The untimely demise of Ritchie Aquilina on Monday brought to mind one of the finest moments in the history of the Maltese national team.

It was on February 22, 1975 that Malta faced Greece at the Gzira Stadium in the qualifying round of the European Championship.

On that glorious day, the Maltese rose magnificently to the occasion and two fine goals by Aquilina and Vincent 'Maxi' Magro gave Malta an historic victory.

It was a merited win and one which the Maltese had been longing for a very long time.

The game was broadcast live on local radio by Carmelo Costa, Lewis Portelli, Frankie Camilleri and Fr Hillary Tagliaferro, who took turns to make the commentary.

I still remember vividly the scenes of joy at the end of the match and the enthusiasm of the players as they were interviewed by the late Camilleri for MTV.

Camilleri had only a few months to live. He died the following summer in Birzebbuga during a waterpolo match between Valletta United and Sliema.

Camilleri was a fine sportsman and one of the gentlemen of Maltese sports.

Aquilina was also a true sportsman whose behaviour on and off the field brought credit to the Maltese game.

Born on February 5, 1953 in Sliema, Aquilina came from a family seeping with football traditions.

It was natural that he would follow in his older brother's footsteps and join Sliema Wanderers.

Edward, already an established player with Sliema, was a dominant influence on the budding youngster.

Ritchie was only 13 years old when he signed on the dotted line for the Blues.

A long apprenticeship awaited him before he finally made his debut for the Wanderers on January 16, 1972 in a 1-1 draw against Gzira United.

Ritchie could not have had a better start to his career because in his first season in top-class football he won the first of two championship medals.

He soon established himself in the team as a hard-working and skilful inside forward.

The honours kept coming his way and when at only 24 he was made club captain, he led the team through one of the greatest periods in its history.

Worst moment

His sojourn in Sliema however, was not all a bed of roses.

By Aquilina's own admission the worst moment in his career came in 1982-83 when the Blues, although possessing one of the strongest teams on the island, were relegated for the first and only time in their history.

Ritchie was partly blamed by some committee members for going abroad at a crucial time during the league campaign. The truth, however, was that his trip was planned and approved by the committee months before at a time when it was inconceivable that Sliema would ever find themselves deep in relegation waters.

This dispute led to Aquilina leaving the Wanderers in 1983 and joining Melita FC in the First Division with whom he spent four seasons.

In 1987-88 he moved to Naxxar Lions helping the northern club to win promotion to the Premier Division.

By now, however, he was nearing the end of his career and a rather serious injury laid him low for a whole season.

In 1989, however, he made a comeback with Luxol St Andrew's in the Second Division.

In 1989-90 Luxol won the championship and a place in the First Division.

Ritchie stayed with the club for another year before retiring from the game completely.

He played eight times for Malta at the time when the national team's commitments were very limited. In different circumstances however, his involvement would have been much higher.

Still, his goal against Greece on that glorious afternoon in 1975 has ensured that this brave and honest gladiator would never be forgotten.

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

Support Us