno Giordano. Bad move. Pisa had been floating in around in the middle of the table before his arrival but much of that had been down to Ventura's tactical nous and his ability to motivate players. Without him, they went into free-fall and two days from the end of the season they slipped to fourth which would have meant a play-out game to retain their place in the league. But that wasn't the end of the story as a 1-0 home defeat on the final day of the season against Brescia - when Pisa were a man up - coupled with results elsewhere saw them slip even further. On the 94th minute of the final day of the season they were in a direct relegation spot, the first time that they'd been in that position all year.

Then came even worse news. A few days after this bitter defeat, president Luca Pomponi announced that he wasn't willing to remain in charge and put the club up for sale. With a guarantee of €2.75 million needed for any club to start the season, and with Pomponi having only some €1.1 available it was time to panic. Players started being sold off and season tickets were put up on sale (with the promise of a refund should the club go down) in order to make up for the deficit.

It wasn't to be. In early June, the Covisoc barred Pisa from taking part in the Lega Pro Prima Divisione (the equivalent of League One: the Italian lower leagues went through a Football League style re-branding last year) not only because of the absence of the necessary guarantees but also because of a loss of some €5 million and debts that totalled in excess of €12 million. A few days later, the club was wound down.

Thus history had repeated itself. Once again, matters had spiralled out of control after relegation to the third tier of Italian football, just as had happened fifteen years earlier. Back then, AC Pisa was hastily re-formed with the famous club having to play village teams in the local regional league. Within two years, the re-named Pisa Calcio 1995 won promotion to the C2 (fourth league) but a return to the Serie B would have to wait a further thirteen years. Only for everything to crumble once again in the space of two seasons.

It wasn't always this way. Throughout the eighties, Pisa were famous for being a yo-yo club: between 1982 and 1991 they won four promotions from the Serie B, which is another way of saying that they were relegated just as many times from the Serie A.

At the heart of everything at the time was their iconic president Romeo Anconetani. A boisterous and loud man, he built a reputation of being a 'mangia allenatori' (someone who eats up managers) for the ease with which he got rid of his managers. Yet he was also an excellent motivator and an even better talent spotter. He was the one who brought Carlos Dunga and Jose Antonio Chamot to Italy; down to him the discovery of players like Roberto Muzzi and Michele Padovano. It was the ability to dig up such good, if not exceptional players, that enabled Pisa to battle their way back after every drop.

Two seasons ago, upon their return to the Serie B, it looked as if the good times were about to return. With the experienced Ventura back in charge and an adventourous 3-4-3 formation in which the unknown Argentine striker Javier Ignacio Castillo was the revelation, Pisa made their way to the top of the league only to falter towards the end of the season where a play-off defeat to Lecce put paid to their hopes of a return to the top-flight.

Ultimately, it could be argued that this success came too soon. It raised expectations to a level where the club couldn't support them but, in a bid to keep up, over extended themselves.

So what's next for Pisa? The beauty of Italian football in such cases is that all sporting facilities are owned by the local government meaning that the city's football club will always have somewhere to play in. Already, a new club has been formed and will take part in the Serie D which, roughly, is the equivalent of English non-league. The aim will be that of finding a new owner to put up the necessary guarantees to push for professional football. In the hope that, once again, something positive emerges from the ashes of this latest fall.

This article appeared on the AFC Wimbledon official match programme for the home game against Oxford on the 29th of August 2009. It is also featured on the blog on Italian football Il Re Calcio as well as the football site 200%.

The Real Road Hogs

Paul Grech Thursday, September 3, 2009 , ,
How do you get to know a country? There are various ways to do this ranging from the practical - a guided tour - to the expensive – getting a taxi to show you around - via the adventurous – hitchhiking to your destination.

Yet nothing allows you to really engage all your senses as much as doing so on a bicycle. Not only can you see the sights but you can also hear and smell what’s around you. Cycling gives you a real taste and feel of the place you are visiting.

Not to mention all the healthy exercise that helps fight away the excesses normally associated with a holiday. Of course, cycling isn’t for everyone yet it is becoming extremely popular with visitors to the Southern parts of Europe for all the above reasons as well as the plus points of being relatively inexpensive as well as ecologically sound.

Holidays and travelling, however, weren’t on the cards when over a hundred cyclists made their way to Malta last March. Instead their destination was the Tour ta’ Malta, the cycling competition that has been held on a fairly regular basis for the past fifteen years.

As with most sporting events held in Malta, the Tour comes about through efforts of a dedicated group of volunteers. None more so than John Zammit, the president of the Malta Cycling Association, a man whose passion for cycling and determination to see his sport progress cannot but impress you.

Our first meeting takes place just as this year’s Tour has come to an end. When will you start working on the next edition, I enquire. “Now!” he exclaims excitedly.

There is, of course, a very good reason for his enthusiasm. This year’s Tour was particularly successful as far as foreign athletes are concerned. “We had a very good turnout,” he admits somewhat modestly. “Both in terms of number of cyclists as well as in their quality. And to think that it could have been better: a number of Sicilian cyclists who were planning on coming to Malta by catamaran were left stranded because of bad weather. It is definitely something that we’ll learn from.”

It is a claim that reinforces his assertion that work on the next Tour has to start almost immediately. “We got such a good response and were met with such enthusiasm by the foreign athletes that it cannot be any other way. We think that we’ve already got a very good Tour yet we want to keep on growing.”

“For one thing, we’d like to hold one of the races in Gozo as we believe that it would be a great attraction. Logistically, it isn’t that easy as you have to ferry across over a hundred cyclists and much depends on the weather. But we’ve got plenty of ideas” he promises.

Some of these come from Zammit’s regular trips abroad. “Whenever possible we go to world cycling championships and it is always extremely interesting to see how they organise their races. You get ideas and notice small things which we then try to copy always in order to keep on improving.”

Such trips also provide an important measure of the overall quality of the Tour. “When we sit down and start mapping out the route, we look for a good mix of speed and difficulty. Naturally, we need a time-trial where the main objective is to offer a fast flat route but you also need to choose locations where there are climbs in order to offer a challenge.”

“Overall, I thin that we’ve got it just about right. Obviously you get the odd individual that complains but I think that’s more down to their lack of preparation rather than anything on our part.” Zammit is anything if not forthright.

Nor is he one for false modesty. “Indeed, I think that the San Martin leg of the race is good enough to host a major championship. The only drawback is that it is slightly short because otherwise it could easily be good enough for a world class competition. The quality of the road is good, it offers just the right challenge and the views that you can take in are breath-taking.”

It is something that the foreign cyclists appreciate even if, ultimately, they’re here to take part in a Tour. “You have to keep in mind that not everyone comes here looking to win. For some it is simply to enjoy the experience of taking part in a Tour so you try to make it as enjoyable as possible for them. That includes choosing the right route.”

Of those who do come here to win, the most notable was undoubtedly a young seventeen year-old by the name of Nicole Cooke who won the Tour back in. Six years later, that same athlete was sprinting on the roads of Beijing as she won an Olympic gold medal for Great Britain.

“Having Cooke here was fantastic,” Zammit says, his eyes lighting up at the memory. “In fact, she told us that the Tour ta’ Malta was very important for her because it gave her confidence in her ability. In fact, you can say that winning in Malta proved to be the launch pad for her career.”

The Tour is just as important for Maltese cycling. “It offers our athletes the opportunity to compete with others and push themselves further,’ he explains. Which is why it was hard to take for local cyclists when the Tour was cancelled twice over the past three years.

“The first time it was due to lack of sponsors whilst the second time round it was down to the uncertainty surrounding when the election was going to be held. As a general rule, we do find people willing to help us even though it is becoming increasingly more difficult. Some companies leave it till the final minute to back down from san agreement so you have far too little time to find a replacement.”

Hopefully, these problems won’t crop up as often in the future. “We’re happy in that local councils are taking more of an interest in the Tour and are very willing to help out in any way possible.” They might not be in the situation of the Tour de France where small villages pay out huge amounts of money to be included in the route of the Tour but it is a welcome sign of progress.

Which is just what the Tour wants to achieve.

This article appeared on Runaway Travel magazine.

[Featured Article] AFC Wimbledon Matchday Programme: Waning Power of Pisa

Paul Grech Saturday, August 29, 2009 ,


Malta Premier League Preview 2009/10

Paul Grech Thursday, August 20, 2009 ,
Farcical probably just about sums it all up. Days before the Maltese football season is due to start and still the future of Marsaxlokk FC and Vittoriosa Stars, the two clubs at the centre of corruption charges, is unknown after hearings were repeatedly postponed.

For years, rumours of corruption have undermined the credibility of local football but when these were brought up the official reply always was that unless someone stepped forward with proof nothing could be done.
Which is why the past year has been so significant. It all started last August when Albanian coach Ilir Pelinku and former referee Joe Attard where indicted of trying to fix the Champions League qualifier between Marsaxlokk and Slaven Belupo. The local side were cleared of any wrong doing but soon they were in the news once again when, after a crucial game against Msida St. Joseph that saw them gaining access to the Championship Pool and condemned Msida to the relegation pool, Msida goalkeeper revealed that he had been approached to throw the game. Marsaxlokk assistant-coach Peter Hartshorne and former player Claude Mattocks admitted to the charges in court and both got off with a suspended sentence and a €500 fine.

At around the same time it, Vittoriosa Stars’ vice-president Emanuel Ancilleri was also taken to court after allegations that he had tried to bribe players before a game with St. Georges. And, to further complicate matters, Vittoriosa then went on to win promotion to the Premier League.
With relegation being one of the possible punishments – and what most are anticipating – it was thought that both cases would be dealt with swiftly. After all, here was the perfect opportunity for the local football association to prove that it was willing to act swiftly and decidedly against corruption.

Yet that hasn’t happened. Instead, the impression is that the two cases are being viewed as an inconvenience with hearings being regularly postponed and the specially appointed investigations board dragging its feet in delivering a judgement. So much that on the eve of the season no one knows what is going to happen.

Will Marsaxlokk and Vittoriosa be allowed to play in the Premeir League? And, if not, when will Msida and Pieta Hotspurs, the two clubs who would replace them, get to know? After all, neither club has been preparing for a season in the top flight.

This delayed justice has also overshadowed to some extent the positive news to have come out so far this season where Valletta FC did admirably well in the Europa League and were within a few minutes of being the first Maltese club to make it through two rounds of European football. The arrival of coach Tom Caanen as well as his fellow Dutchme
n Jordi Cruyff and Denk Van Ou
den has taken the club to another level and, coupled with the local transfers of Terrence Scerri (Hibernians) and Kevin Sammut (Marsaxlokk), make Valletta the favourites to regain the title
that they missed out on so dramatically last season.

In their way they will find Sliema Wanderers who seem revitalised after their success in the FA Trophy. Their squad has been significantly boosted by the arrival of Maltese player of the year Clayton Failla (Hibernians), Ryan Fenech (Hamrun Spartans) and Jean Pierre Mifsud Triganza (Birkirkara) which puts the onus on coach Stephen Azzop
ardi to aim for the top prize after a couple of lean years.
If the summer has been a positive one for Valletta and Sliema, it hasn't been that rosy for champions Hibernians. Last season's success was the just reward for their policy that focuses on the development of young players with the arrival of coach Mark Miller proving to be the catalyst that they needed.

Since the dramatic final day draw with Valletta which secured thei title win, however, they've lost two key players - Clayton Failla and Terence Scerri - to their two closest rivals, losses that are bound to hit them hard. Former Torquay striker Iyseden
Christie has arrived on trial and looks like he could do a useful job but it looks unlikely that it will be enough for them re-claim the title. Writing them off, however, would be foolish as they still retain
a lot of quality.

Another club that, like Hibernians, have been focusing much of their energy on youth have been Birkirkara. Yet this has been quite an agitated summer for them as well. Victor Zammit , the man who transformed
Birkirkara from a yo-yo club into one of the island's top sides, resigned whilst manager John Buttigieg left to take over the national team.

Playing wise there hasn't been much change with Dutch striker Sylvan Comvalious coming from relegated Hamrun Spartans in the hope that he solves their problems up front whilst their search for reliable goalkeeper continues. To replace Buttigieg they have gone for former Valletta boss Pawlu Zammit who paid for his failure to win the league by being d
ismissed. Yet he is a young and talented man who will do well although a fourth place finish seems to be the best that t
hey can hope for given the number of young players he will have to count on.

Floriana will know all about Birkirkara's situation for they too have been stuck in a footballing limbo: too good to go down but without the necessary quality and strength in depth to challenge the top clubs.

The arrival of Irishman Roddy Collins woud indicate a new found ambition but if that really is the case then the expectation is that the players already at the club will perform better than they have in the past since the squad is largely unchanged from last season. Collins has been
attempted to bring some players from the Irish leagues but so far none have actually signed. Unless that changes, it will be more of the same from them.

Having managed to survive in their debut season in the top flight, Qormi are now looking to consolidate their place there. As they did last summer, most of the players they've signed are experienced veterans who know all about football in the Premier League. This might not be the most adventurous of policies and certainly not the cheapest but it should lead to a relatively tranquil season that will act as a stepping stone for further progress.

If Qormi do make it to the Championship Pool, the club that they'r
e most likely to replace is Marsaxlokk FC. Champions just four years ago, their decline has been a steady one since president Victor Scriha opted to take-over Valletta FC.

What's worse is the already mentioned pending case of corruption brought against them which, if proven, would probably see them getting relegated. This has hampered their transfer activity, and whilst they have lost a number of players they haven't been in a position to bring too many players.

On the opposite end of the scale to Marsaxlokk are Tarxien Rainbows. Promoted last year, they were widely expected to go straight back down. Yet that didn't happen largely because of the inspired signing of Brazilian striker David Bueno who scored twenty three goals in as many games. Most of the
top local clubs were lining up to buy him but instead he has opted to move to Poland.

To replace him - and attempt to confound expectations once again - they've gone for two other Brazilians (Antonio Everton Pereira and Anderson Mendez Ribeiro) who already look a cut above what is available locally.

Taking inspiration from Tarxien are First Division champions Dingli Swallows who are putting faith on the players who got them here rather then spend money they don't have in order to chase marginally better results.

In reality, Dingli's story is pretty inspiring in itself. On the verge of relegation to the Third Division when John Zammit took over as player-manager five years ago, he has transformed the club and took them to two promotions. For a village of just 2,500 people, it is a phenomenal result just to reach this level no matter what happens in the coming months.

And finally there's Vittoriosa Stars. Or, at least, there will be Vittoriosa Stars unless they are thrown out because of their own corruption case.

As with Marsaxlokk, this has limited their preparations and the number of players they could bring in. The end result is a squad that seems woefully short of the quality needed to stay up.

This article was published on the football website 200%.

Kultura Anti-Sportiva

Paul Grech Monday, August 10, 2009 , ,
Xharejn ilu, wara t-Tour ta’ Malta tac-ciklizmu, bdejt nitkellem ma’ xi dilettanti ta’ dan l-isport
barranin li qaluli li l-ikbar problema taghna kienet il-bosta karozzi li kien hawn fit-toroq taghna li, flimkien ma’ l-istat ta’ l-istess toroq, kien jaghmel ic-ciklizmu sport difficli biex ikun prattikat. Hmistax wara ltqajt ma’ John Zammit, president tal-Federazzjoni lokali tac-ciklizmu, li wkoll qalli li t-traffiku kien l-ikbar deterrent ta’ dan l-isport.

Dan il-kliem rega’ gie f’mohhi l-gimgha li ghaddiet meta smajt bl-ahbar tal-mewt ta’ Cliff Micallef. Minghajr ma’ nidhol fil-merti partikolari ta’ dan l-incident, kull min huwa midhla tac-ciklizmu kif ukoll tal-giri fit-toroq ilu jistenna li jigri xi haga simili tant hi mwerha s-sitwazzjoni. Sfortunatament, kif spiss jigri f’pajjizna, kellu jkun incident tragiku biex pogga din il-problema fl-attenzjoni generali.

U l-problema f’dan il-kaz hija n-nuqqas ta’ edukazzjoni li tezisti fost is-sewwieqa. Ghal hafna c-ciklisti u atleti, kull girja barra hija akkumpanjata mil-biza li jiltaqghu ma’ xi sewwieqa li jew mghaggla wisq biex jatuhom importanza jew inkella, aghar min hekk, li jaraw lil dawn l-istess ciklisti bhal l-mira biex minghalihom juru s-sahha taghhom.

Ghaliex, filwaqt li incidenti serji bhal dak tal-gimgha l-ohra huma rari, huma hafna izjed dawk l-okkazjonijiet fejn atleta jkun involut intortament f’xi incident mhux daqshekk gravi u li ghalhekk ma’ jkunux rappurtati. Matul is-snin smajt wisq stejjer ta’ sewwieqa li hebbew ghal xi atleta purament ghaliex hassewhom frustrati peress li xi triq giet maghluqa minhabba tellieqa jew inkella missew xi ciklista bil-karozza taghhom halli jaraw ir-reazzjoni tieghu.

Hija sitwazzjoni sintomatika tal-kultura Maltija fejn id-dixxiplina hija nieqsa u kulhad jemmen li l-mod li bih jahseb hu huwa tajjeb u ghallahares xi hadd jindahallu. Dan sakemm ma’ jwegga bis-serjeta xi hadd jew inkella, aghar min hekk, ikun hemm xi mewt kif gara din id-darba.

Xorta wahda, s-sigurta ta’ l-atleti u c-ciklisti ma jidirx li se tinghata xi prijorita. Dan ghaliex il-mentalita’ tidher li hi li la huma jiehdu r-riskji li johorgu jigru fit-toroq mela ghandhom ikunu kapaci jiffacjaw il-konsegwenzi.

M’ghandux ikun hekk, anzi t-tama hi li wara dak li gara lil Cliff issir xi haga biex titjieb is-sitwazzjoni. L-minimu ghandu jkun li jkun hemm kampanja edukattiva biex is-sewwieqa jitghalmu jirrispettaw lil dawk li l-isport favorit taghhom jiprattikawh fit-toroq (u fl-istess hin jkunu edukati wkoll dawk il-ftit atleti li jahsbu li t-toroq huma taghhom). Ghaliex jekk matul is-snin il-poplu Malti tghallem jilbes is-seat-belt u jixghel id-dawl taht il-mini mela allura xi ftit tat-tama hemm li s-sitwazzjoni tista titjieb.

Imma jekk ha nittamaw b’mod esklussiv fuq xi kampanja edukattiva mela probabilment se ndumu nistennew. Ir-realta hi li ghal l-atleti biex verament jkunu siguri mela l-uniku alternattiva hi li huma jmorru f’xi wahda mit-treks li hawn Malta halli jiprattikaw l-isport taghhom. Mill-bqija huma qatt mhu se jkollhom garanzija li mhux se jkollhom xi incident.

Is-sitwazzjoni hija iktar sfortunata ghac-ciklisti ghaliex dawn m’ghandhomx post sigur fejn huma jtellqu. Hawn jtella rasu argument iehor li kien semmieli Zammit, dak dwar il-htiega li f’Malta jkun hawn trek indoor tac-ciklizmu.

Meta kien qalli dwar dan il-bzonn, nammetti li kont hsibt li ftit hemm bzonn ta’ xi haga simili. Llum nahsibha b’mod differenti. Bhal ma’ l-karozzi keccew lit-tfal milli jilghabu fit-toroq, mela issa jmiss lil kull min jiprattika l-isport tieghu hemm. Li c-ciklisti jkollhom l-opportunita li jaghmlu hekk jidher li huwa l-pass naturali li jmiss.

Dan l-artiklu deher fil-harga tas-Sibt, 8 t'Awwissu tal-GENSillum - This article appeared in IL-GENSillum of Saturday 8th August


Men and Women of Steel

Paul Grech Friday, August 7, 2009 , ,
Every day you wake up, take a quick shower and something for breakfast before going out to work. There you spend a good part of the day before finally clocking off to return back home

Now imagine that, rather then sitting in front of a computer screen or whatever it is that you do, you were to spend those ten hours running, cycling and swimming. Sounds good? Well it certainly does for a group of athletes who, for the past year, have been gearing up to take part in the Karnten Ironman in Austria.
In reality, the word ironman does very little to describe the sheer difficulty of this sport. For ironman, which is an extended version of triathlon, consists of a 3.86 km swim, a 180.25 km bike ride and a full marathon run, raced in that order and without a break. The very best athletes, can complete this in around eight hours; for the rest it can take up to fifteen hours. Or, to use the previous example, if they set off as soon as you wake up they would still be at it by the time you’re getting ready to go to sleep.

For most of us, that seems like sheer madness yet for those who want to push their bodies to extremes it is something that they have to do.

“Ironman is a challenge,” Dermot Galea explains. “It is something different and whatever the result the fact you finished such an event is always something to be proud of. This is not just a race but a journey where you learn about yourself, and your limits, mental and physical.”

Despite having won countless national triathlon championships, Galea is still in his mid-twenties and an athlete who is still to reach the peak of his physical abilities. He is also one who you get the feeling love a physical challenge. Little wonder then that, the Austria ironman will be his fourth.

Galea is the one who has spearheaded the recent increase in the number of athletes interested in the ironman distances.

Fabio Spiteri is another experienced tri-athlete who is also gearing up for what will be his first ironman. “We where chatting after a triathlon and afterwards we started sending out e-mails about the possibility of doing an ironman. Eventually others joined in so that now there will be a total of nine athletes who will be taking part. That’s quite a big group for a small island like Malta.”

With over 2,500 athletes being expected to turn out for the Karnten ironman, the Maltese will be but a drop in the ocean. Similarly, with the possible exception of Dermot Galea, none of them are going with any hopes of finishing high up the ranking. Yet, as you would imagine for such a tough event, training over the past months has been intensive.

“Ironman preparation is not just about physical endurance training,” Spiteri confirms.

“There are three main issues that I keep in mind. Obviously, the physical aspect is important. When you’re training for an Ironman, your training program must incorporate training in a fatigued state to get your body used to those types of demands. Training for a marathon is one thing, running a marathon when you’re already tired from your 3.8km swim and 180km bike ride is completely another.”

“Another important aspect of training for your ironman is to understand and apply endurance nutrition,” he continues. “During the course of an ironman, around 8000 calories or more are burnt so I have to eat and drink during the race because my body can't convert fat to energy fast enough to support the effort without additional fuel.”

Then there is the mental aspect where Spiteri is turning to visualization in order to help him out: “during the race if you're thinking of giving up...just think about the finish line!”

The psychological is also highlighted by Dermot Galea, even if he doesn’t really agree that one has to be mentally prepared to face an ordeal. “It is not an ordeal, its a challenge, and one needs to prepare for it mentally like any challenges in life. It is all about one's limits and doing an ironman you certainly learn a few things about yourself, and who you are.”

Learning about herself and her limits is certainly what attracted Donatelle Callus, one of two women in the group, to ironman.

“Every extreme is a challenge; let’s hope that my body and mind will take me through this,” she says. “I love the diversity of the sport – having to do three disciplines never gets boring. And since I am a person who gets easily bored and am always looking for an adventure or something new to look forward to, it is ideal for me. Ironman Races are the ultimate races in triathlon.”

Similarly, Callus doesn’t really mind the fact that there are just two women on the island preparing themselves for this challenge. “I don’t think about being the only women in the group as this sport is a lonely sport and, in any case, I do most of my training alone. True, I will be part of a group but during the race I will be alone just my body and my mind.”

Callus laughs when asked about her targets. “I want to finish!” she exclaims. “The cut off is 17 hours and I would like to do it in 15 hours even if I will probably be walking most of the marathon.”

Finishing is also all that Fabio Spiteri is thinking of. Well, almost. “Since it is my first ironman I should be aiming on just finishing. But, knowing me, I've always trained hard, done well in l races abroad and am very competitive so on a good day I should be somewhere between 9hours 45 minutes and 10 hours.”

Galea is the least specific of the three and, even though he admits that he’s hoping for a “fourth finish”, all that he will add is that he’s looking for a “a fast time. That would be great.”

As, in reality, is any sort of finish to the ironman challenge.

This article appeared in the July 2009 issue of Skylife magazine.

Paddle Up

Paul Grech , ,
With the Olympics being the main contact point with many of the less popular sport, it is easy to get a wrong impression. This was driven home recently when I got to know that there were those in Malta for whom canoeing was the sport of choice.

My perception was that this was a sport restricted to rivers and lakes but evidently that is not the case.
"We practice canoe sprint;" leading canoeist Chris Camilleri patiently explains. "This may be practiced both in the sea, lakes and river."

“The only difference between fresh water and sea water is the density of the water. In fresh water the kayak sits a bit deeper in the water and so makes it just a little bit harder to paddle in."

Even so, with traffic being a problem not only on the roads but also in the sea, albeit boats then to be more popular then cars there, finding a good enough spot cannot be that easy.

Well, not really says Camilleri. "We practice in the Msida Marina. It is the best place for us to train in as it is protected and we can train in it all year round."
That hunger for training reveals Camilleri's passion for a sport that he took up as an eleven year-old.

"I was a scout and back then we used to compete in the central district canoe races which were a very big tradition in our scout group. I liked it and eventually started practicing the sport competitively."

This has led Camilleri to representing Malta in international events.

"At the 2006 world championships, I was beating the world champion for the first 50metres or so," he recalls as he thinks of his most memorable experiences. "On another occasion, I came sixth in the Hungarian master championships." Not bad considering that canoeing in Hungary is akin to football in Brazil.

Later this year he is scheduled to take part in the Mediterranean Games. "There's a lot of pride in this especially since this would be the first time that we’ll be competing in canoeing races in these games."

"In 2005 I’ve attended to the races in Almeria Spain, as a spectator and the competition was simply awesome!"

"The current preparations are going well and all the hard training carried out in the past 3 years for these games is starting to give results."

For all the thrill of competing on an international stage, it is the simple pleasures of the sport that delight Camilleri. "What I like most is the thrill of overcoming yourself when you’re in a race. Yet it isn't only that: it is through this sport that I can enjoy the occasional perfect scene like the sun setting over St. Joseph’s church from the Msida marina."

This article appeared in the July issue of Skylife magazine.

[Athletics] Sprints Change Does Portelli Good

Paul Grech Tuesday, June 30, 2009 , ,
When looking for reasons as to why the number of people that are attracted to athletics is so limited, football invariably always gets the bulk of the blame.

Such is its popularity and the riches on offer that it is very difficult to resist its lure. So, it is that most individuals go for football irrespective of whether it is the best suited for their abilities.

Occasionally, however, that trend is reversed. As a boy, Nicolai Portelli tried his hand at any sport that came his way before ultimately narrowing down his choice to football and athletics. When pressed to decide between the two, he opted for running.

"I miss football and the camaraderie that comes from being in a team," he admits.

"Yet, the beauty of athletics is that whatever you do, you're doing it for yourself. The more effort you put in the more likely you are to reach your targets. If things go wrong you've got no one to blame but yourself."

And Portelli has certainly achieved quite a lot of late. Fresh from collecting three medals at the Games for the Small States of Europe, he was one of the few bright spots of a track and field team that didn't perform up to expectations.

"What I was really looking for was my time," he says, repeating what is a mantra among athletes.

"I wanted good runs and good times. Of course, the fact that I won the medals was an added bonus, the cherry on the cake if you want."

What makes Portelli's achievements all the more remarkable is the knowledge that he switched events during the season. Predominantly a 400m runner, he suddenly decided to shift his attention to the lower sprints.

"Towards the end of last season we started working on different things and that led to the choice to focus on shorter distances," he said.

"On my part, I always considered the 400m as a sprint, so for me it was simply a case of doing what I did before but on a shorter distance. I have to say that my coach Vladimir Douchenkov planned the whole process brilliantly."

Whatever he did worked and helped to re-establish the credentials of this unassuming athlete who had come for something of a battering last year. Chosen to take part in the Olympics, what should have been the culmination of a dream ended up leaving him with a bad taste.

"The experience of the Olympics itself was great," he says.

"I think I learned a lot simply from being there. What I didn't like was the comments that were made afterwards. People who should know better came up with statements that I didn't think were fair.

"When I went out to compete, I knew that the athletes next to me were of world class stature. Even so, I was not overawed. If you don't have such attitude I don't think that you can achieve anything."

Next up for Portelli is the European Cup where he has been chosen in the team hailing from the GSSE group except Cyprus.

"It is an important event. For me it is an exciting competition even if it is difficult to keep your peak. We have been trying to tailor my training in such a way so that I can keep the good condition that I'm in," Portelli said.

This article originally appeared on the Times of Malta of the 16th of June 2009. Photo is by Darrin Zammit Lupi

[Featured Article] Sunday Circle: The Medal Man

Paul Grech Monday, June 1, 2009 , , ,


[Featured Article] Runaway Travel Magazine: Tour ta' Malta

Paul Grech Friday, May 1, 2009 , , ,


“Nesponu Generazzjoni Gdida ta’ Reffiegha”

Paul Grech Thursday, April 30, 2009 , ,

Fil-quccata ta’ dawk l-isport li jiksbu xi ftit tan-notorjeta kull erba’ snin matul l-Olimpijadi izda li mbaghad kullhadd jinsa dwarhom hem mil-weightlifting. Ghalkemm dan l-isport mhux nieqes mid-drama u kostantament jisforza l-atleti biex jeghlbu l-limiti taghhom, xorta mhux xi wiehed spettakolari u ghalhekk jonqos milli jigbed l-attenzjoni jekk ma’ jkunx hemm midalja Olimpika fin-nofs.

“Fejn tidhol il-partecipazzjoni, dak tal-Weightlifting mhux sport popolari gewwa Malta,” jammetti l-President tal-Malta Weightlifting Federation David Saliba. “Anke’ jekk hawn numru mhux hazin ta’ nies li jsegwu dan l-isport. Dan minkejja li huwa limitat ghal zewg avvenimenti ta’ kobor internazzjonali jigifieri l-Kampjonati Ewropej li jsiru f’April u dawk Mondjali li jsiru kull sena f’Novembru.”

“F’Malta huma tnejn ic-centri li fihom jigi prattikat il-weightlifting. Hemm il-Kumpless Sportiv tal-Kottonera kif ukoll fl-MCAST gewwa n-Naxxar. Pero’ huwa fil-pjan taghna li nifthu zewg centri wiehed fit-tramuntana tal-gzira u l-iehor gewwa Ghawdex.”

Il-holma hi li malli dan isehh tkompli tinfirex il-popolarita’ ta’ dan l-isport. Tama li hija wkoll ir-raguni wara l-organizazzjoni tal- European Small Nations Tournament li se jsir f’Malta fi tmiem din il-gimgha,

“Qed nippruvaw nesponu generazzjoni gdida ta’ reffiegha ghax-xena nternazzjonali,” kienet il-konferma ta’ Saliba. “Wara li ri-organizzajna l-mod li bih noperaw, il-Malta Weightlifting Federation issa qed ikolla tiffacja sfidi li gejjin min kull direzzjoni jigifieri: facilitajiet, kuntatti nternazzjonali u grupp ta’ atleti zghazagh li huma herqana li jtejbu r-rizultati taghhom”

“l-iSmall Nations Tournament huwa mahsub biex ikun l-ewwel pass fit-triq tal-partecipazzjoni nternazzjonali ghal kull reffiegh. Peress li qeghdin fil-Mediterran, Malta hija mdawwra b’uhud mil l-iktar pajjizi b’sahhithom tal-Weightlifting. Genwinament nemmnu li jekk naghtu l-opportunitajiet lil l-atleti taghna, dawn kapaci jilhqu l-livell mehtieg biex jikkompetu posittivament fil-qasam internazzjonali.”

F’din l-edizjoni se jkun hemm disa’ pajjizi – l-Lussemburgu, Monaco, San Marino, Cipru, Malta, l-Irlanda, Wales, Saarland u l-iSkozja – li b’kollox se jfissru hamsa u sittin partecipant bejn atleti u ufficjali.

“F’dawn l-ahhar tletin sena organizajna din il-kompetizzjoni hames darbiet. Jkolli nammetti li dik ta’ din id-darba huwa l-izghar numru ta’ pajjizi li rnexxielna nigbdu izda meta tqis is-sitwazzjoni finanzjarja nternazzjonali, ahna ninsghabu sodisfatti.”

L-istess bhal ma huma sodisfatti b’dak li sar s’issa anke’ jekk herqana li jkomplu jikbru u jitjiebu.

“Qed naghmlu hafna xoghol biex nistabilixxu iktar centri madwar il-gzira. Ghalkemm konxji mil l-imitazzjonijiet taghna u n-natura ta’ l-isport, ahna kunfidenti li n-numru ta’ partecipanti se jizdied.”

“l-isport tal-weightlifting irid ikun strettament supevizjonizzat specjalment fil-bidu hekk kif l-atleta jkun qed jitghallem it-teknika ta’ l-irfiegh. Prezentament ghandna tlett ghalliema kwalifikati biex jaghmlu dan. L-ghan taghna huwa li nzidu fuq dan in-numru billi nheggu reffiegha veterani biex jibdew jikkowcjaw u eventwalment jsiru ghalliema.”

“L-amministrazzjoni prezenti qed tohloq l-ambjent idejali biex isir dan kollu. Irid jghaddi z-zmien qabel ma’ nhkunu nistghu naraw il-frott ta’ din l-istrategija imma ahna ottimisti li eventwalment dan se jsir.”

Dan l-artiklu deher fil-harga tas-Sibt, 2 ta' Mejju, tal-GENSillum - This article appeared on the issue of IL-GENSillum of the 2nd of May.

Playing A Man's Game

Paul Grech Monday, April 13, 2009 ,
Football is a man's game. The only times that women should feature in the world of the beautiful game is either when they're at the side of their player boyfriends or else when they're watching a game. And, in the case of the latter, they probably only do this to check out players' bodies rather than for any real passion for the game. After all, it is well known that women don't understand the offside rule and cheer at all the wrong moments.

While such views might seem extremely chauvinistic, the truth is that they are also surprisingly widespread. Take FIFA president Sepp Blatter who, a couple of years back, famously claimed that women playing football should wear tighter outfits to make the game more interesting.

Despite such condescending views, however, the popularity of the women's game is on the increase. A professional league has just been re-established in America whilst the likes of England and France are closing the gap with the traditional European powerhouses of Norway and Germany thanks to a huge surge in participation.

In Malta it is a similar story with a league that has been thriving for the past decade and a national team that is getting better with each game. Yet the real signs of progress lie in the number of girls' teams that are popping up all over with the nurseries that previously used to cater exclusively for boys now starting to open up. That these girls will now have access to coaching from an early age should be the key to future success.

It is a completely different situation to when Maria Coppola was starting out some twenty years back. One of the pioneers of the women’s game in Malta, by playing at a professional level abroad she has achieved the sort of success that most of her male counterparts don’t even dream of.

“I always loved playing football,” she recounts. “I don’t know where the passion came from, even though my father used to take me to watch games. At the time there weren’t any girls’ teams so I was always playing against boys. I don’t think that the boys really noticed that much the fact that I was a girl, it was only a case of whether I could play or not. So that’s how I spent most of my childhood, playing football in grounds near where I lived.”

In hindsight, that could have been the making of her. Whilst there’s a lot to be said for today’s structured coaching systems, nothing beats the lessons one learns playing such ad-hoc games: they provide the ideal platform to practice until you perfect your skills. And, in Maria’s case, they exposed her to the more physical nature of the game which might not have been the case had she been playing with other girls.

Eventually, she graduated to an all girls’ team even though at the time the lack of players meant that the best they could hope for were five-a-side games. At the time, women playing football were still seen as some freaks. “People did find it strange that I was a girl playing football but I didn’t really mind. There were those who asked my parents why they were letting me play football but, thankfully, they never gave in. In fact, I owe my parents a lot because it would have been easy for them to tell me to stop yet they realized how much I loved playing and were happy for me to do so.”

If playing football was Maria’s passion, doing so abroad was a burning ambition. “I always wanted to play football at a higher level and that meant doing so overseas. At the time I didn’t know how I was going to get there but it was my aim.”

The opportunity to do so quickly presented itself. A talent scout spotted her playing and liked what he saw. He put forward the possibility of a sports scholarship in America and she promptly accepted. Not yet out of her teens, she was about to move to the other side of the world to follow her dream.

“It was a huge experience. I remember arriving in this massive airport without having a clue what I had to do and where I was to go. But I quickly found my bearings and the people where very helpful. On a personal level, I learned to be independent. In fact, if you ask me what is the most important lesson that I brought back with me, that is probably it.”

If the American experience was a great life lesson, it was just as successful on the playing front.

“Playing for the Redskins in Oklahoma, in 1996/97 I ranked as number one in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Division 1 polls during the regular season and made two straight appearances in the NAIA national tournament, with a best finish of third overall.”

“In 1998/99 we were the Southwest region champions at which point I switched to the Eagles selection where I enjoyed my best performances and was named among the all-regional best.”

“I was a good player but what made me stand out was the fact that I was left-footed. There aren’t many left sided midfielders which game me an advantage but I also put in a lot of hard work. I used to love training and I had to really do my best to keep on improving.”

Eventually, she returned to Malta where the women’s league was kicking off and played for a number of teams including Lija, Melita, Rabat and Hamrun. She even had a brief taste of national team football before setting off for another experience abroad.

“I had made contacts in France and in 2004 moved to Third Division side Le Peb. It was semi-professional level of football but I still enjoyed it a lot. It also opened up the possibility of new opportunities and indeed I went for a trial with top French side Paris St. Germain.”

Sadly, that is as far as it got. “Even before leaving for France I hadn’t been feeling well. There was nothing specifically wrong, but I simply used to feel tired quite faster. The doctors couldn’t find anything wrong and I put it down to over-training. Yet, as time went by, I started to feel worse.”

Things came to a head in France where she got so bad that she was rushed into hospital. “Eventually the doctors found out that I had meningitis. It was a very tough time being in a foreign country and not knowing what was wrong with you. Thank the Lord, I eventually came through it.”

Even so, her illness meant an abrupt end to her playing career. This, however, didn’t diminish her love of the game and, as had happened a decade earlier, another chance encounter meant that new opportunities opened up.

“I was enjoying a kick-about in the street when a man called Vince Laus approached me and asked if I was interested in coaching. He was in charge of the Under 14 side at Balzan Youths and was looking for an assistant. Up till that point, I had never thought about coaching but it was something that intrigued me so I accepted.”

As with her experience in America, Maria quickly found her bearings. “I immediately enjoyed the involvement in the coaching side and have to say that Balzan have been great with me. They allowed me to assist Vince both with the U14 and even with the U18. There’s not many clubs who would have allowed me such opportunities.”

“Vince eventually decided to leave the club but they still wanted to keep me on board so they offered me the opportunity of coaching the Under 7 side, something that I accepted and am very happy in doing.”

Is it possible for a woman to coach a man’s team, I enquire. “I don’t see the reason why not but, personally, I’m not making any plans. At Balzan there’s a very ambitious project in place to upgrade the facilities in collaboration with Lija Athletics which I’m looking forward to.”

“Above all, I’m simply happy to be involved with football.”

This article appeared in the April 2009 issue of Sunday Circle magazine

Going for Number One

For an island that is blessed with so many beaches, swimming is a hobby for many but a serious sport for very few. Indeed the aquatic sport of preference in Malta remains waterpolo, at least among men, with only a small fraction opting to focus on purely on swimming.

Even so, performances are improving and last year saw the first Maltese swimmers qualifying to the Olympics by right after hitting the pre-set qualification standards. That mark was achieved by the Australian born Ryan Gambin whose series of fast times have forced the rest of the field to raise their targets. So it is that in swimming, whereas athletes previously could rely on a local best to qualify now it is clear that they will have to hit the qualification marks in order to guarantee their place at the Olympics.

It is that ambition which should inspire the next generation of Maltese swimmers, a group of which set a whole host of new national and age category records in a meet in Berlin held last December. That these records – thirteen in total - were spread across a variety of age categories and distances further strengthens the belief that there is the raw material for local swimming to keep on improving.

Certainly one who formed part of that group and with every intention of keeping up his progress is Daniel Galea. In Germany he managed to trash a twelve year old record in the Group C age category with his 1:12,48 in the 100 metres breast-stroke being 0.48 seconds faster than the previous best. This was then followed up with another record in the 50 metres breast-stroke in a time of 00:32,79.

Yet that wasn’t enough. As soon as the new year was a few days old, he once again improved his time in the fifty metres breast-stroke, lowering it down to 00:32,56 and at the same time setting a new Group D record.

All of this might seem like the pedantic, statistic laden speak that is likely to excite sports addicts but leave anyone else indifferent. So let’s put it in another way: this is a kid who broke two national age category records in mid-December and, rather than partying his way through the Christmas holidays as most of his peers did, kept on training hard so that at the first opportunity he could be in a position to break yet another record and keep on his progression.

Because that is part of the story of so many Maltese sports-people that never seems to get told: they work extremely hard to obtain whatever results they manage to achieve. This is immediately apparent as Daniel starts explaining his training schedule.

“Each day I wake up at five in the morning so as to get ready for my two-hour training session that kicks off at six. By 8:15 I’m at school until 3 in the afternoon where, after a quick snack, I’m back to the pool for another two hour training session. At around seven I start my school work and studies before packing up – dead tired – at around 8:30.”

It is a hard slog for anyone, let alone a teenager who has to find the self-discipline to keep it up for eleven months of the year regardless of the weather. Yet, somehow, Daniel manages to do so for the sport that he clearly loves thanks also to the support that he receives.

“My parents help me a lot because they’re always driving me around. At the end of the day, they know that this is what makes me happy so they’re more than willing to help out. They’ve been a tremendous influence on my career, though. There’s also my National team coach Andy Colburn as well as fellow breast stroker Andrea Agius who helps me a lot and is a great inspiration.”

His parents have been an influence in Galea’s career in more ways than one: swimming for Galea was almost a natural choice seeing that it was his father’s sport.

“I used to go to see my father swimming and decided that it was something that I wanted to give it a shot. So, when I was six, my parents enrolled me in the Skolasport scheme and I immediately felt at home. Soon afterwards, the people in charge of the swimming program approached my father and told him that they felt that I had a natural ability for the sport so from then on I joined the Sliema ASC swimming team. It all took off from there.”

Nine years on, he’s still as hooked as ever. “I love the feeling of competition,” he says, explaining what it is that he enjoys most. “I love racing and the rush that you get as soon as you jump into the water during a race. It is extremely relaxing and, for me, a great way to get rid of the tension that I might have from school and study.”

For someone his age – fifteen and with O Levels coming up – school and study can never be away from his thoughts. “There’s no allowance for the fact that you are training at a national level. You get an enormous amount of home-work and things to study so it can be hard to juggle everything.”

From his words and, more pertinently, the feelings of anguish coming through in the tone of his voice it is clear that this is something that really bothers Daniel. “After two hard training sessions and a day at school it is hard to find the energy to study but you have to do it. At the end of the day, I tend to crash out – literally – as tiredness takes over. The weekend is the same because I have to study as much as possible then meaning that I don’t normally go out.”

So has he ever thought of giving up? Does he ever wonder why he puts himself through all of this?

“Quitting? Yes, I often think about it,” he admits. “But then I think of all the races that I’ve won, all the records that I’ve broken and all the joy that I’ve felt and I decide that it is all worth it. Well worth it.”

If the thoughts of past successes fend away the inclination to quit, there is another goal that pushes Daniel on in his search for constant improvement: “I want to go to the Olympics. I want to be number one.”

And therein lies the path to success. If Daniel – and those like him – can keep their focus and determination strong enough to keep on searching to achieve their goals, then they will make it. No longer would there be the need to look abroad for a ‘Maltese’ athlete of a good enough caliber: those being bred at home would be more than good enough.

This article was featured in the March 2009 issue of Sunday Circle magazine.

A Week of Positives for Maltese Cycling

Paul Grech Friday, April 3, 2009 , ,
Whichever way you look at it, these past few days were simply superb for local cycling.

Not only has the Tour ta' Malta 2009 been an astounding success, breathing new life into the sport and showing positive signs for the future, but there were also good showings by Maltese cyclists.

"I felt that I was in a good condition so I had a feeling that I would do well," David Galea said after finishing the Tour as first Maltese and sixth overall.

"This was a very tough race. The level was high and there were some quality cyclists here. The Maltese all worked very well together. Even though myself, Etienne Bonello and Maurice Formosa all hail from different clubs we helped each other in a way to ensure that we finished as high up the final table as possible."

Stephanie Magri, the first Maltese in the women's race and seventh overall, expressed similar sentiments.

"You're always looking for that little bit more," she replied when asked whether the overall result was to her satisfaction.

"Yet, I think that I've done well enough. My aims were to win the trophy for first Maltese woman and to break into the top ten both of which I've managed to do. This wouldn't have been possible without the support of a lot of people not least my coach Steve Wright."

Two years ago, Irishman Ryan Connor blew away the rest of the field with three days of superb cycling. Based on that performance, Connor started as favourite this year but it soon became apparent that the Sicilian cyclists he had beaten last time round were better prepared this time.

At first, it was Francesco Pizzo who laid down the marker by dominating the time trial but an unfortunate accident on the second day saw him falling down the rankings with eventual winner Francesco Guccione, and second-placed Masimo Rubino, stepping up.

"I was optimally prepared for this race," Guccione, 22, said.

"I wanted to do well as last time round I was frustrated with myself because I didn't come here in the best condition. The team worked hard for me. I always found them when I needed them."

The Dutch have a fine tradition in cycling and it is easy to see why as a selection of promising female cyclists from the north of Holland left their mark here.

The most impressive was Anne de Wildt, 19. She dominated from start to finish, only letting up towards the end of the final leg. Second two years ago, this victory was clearly something she wanted to notch up.

"I wanted to win. The route was good and suited my strengths perfectly," she said.

As with Guccione, de Wildt made certain that the work of her team-mates didn't go unheralded.

"Claudia Koster helped me a lot," she said of the second-placed cyclist overall.

"For most of the Tour I was running against the clock but it was important to have Claudia alongside me."

Such was de Wildt's dominance that it brought memories of when 'unknown' Briton Nicole Cooke won the Tour in 2000. Cooke is now Olympic and world champion and there are hopes that de Wildt could follow a similar path.

If that becomes the case, then it would be a feather in the Tour ta' Malta's proverbial hat.

"This race gives local cyclists the opportunity to compete on a high level," Malta Cycling Federation president John Zammit said before revealing that work has already kicked off for the 2010 Tour.

"Already we are having enquiries about next year. In fact, there was the head of the Sicilian regional cycling federation who has talked of a larger team the next time."

All this, apart from the obvious boost to tourism, also ensures that next year there will be the 16th Tour ta' Malta.

Maltese cycling's positive week, it seems, just keeps on getting better and better.

This article appeared on the Times of Malta of Monday, 30th March 2009. Photo courtesy of Ruben Buhagiar.

Play Up Pompey!

Paul Grech ,
That of Portsmouth Football Club might not be one of the names that is immediately associated with English football. They don’t rank with the Manchester United, Liverpool or Arsenal as one of the game’s traditional giants, nor can they lay claim to a reputation built in recent decades like Nottingham Forest or Leeds.

Yet there’s a lot to say in favour of Portsmouth FC. It is a friendly club for one which, in an era where money and finance have killed off the soul of the game, is not something to be taken lightly. They also play their games in a stadium – Fratton Park – that embodies a traditional English football ground, one that is surrounded by residential houses and pubs.

Indeed, the sight of fans streaming along the roads towards the stadium as kick-off time approaches is one of the most fascinating during a brief trip designed around taking in a game between the home side and Aston Villa.

This hasn’t been a good season for Portsmouth. An FA Cup win last year, a historic success that came after almost seventy years of waiting, as well as a good showing in the league gave rise to hope that bigger things were to come. Last summer’s arrival of England striker Peter Crouch for a club record fee of £11 million seemed to confirm their ambitions.

Sadly, it hasn’t worked out as hoped. Charismatic manager Harry Redknapp was lured away by his boyhood heroes at Tottenham Hotspurs whilst key players in the form of Sulley Muntari, Lassana Diarra and Jermaine Defoe were sold off. Each one made the club a significant profit but the team suffered from their departure.

So hope isn’t high on this particular evening, especially as Aston Villa are in the middle of a formidable run that has seen them break into the top four in the league. They might not say it, but they’ve come here to win.

Football, of course, was meant to be played on a Saturday afternoon but there is something undeniably special about night games. Perhaps it is the floodlights or else the day spent thinking about the game that heighten expectation among the fans.

And the fans truly rise to the occasion; at least they do on this day. With their club struggling, the bitter cold inviting them to stay at home and the economic crisis dictating that they limit their expenditure, they have every excuse to stay away. Instead, there’s hardly an empty seat.

From the start, they set off with Pompey Chimes. There’s no need to worry if you’ve never heard this chant before because the words are fairly simply – play up Pompey, Pompey play up – and sung to the tune of Westminister Chimes. And if even that’s not enough, after a few minutes of constant singing by the home sides of the ground is bound to imprint it into your memory for years to come.

Indeed, this song deserves more than a passing mention. The Chimes as a football song first got a mention in the Official Handbook of Portsmouth FC printed in 1900-01 making it the oldest football chant that there is. It certainly is catchy, which probably explains its longevity.

It also has an impact on the players, and the boys in blue set off in determined fashion. Admittedly, their attacks aren’t the slickest but they put enough pressure to cause Villa serious problems. They, rather than their opposition, look like the team who is towards the top of the table.

Then comes the sucker punch. Villa launch an attack, the ball falls to debutant Emile Heskey and his shot finds the back of the net. One nil to Villa.

For a brief instant there is complete silence as everyone absorbs what they’ve just seen. Then the visiting fans burst to life, launching into a song heralding the name of their new hero. As for the rest, it takes a couple of seconds more to take in the sheer injustice that a game of football can dish out. Yet not even that last long because, sensing that their players are as deflated as they are, the fans launch once again into song.

And that is the most impressive aspect of the whole evening. For the rest of the game, the Portsmouth players pile on the pressure as the ground, bar a corner filled with Villa fans, urges them on. Clearly, they deserve to take something out of this game and the players want to repay their fans. Yet the harder they try to less luck seems to smile on them. They are visibly frustrated by all this and eventually this gets to Nadir Belhadj who stupidly gets himself sent off.

That practically kills Portsmouth’s hopes off, even though they keep pressing on. Soon the game is over and its nervous glances at the league table to asses just how they’re doing. It doesn’t look good and a relegation battle lies in wait.

Even so, there’s not a single criticism for any of the players. Instead they’re cheered off the pitch, giving the impression that it is the home side that won. The players did their best and, even though that wasn’t good enough to guarantee a result, it is what the fans want to see.

Because that’s what the game of football is about: passion. That is what drives the fans to keep on following their team irrespective of results, weather and finance. It is what people want to see from their players, perhaps even more than skill. And passion is clearly something which there’s an abundance of in Portsmouth. Which, above all else, makes this a special club.

This trip was made possible courtesy of Air Malta and Portsmouth FC. Air Malta is the official flight partner of Portsmouth FC. This article first appeared in the April issue of Skylife magazine.


[Featured Article] Skylife Magazine: Play Up Pompey!

Paul Grech Wednesday, April 1, 2009 , ,


[Football] X'Jonqoshom iz-Zghazagh Maltin

Paul Grech Tuesday, January 20, 2009 , ,
Matul dawn il-hmistax-il sena li ilhi nikteb dwar l-isport kemm il-darba gejt mitlub nattendi laqghat li fihom, b’hafna pompa, jithabbar xi ftehim esklussiv bejn klabb Malti u xi iehor barrani.

Tant li issa sirt kwazi nbassar dak li jkun se jigri: l-ewwel ikun hemm it-thabbir tal-ftehim – haga li generalment issehh fil-presenza ta’ xi amministratur minuri mill-klabb barrani – fost hafna kliem dwar kemm se jkun ta’ beneficju dan il-pass, imbaghad ikun organizzat xi kamp zghir tat-tahrig ghat-tfal Maltin u mbaghad…u mbaghad xejn. Donnu jintesa kollox u l-beneficji li tant ikun intqal dwarhom qisu mhu xejn.

Il-ftehim bejn in-nursery ta’ Birkirkara u l-klabb ta’ Atalanta pero’ kisret dawn l-impressjonijiet kollha ghax f’Dicembru li ghadda, ghat-tielet sena konsekuttiva, tlett kowcis mill-klabb Taljan – Massimo Biffi, Luca Silvani u Matteo Moranda - kienu Malta biex jtellghu sessjonijiet ta’ tahrig ghat-tfal tal-klabb Karkariz.

Fost it-tlieta, Biffi huwa l-iktar veteran, kowc tal-gowlkipers b’hafna stejjer x’jirrakkonta dwar karriera twila li ratu jkun il-preparatur ta’ nies bhal Cristian Abbiati. Ghalhekk m’hi l-ebda sorpriza meta huwa jiehu r-riedni tal-konversazzjoni. “Birkirkara avvicinawna biex ikun hemm ftehim bejn iz-zewg klabbs u wara perjodu ta’ studju ddeciedejna li naccettaw. Harisna lejn hafna affarijiet, mhu l-inqas is-serjeta tal-klabb u l-attitudni tal-kowcis. Nahseb li huwa certifikat tajjeb ghan-nursery ta’ Birkirkara li ahna accettajna li nidhlu f’dan il-ftehim ghaliex huma l-uniku klabb barra mil l-Italja li ahna ghandna ftehim simili mieghu.”

Unur tassew specjalment meta tqis it-tradizjoni ta’ l-Atalanta fil-futbol Taljan. Ghaliex, filwaqt li Coppa Italia mirbuha fl-1963 tibqa’ l-uniku unur nazzjonali ta’ dan il-klabb min Bergamo, mis-settur taz-zghazagh ta’ l-Atalanta hargu talenti bhal Roberto Donadoni, Alessandro Tacchinardi, Tomas Locatelli, Cristian u Damiano Zenoni, Riccardo Mantolivo u Giampaolo Pazzini.

Tant hu prolifiku s-settur taz-zghazagh taghhom li huwa meqjus l-aqwa wiehed fl-Italja u s-seba’ wiehed fl-Ewropa meta tqis in-numru ta’ plejers li hargu minnu u li jilghabu fl-oghla divizjoni tal-pajjiz.

Ovvja ghalhekk il-mistoqsija: x’inhu s-sigriet? “Is-sigriet, jekk tista’ ssejahlu hekk, hu li r-responsabli tas-settur taz-zghzagh ta’ l-Atalanta – Mino Favini – jishaq li min eta’ zghira nahdmu hafna fuq it-teknika tal-plejers. Hemm ukoll hafna fiducja fil-kowcis fejn isir hafna xoghol biex ikollna l-ahjar preparaturi possibli, nies li jafu jahdmu maz-zghazagh u jafu l-ahjar mod li bih jaghlmuhom kif ghandha tintlghab il-loghba.”

“Naturalment, jghin hafna li bhala socjeta, l-Atalanta hija wahda li min dejjem adottat strategija fejn taghti spazju liz-zghazagh. B’hekk meta plejer jigi maghna jaf li jekk hu jahdem bizzejjed mela se jinghata cans ma’ l-ewwel tim. Ma’ klabbs ohra forsi dan mhux il-kaz u ghalhekk ix-xoghol li jkun qed isir mis-settur taz-zghazagh ikun inqas apparenti.”

Tghin ukoll xibka ta’ osservaturi mxerda madwar l-Italja bil-ghan li jindikaw l-ahjar talent. “Hafna mill-plejers taghna jigu miz-zona ta’ Bergamo pero’ ngibu plejers mill-bqija ta’ l-Italja. Mhux dejjem ikun facli ghalihom ghaliex dawn ikunu zghazagh ta’ erbatax, hmistax-il sena li qed jinfirdu mill-familja taghhom ghal l-ewwel darba.”

“Pero’ ahna naghmlu dak kollu li nistghu biex nghinuhom. Ghandna psikologa li l-hin kollu ssegwihom biex tara kif inhu l-istat mentali taghhom u bhala kowcis inkunu qed inharsu lejn il-mod li bih huma jkunu qed jagixxu.”

Hawn tqum diskussjoni dwar l-importanza ta’ l-element mentali fil-futbol – “hawn plejers li uzaw is-sahha mentali taghhom biex ipattu ghan-nuqqasijiet fizici taghhom” – jintervjeni Moranda. Hawn ukoll, naslu ghar-raguni wara l-presenza tal-kowcis ta’ l-Atalanta f’pajjizna.

“Ahna nigu biex naraw kif miexi x-xoghol fil-klabb ta’ Birkirkara u x’qed jaghmlu l-kowcis ta’ dan il-klabb. Pero’ naturalment xogholna huwa wkoll li naraw x’talent hawn halli jekk ikun hemm xi hadd tal-kalibru li ta’ l-Atalanta mela nkunu nistghu navvicinawh.” Huwa ghalhekk li kull min mar jara t-Tournament tal-Milied organizzat min-nursery ta’ Birkirkara setgha jara t-tlett kowcis fl-attendenza prattikament ghal kull loghba.

S’issa, hadd ghadu ma’ gibdilhom l-attenzjoni. “Nghidlek id-dritt, qabel ma’ gejt hsibt li l-livell se jkun aghar milli hu,” Biffi jammetti. “Teknikament nahseb li mhux hazin, anzi nghid li tajbin, u min sena ghal l-ohra qed naraw titjieb gradwali li huwa fattur posittiv hafna. Izda s’issa ma rajna l-hadd li jaf ikun tajjeb bizzejjed ghalina.”

Din li, teknikament, il-plejers Maltin huma tajbin spiss tintqal. Izda, allura, jekk dan huwa l-kaz kif inhi li l-ebda plejer mhu tal-livell li jridu huma? “Trid tara wkoll il-livell agonistiku. Mod jien nilghab tajjeb meta l-plejers ta’ madwari qed jaghtuni l-ispazju u mod kompletament differenti meta jien irrid nilghab daqstant iehor tajjeb bi plejers jipressawni. Il-kapacita li taghmel l-istess mossi imma iktar malajr u iktar taht pressjoni hija dik li taghmel id-differenza.”

Hija din il-kapacita’ li, apparentament, hija nieqsa miz-zghazagh Maltin anke’ jekk Biffi jishaq li “kull sena qed naraw titjib”. Ma jidirx it-tip ta’ karattru li johrog b’kumment simili biex jimpresjoni jew jikkuntenta, u ghalhekk ghandu jittiehed bhala kumpliment. Wara kollox, huwa dan il-beneficju ewlieni ta’ zjarat bhal dawn.

Wara l-intervista Franco Agius, wiehed mill-kowcis ewlenin ta’ Birkirkara, jistqarr kemm jitghalmu mis-sessjonijiet tat-tahrig tat-Taljani. “Ninnotaw kif jagixxu u l-mod li bih ibiddlu t-tahrig. Impossibli ma’ titghallimx minghandhom meta tqis ix-xoghol li huma jaghmlu ta’ kulljum.” U hija b’dawn il-lezzjonijiet li jiehdu l-kowcis Maltin – iktar milli b’dawk li jkunu qed jiehdu t-tfal waqt is-sessjonijet – li l-livell ikun qed jghola.

Dan l-artiklu gie ppublikat fl-edizjoni tas-17 ta' Jannar tal-GENSillum / This article was published in the17th January 2009 issue of IL-GENSillum.


[Athletics / Atletika] Intervista ma' Tony Chircop

Paul Grech Saturday, January 17, 2009 , , ,
Jekk tuza l-unuri moghtija fi tmiem is-sena bhala l-parametru li jiggudika jekk sport kienx success jew le fit-tnax-il xhar ta qabel, mela l-konkluzjoni tieghek se tkun li l-2008 kienet wahda fallimentari ghal l-isport ta' l-atletika.

Dan wara li l-ebda atleta ma rnexxielu jnizzel ismu jew isimha fil-lista ta' dawk li l-Kumitata Olimpiku Malti ghazel bhala l-iktar sportivi li marru tajjeb is-sena li ghadha kif intemmet. Nuqqas li jispikka l-aktar meta tqis ir-regolarita li biha dan l-isport kien prezenti fil-passat.

Imma r-realta hija differenti ghaliex dak hu kejl zbaljat: is-success ma jitqiesx biss mir-rizultati ta' l-individwi imma minflok b'dak li jkun sar b'mod komplessiv mil l-isport partikolari kollu.

Dik certament hi l-ideja ta’ Tony Chircop, president tal-Malta Amateur Association.

“Is-sena li ghaddiet ma kienx hemm Loghob tal-Pajjizi z-Zghar izda dan ma jfissirx li kienet sena nieqsa mis-success,” huwa stqarr waqt intervista ma’ Sportiv. “Anzi ahna ghandna numru ta’ kompetizzjonijiet fejn il-livell huwa sahansitra oghla min dak tal-GSSE.”

“Ahna ta’ kull sena jkollna l-Indoor u l-Outdoor Championships jew fuq livell Ewropej inkella fuq wiehed Mondjali. Niehdu sehem ukoll fil-European Cup b’tim kompost min atleti Maltin flimkien ma’ uhud mil-Liechenstein, Monaco u San Marino, anke jekk il-maggoranza jkunu atleti Maltin. Hawn ikun hemm timijiet ta’ kalibru oghli bhal ma’ huma l-Awstrija, l-Izrael, l-Albanija u Cipru. Din is-sena rajna titjib fil-klassifikazzjoni miksuba specjalment fost in-nisa fejn spiccajna s-seba min erbatax.”

Is-success f’din il-kompetizzjoni jwassal ghal mistoqsija jekk wasalx iz-zmien li jkun hemm tim maghmul esklussivament min atleti Maltin.

“Min din is-sena, l-format ta’ din il-kompetizzjoni nbidel fejn issa saret il-European Team Cup u l-punti se jitqassmu fuq id-dixxiplini kollha. Dan ifisser li jrid ikollok tim aktar komplet u jekk ahna konnha qeghdin nahsbu li niehdu sehem b’tim Malti mela issa se jkollna nipposponu dik id-decizjoni.”

Kompetizjoni ohra li qed tikber fl-importanza hija l-International Meet li l-MAAA qed taghmel appuntament ta’ kull sena. “Din is-sena kellna interess qawwi u livell gholi minghand timijiet barranin. Naturalment dan jghin l-atleti Maltin ghax ikunu jistghu jesperjenzaw livell ta’ kompetizzjoni tajba gewwa pajjizhom stess.”

Izda dan ghadu biss bidu. “Kunfidenti li l-edizjoni ta’ l-2009 se tkun sahansitra ahjar. Qed naraw interess dejjem jikber min timijiet barranin Diga hemm timijiet mil l-iSvezja u Franza li kkonfermati flimkien mat-tim nazzjnali ta’ Wales u slezzjoni ta’ Northern Athletics mil l-Ingilterra. Dawn barra t-timijiet min Tunis, l-Egittu u l-Libja li dejjem ikunu mistednin. U l-applikazzjonijiet l-hin kollu dehlin.”

“Cert li dan se jkun ta’ preparazzjoni tajba ghal-Loghob tal-Pajjizi z-Zghar.”

Kompetizjoni ohra li matul is-sena li ghaddiet tat sodisfazzjon kbir li l-atletika kienet dik tal-FISEC.

“Kuntent hafna b’dak li ghamlu l-atleti taghna,” kompla Chircop. “B’mod partikolari kien hemm Michael Fraser, l-atleta mwieled l-Ingilterra imma ta’ dixxendenza Maltija, li kien rivelazzjoni kbira fl-400m.”

Dak ta’ Fraser idahhalna f’argument iehor, wiehed li jdur madwar l-impatt li jista’ jkollhom dawn l-atleti fuq dawk lokali.

“Ahna naghmlu kundizzjoni – u li mhux kullhadd jaghmilha – li dawn l-atleti jkollhom passaport Malti. Iktar min hekk jien ma’ nistghax naghmel. Wara kollox, jekk xi hadd jigi fuqi u jghidli li ghandu passaport Malti mela jien m’ghandi l-ebda raguni biex inzommhom milli jikkompetu ghal Malta.”

Hawn Chircop jammetti li hemm iktar atleti li qed jesprimu xewqa simili. “Bhalissa qed insewgi atleta ta’ dixxendenza Maltija li jghix l-Awstalja. Huwa esprima interess qawwi li jigri ghal Malta fl-ispecjlita tieghu li hija l-400m fejn nahseb li huwa sahansitra ahjar min Fraser. Jekk huwa jigri ghal Malta, nahseb li se jkollna possibilitajiet kbar fil-400m relay,”

Izda huwa hawn li tidhol id-diffikulta ghaliex f’Malta diga hawn erba’ atleti ta’ livell tajjeb f’din l-ispecjalita. “Li nixtieq nara hu li l-atleti jkunu lesti jippruvaw specjalitajiet ohra. Per ezempju, filwaqt li ghandna abbundanza ta’ talent fl-400m donnu kullhadd jibza mill-400m hurdles. Nemmen li l-atleti kollha taghna kapaci jilhqu l-kwalifikazzjoni li hemm ghal din l-ispecjalita ghal Loghob tal-Pajjizi z-Zghar.”

Fattur posittiv li johrog mill-kuntatt ta’ Chircop ma’ atleti li jigru barra min Malta hija l-konferma li tohrog dwar it-talent li ghandna f’pajjizna. “Kont qed inhares lejn ir-rizultati ta’ l-atleti zghar fl-Awstralja u l-hinijiet miksuba mil l-atleti taghna huma ferm ahjar minnhom. Id-differenza tinsghab f’meta jilhqu l-erbatax-il sena ghax min hemm jibda johrog distakk fil-livell ta’ l-atleti. Nahseb li wasal iz-zmien li jsir studju serju biex naraw x’nistghu naghmlu halli nsibu risposta ghal din il-kwistjoni.”

L-assocjazzjoni qeghda tara x’jista’ jsir fejn jidhol il-gir fit-toroq.

“Barra t-trek ahna niehdu hsieb ukoll ir-Road Running u din is-sena kellna rizultati tajbin. Qed naraw kif nistghu ntejjbu dawn ir-rizultati tant li waqqafna kumitat apposta biex johrog b’idejat halli dawn jitjiebu.”

“Qed nippruvaw ukoll nincentivawhom biex jikkompetu fit-trek. Ilu sitt snin ma jkollna atleta Malti li jiehu sehem fil-long distance fil-Loghob tal-Pajjizi z-Zghar u qed nittamaw li xi wiehed min dawn l-atleti jirnexxielu jbiddel dan”

Anke’ hawn Chircop jixtieq jara atleti jippruvaw affarijiet godda. “Ghandna atleti tajbin fil-5000m u l-10,000m izda hadd minnhom ma jipprova t-3,000m steeplechase.”

Certu affarijiet, pero’ qeghdin jinbidlu. “Ricentament organizzazjna cross country ghat-tfal ta’ l-iskejjel u kellna rispons fenomenali b’il fuq min 400 tifel u tifla. Dawn jaghtina hafna kuragg u qed naraw kif nistghu nergghu norganizzaw xi haga simili filwaqt li ntejbu fuq dawn ir-rizultati.”

Ir-rizultati jitjiebu wkoll grazzi ghax-xoghol ta’ l-atleti u l-isforz qatt ma jonqos. “Filwaqt li hafna sports ohra jieqfu waqt il-vaganzi tal-Milied, ahna gibna l-kowc Ingliz Mike McFarlance fil-gimgha tal-Milied biex l-isprinters u l-long jumpers taghna jkunu jistghu jithargu mieghu.”

Ir-raguni ghal dan hija ovvja: dik li jkun hemm l-ahjar preparament possibli ghal-Loghob tal-Pajjizi z-Zghar.

“Il-mira tagha naturalment hija dik li nikkompetu bl-iktar tim b’sahhtu possibli f’kemm jista’ jkun events. Mill-GSSE se johorgu wkoll dawk l-atleti li ha jmorru fil-Mediterranean Games fejn ahna se nipprovaw li kull min jibah midalja jmur Pescara. L-istess jghodd ghal_Euroepean Team Cup fejn se nipprovaw immorru bl-iktar tim komplet possibli.”

“Hemm ukoll il-European Youth Olympic Forum li qed naghtuh importanza kbira ghaliex minnu johorgu l-elite athletes ta’ ghada. Iz-zghazagh dejjem jibqghu important hafna ghalina. Is-sena li ghaddiet morna Crystal Palace u gibna rizultati tajbin. Morna wkoll b’tim Brno kif saret it-tradizjoni taghna, anke’ jekk fil-verita qed nippruvaw insibu kompetizzjoni ahjar.”

U hija dik it-tfittxija kontinwa ghat-titjib li qed tissarraf fis-successi fl-atletika, jghidu x’jghidu l-unuri moghtija.

Din l-intervista dehret fil-harga ta' Dicembru tar-rivista Sportiv / This interview was published in the December issue of the magazine Sportiv.
Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer