The end of the old Empire Sports Ground in Gżira came in 1933.

In the 11-odd years since its inauguration in 1922, the ground had deteriorated considerably and it was clear for everyone who visited the venue that it needed upgrading.

Keeping all this in mind, enterprising proprietor Carmelo Scicluna signed a contract with a British syndicate to hold greyhound racing at the Empire.

Extensive alterations were needed to comply with the conditions of this contract. Therefore, Scicluna took this opportunity to renovate his ground. During summer of 1933, the Empire was pulled down and work started on a completely new stadium.

The new stadium was larger and more comfortable for spectators.

At the time, it compared quite favourably with other stadiums on the continent. Working around the clock, the ground quickly took shape and by late December the project was at such an advanced state that the Malta FA could, at last, start its competitions for the season.

The new stadium was officially opened on December 24, 1933 when Pick Malta XI met SK Pilzen, of Czechoslovakia, in the opening match of the Christmas Tourney.

The period between 1933 and 1940, before the outbreak of the Second World War, was the most glorious in the history of the stadium in Gżira. It was a time when Maltese football went through a great revival and when some of the best teams in Europe visited Malta to play in Christmas tournaments.

Then came the war and although the ground was still used periodically, no competitive matches were played. The ground suffered from the ravages of the war and when the conflict was finally over, it soon became apparent that it needed another facelift.

The 1950-51 season went down in the records as one of the busiest in the history of the local game. So many things happened at the same time that, at times, football followers were left almost breathless.

The season began on a good note. At long last, much-needed renovations were made at the stadium, bringing it in line with the criteria required following the organisation of the game in the 1940s.

The old wooden fence around the pitch, a relic of pre-war days when the stadium was also used as a greyhound racing track, was replaced. This made it easier for the spectators to follow the game and for the players during corners.

The new fence was placed nearer to the stands, giving spectators a better view of the pitch. New stands were built on the Sliema and Floriana sides of the ground and better facilities were provided in the dressing rooms.

Another milestone was reached on March 6, 1951, when a football match was played at the stadium under artificial lighting. On that occasion, Sliema Wanderers lost 1-2 to an Army-RAF Selection.

The reaction to the experiment was positive but the 26 reflector lights were not enough to illuminate the centre of the pitch. In those days Tungsten lamps were used and the powerful halogen floodlights were still something of the future. The floodlights were used for a short while but improvements were never carried out and the experiment experienced a natural death.

The old ground continued to serve Maltese football faithfully until 1981 when it finally had to make way for the new stadium at Ta' Qali.

Very few alterations were made during this period, except perhaps, those made in 1971 in preparation of the classic Nations Cup qualifier between Malta and England. By this time, the ownership of the ground had passed to the Testaferrata family.

The notorious pitch at Gżira, in those days always the centre of controversy, was also given a general turn-over and steps were taken to increase the capacity of the ground before Malta hosted England.

I don't really know how this was achieved but I can vouch for the fact that two hours before the start of the game the ground, which at the best of times could hold about 15,000, was already packed with more than 30,000 feverish supporters.

This was the last fling of the famous old ground. After this date it started on its last lease of life until it was abandoned and left to rot away.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us