Malta – Italia 0-2, 1986
In 1986-‘87, Malta played six matches in the European Championship qualifying group. It was an important period for the national team which had made great strides under the guidance of Gencho Dobrev.
The first match against Sweden, however, revealed all our team’s old failings.
Malta started well and up to the 38th minute the scoresheet was still blank. Then came a harmless-looking cross which goalkeeper Ray Mifsud misjudged. In came Nilson who lobbed into the penalty area where Hysen was waiting to head home.
The soft goal broke the confidence of the Maltese and when Magnusson scored the second the game was all but over.
The Swedes added three more goals before the referee signalled the end of the game.
A crowd of 20,000 eager supporters filled the terraces of the National Stadium to watch the biggest football spectacle since England’s historic visit in the 70s.
This time Malta’s opponents were Italy. Needless to say, the match was given a huge build-up in the local media. Once again, the Maltese were split into two camps.
The Malta squad in 1986-’87. Back (left to right) Joe Camilleri, Kris Laferla, Pierre Calleja, John Bonello, Raymond Mifsud, Dennis Cauchi, Michael Woods. (Middle row) Edwin Camilleri, John Buttigieg, John Holland, Dennis Mizzi, Gencho Dobrev (coach), Raymond Vella, Mario Schembri, Charles Scerri, Michael Degiorgio. (Front) Silvio Vella, Martin Scicluna, J.J. Aquilina, Leonard Farrugia, Joe Galea, Emanuel Lowell, William Mackay
On one hand, there were the bona-fide Italian supporters who deep in their hearts prayed for an Italian victory to boost their adopted country’s chances of qualifying for the finals.
On the other hand, there were the English supporters who wished all kinds of misfortunes on the Italians, not so much because they supported Malta but rather because they wished to see the Azzurri humiliated.
The Italians started well. Goals by Ferri and Altobelli after only 20 minutes seemed to put them on the road to a high-scoring victory.
The Maltese, however, had other ideas. They rolled up their sleeves and stepped up their game to send the Italians into a maze of confusion. No more goals were scored, although to be fair, Altobelli did miss two penalties in succession. At the end, the Maltese players were accompanied out of the ground by a huge standing ovation from the crowd present.
Malta’s performance at Ta’ Qali raised a few eyebrows in Italy. The Azzurri were not worried though and were confident of reaching double figures when the two teams met for the return match in Bergamo in January 1987.
During the first half, the home team went about their task in earnest. Without really exerting themselves, they opened a 5-0 lead and could easily have scored more.
In the second half, however, it was a different story. Playing with determination, the Maltese closed their rearguard and the expected Italy goalfeast never materialised.
On March 30, 1987 the national team hit the headlines with an unexpected 2-2 draw against Portugal in Funchal.
It was our most impressive performance away from home and it was the first away point won in the European Championship. Malta could even have won the game when, with only 14 minutes left, they were leading 2-1.
Luckily for Portugal, Jorge Placido scored the equaliser to spare his country’s blushes. This was certainly one of the biggest upsets in European football. Tiny Malta, considered as the punch bag of Europe, celebrated their first point in 15 years of competition. This unexpected success filled the Maltese with confidence and they went to Neuchatel next in Switzerland hoping for another positive result.
The Maltese were pressed hard on the first half when the eager Swiss players scored four goals.
In the second period, the Maltese improved considerably. They prevented the Swiss from scoring more goals and scored one themselves in the bargain. Carmel Busuttil was Malta’s scorer against the Swiss.
Malta concluded their commitments for the season with another good game against Sweden in Gothenburg.
Following our impressive performance in Portugal, Sweden treated Malta with more respect.
They feared another upset but when Johnny Ekstroem opened the scoring after only four minutes it seemed as if Malta were in for another hiding. The Maltese, however, kept their heads and continued to play to their defensive plan.
Sticking to their zonal-marking strategy, they prevented the Swedes from scoring more goals and created a couple of scoring chances themselves.
The final whistle saw the Maltese elated by the result and the Swedes booed by their own supporters.
research by Mario Bocchio