David BarnwellComment

THE BAND MUST PLAY: VALLETTA V FLORIANA

David BarnwellComment

As I enter the gates and walk through to the press seats of the Ta’Qali National Stadium I am instantly overwhelmed by the noise coming from the stands below. To my right, white and red flags, banners, smoke bombs, torn paper, and the distinct sound of brass bands playing. To my left, an almost identical scene of widespread havoc, only the colors on this side are kept in white and grass green. It’s ten minutes before kickoff of the Valletta vs. Floriana derby in the miniature island state of Malta, and the atmosphere is really getting there.

The Valletta-Floriana derby is the biggest game tiny Malta can muster. It is also one of the smallest local derbies in the football world. The crowd hardly ever reaches the 10,000 mark – even on a day like this, the first day of spring, with a potential league decider on the line.

The two clubs, rivals for as long as anyone can remember, are located just minutes from each other on an island of just 400,000 inhabitants and where everything is literally 20 minutes away by car. Valletta are the capital’s side, Floriana are the suburban scoundrels. In reality, however, it can be hard for a foreigner to understand how two rival clubs can exist within what is virtually spitting distance from each other. The Racing-Independiente rivalry in the Avellaneda Buenos Aires suburb comes to mind as a somewhat similar derby setup, only of course on larger, and by all means incomparable scale.

This rivalry is nonetheless very real.

Founded 1894, Floriana FC is the oldest and most successful club in Maltese football history with 25 league titles and numerous other trophies. Their green colors are a remnant of a number of friendship matches played against the Royal Dublin Fusiliers in 1904-05. Following the last match, the two sides swapped shirts, and Floriana adopted the green-white colors of their opponents. To this day, the club is still known as Tal-Irish, or simply The Greens.

White and red Valletta FC, on the other hand, represent a more modern and perhaps less romantic side to Maltese football. The club was officially founded in 1943 as a modern merger between three clubs from the capital area, and has managed to win 20 league titles since then. Today, it has become a dominant force in the Maltese Premier League, enjoying a large fan base both within the city’s walls and around the Maltese islands.

“These teams have been rivals for decades,” Kevin Azzopardi, the sports editor of the Times of Malta, tells me as I meet up with him at a café in central Valletta. “It’s the best we have here in Malta, it’s has really become the most important game on the islands.”  That may not mean a lot to outsiders. Malta is by all measures a tiny place, and its football will never attract headlines in mainland Europe. The Premier League is semi-professional, and several top-flight players are dependent on their day jobs for additional income. On the international stage, the Maltese national team has never finished anything but dead last in any qualifying group.

The diminutive status of the national team might offer an explanation for the passion surrounding this particular game. While many supporters find it difficult to stir up emotions for the country colors, the club sides offer a convenient alternative to dive into the fanaticism and devotion every football fan needs and loves. “The clubs have large followings all across Malta,” Azzopardi says. “It’s easier for people to get carried away in these games.” Foreigners often get carried away, too, Azzopardi says. To underline his point, he tells me the story of a production crew from Manchester United TV, who came to do a portrait on Jordi Cruyff during his last spell as a professional and playing assistant manager with Valletta in the 2009-10 season.

“The producer of the program came to me and told me about his experience at the game,” Azzopardi says, proudly weighing his words. “He said that nowhere had he experienced a roar like the one from the Valletta fans when they scored against Floriana.” “To me, that means something special, to have someone come from abroad and have this type of an experience.”

The taxi driver taking me to the stadium shows me how this is indeed very true. As he takes me through the rural landscape to the center of the island and the national stadium venue, he can only name a few players from the national team. But he talks eagerly about his love for Floriana. He speaks of past games, and most particularly about last season’s cup final, in which his club took home its first piece of silverware in 18 years after a last-minute 1-0 win against, well, Valletta.

“I cried that day,” he says, as he takes both hands off the wheel and holds them to his face to demonstrate. “Everyone thought Valletta would win, but we showed why we are the best club in Malta. The players, the fans, no one stopped believing. It was beautiful.”

National team captain Michael Mifsud is one of few Maltese players who have gone off to pursue a professional career outside of Malta. Now playing for Valletta FC, 30-year-old Mifsud has a past in clubs like Kaiserslautern, Coventry and Barnsley. He has played in numerous bigger games, including another Lilliputian derby in the Norwegian league between Vålerenga and Lillestrøm, where he spent some of the best years of his career. A national relic, he has also played 86 national team games and is the nation’s all-time top scorer with 32 international goals.  Still, this encounter remains special.

“As a Maltese, there is something very special about playing this game,” Mifsud tells me as we meet up in front of the MFA’s training ground, next to the Ta’Qali. He has come here to join the rest of the national team for a casual afternoon training session.   “The atmosphere is more intense than in most other games that I’ve played. These people, they really dislike each other. It’s been like that forever,” he adds.  “I noticed it when I came back to play in Valletta. In most of the other big games I’ve played, the fans direct their energy towards the pitch, the players, the coach - - whatever. Here, they will spend most of the game insulting each other.”

Back at the Ta’Qali, I leave my seat, and go on to snap a few photos of supporters from both sides. The noise is deafening as I walk through the stands, and neither group shows any sign of slowing down as the game gets underway. By half time, Valletta are up 2-0, and The Citizens’ fans are taunting their rivals mercilessly. Accompanied by the brass band’s pumping, Floriana’s stand is reminded of their role as a “carpet suburb” used only to bolster the capital and its city gates.  The greens retaliate with chants of absent fathers and questionable family relations. It’s an old taunt that dates back to times when British military frequented the capital, leaving behind a “genetic mark” on its population.

The green ultras continue like this, even as the chances for a late comeback disappear as the minutes go by. Their brass band, too, keeps blasting out evergreens for sore throats and clapping hands to follow.   The chants continue flying, even as the referee blows his final whistle. Local police are alert. If given a chance, some ultras will pick a fight.   The victory will almost surely mean that Valletta will go on to capture the league title for the 21st time in the club’s history. Floriana, on the other hand, will have nothing left to play for this season. But by no means is this end.

Outside the stadium the afternoon sun has set in, bathing the surrounding green-yellow hills in an almost golden shine. As busses packed with jubilant Valletta supporters roll away, I manage to catch up with a member of the Floriana brass band, who wishes only to be referred to as Paul.   “They may have won this one,” he says with what is just a small sigh of resignation. “But we will take the next one, and if not, the one after that. Us Maltese, we live for this game. This is why we come here again and again. If not, we might as well give up.”  His words play wonderfully with what I’ve just seen on the pitch. This game, non-existent to virtually anyone outside these islands, encompasses just about everything football is supposed to be about. It’s pure, unspoiled, and real – a story of passion, fight, dedication, love.

“I’ll always be here,” Paul says, pointing to the gates with the tip of his trombone before he turns to his car. “No matter what happens, and no matter what anyone might think, we’ll always be playing for our boys.”

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