Ninu Calleja, ‘In-Naxxari’, was one of the most prominent Sliema players of the post-war period.
Calleja was born on February 17, 1923 in Naxxar but lived all his life in Sliema. He was a product of the Salesian Boys Brigade, a society that nurtured some of the best talents in Maltese football of that era.
In 1943, when the war was virtually over in Malta, he joined Naxxar Lions as a centre-forward. His goals in 1945-46 helped the Lions win promotion to the First Division for the first time in their history.
That season, the second division championship was one of the most keenly-contested for many years. The teams were divided into four sections. Naxxar, Ħamrun Liberty, Florid-Lions and Żejtun United topped their respective groups.
In the play-offs ,Naxxar beat Żejtun while Liberty had the better of the Florids of Cospicua 4-2. The final match was played on April 21, 1946.
Excitement was high, as was to be expected from two large districts like Naxxar and Ħamrun.
Liberty were favourites to prevail but they were surprised by a fast Naxxar XI, led by the great Friggieri brothers, Ċensu and Pawlu.
A fine hat-trick by Pawlu Friggieri gave the Lions a 3-0 lead but the best player on show that day was Calleja. Barely 20 years old, he capped an excellent performance with the fourth and last goal of the match.
Calleja proved a great hit in the First Division and in the next three seasons, he established himself as one of the most prolific centre-forwards in Malta.
In 1949, however, Naxxar were relegated and it was time for Calleja to seek pastures new.
Sliema Wanderers were interested in the young forward and it was natural for him to move to the Wanderers. There was a problem, however.
In Tony Nicholl, Sliema had the best striker on the island. Therefore, Calleja had to make way and switched to the inside-forward position.
Calleja revelled in his new role. His natural ability to run into open spaces and his high work-rate made him an important cog in the Wanderers’ machine which dominated Maltese football in the mid-50s.
He could score goals as well, netting 47 in 160 top-class matches.
In 1953-54 Sliema signed Salvinu Schembri from Valletta. The Blues decided to adopt the ‘deep-lying centre-forward plan’ which was made popular in those days by the Leeds United and England centre-forward, Don Revie. The role was handed to Schembri and Calleja was moved to the half-back line.
To his credit, Calleja adapted perfectly to his new role. The best spell of his career was between 1953 and 1956.
It was also a golden period in the history of Sliema who won the league championship, the FA Trophy, the Cassar Cup and the Scicluna Cup in 1955-56.
Calleja was also an automatic choice for the national team. Between 1947 and 1957 he was picked four times to represent Malta against visiting foreign teams and was included in Malta’s starting formation in the famous international match against Austria in February 1957.
By the time he retired at the end of the 1957-58 season, Calleja had won three championship medals, two FA Trophies, two Cassar Cups and seven Scicluna Cup medals.
Calleja was not only a gifted footballer, he was, above all, an honest and loyal club man. His integrity, on and off the field, was beyond reproach.
This earned him the respect of one and all, including his opponents.
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