“Nesponu Generazzjoni Gdida ta’ Reffiegha”

Unknown 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

Unknown 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

Unknown 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!

Unknown ,
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!

Unknown Wednesday, April 1, 2009 , ,

Copyright 2010 Paul Grech: Writer