Freddie Debono had a long and, at times, controversial career.
Born on January 21, 1944, in Sliema, he joined nearby Melita FC in 1958. Debono made his league debut on January 18, 1959 in the 3-0 victory against Senglea Athletic. That is at least as far as we could ascertain because the records for that period are incomplete.
Although barely 15 years old, he was already showing his great potential as a goalkeeper.
Melita, however, were well served in that position in those days. So, the following season he joined Rabat Ajax in the lower leagues as an understudy to their regulars.
Debono played his first game for the Magpies on January 31, 1960 against Żebbuġ Rangers. In his first season with Rabat, he had his first taste of success when his team beat St Patrick 1-0 in the Third Division Cup final.
Debono spent two years with Rabat before joining Sliema Wanderers in 1961 as their third goalkeeper behind Victor Scerri and Raymond Cosby.
Both goalkeepers, however, were in the twilight of their careers and Debono did not have to wait long before he could step into the first team.
He made his debut for the Wanderers on January 1, 1962 against Hibernians and from then on, he never looked back.
Scerri retired and Cosby soon followed suit, leaving the way clear for Debono to become Sliema’s number one goalkeeper.
Between 1964 and 1966, he won three successive championships with the Blues and established himself as Freddie Mizzi’s reserve with the national team.
His spell with Sliema was a successful one but Debono’s restless spirit ensured that he didn’t rest on his laurels. In 1967-68 he embarked on an adventure which, at the time, threatened to disrupt his career.
It all started in 1966 when, for the first time, a serious attempt was made to establish football in the United States.
Phil Woosnam, the famous Welsh footballer, was appointed by the Americans to help set up the North American Football League. The US was not a member of FIFA, so Woosnam took advantage and launched a campaign to lure famous players from South America and Europe to the new league.
Woosnam’s list of agents included Janos Bedl, one-time coach of Sliema Wanderers and Malta. Midway through the 1966-67 football season Bedl, working from a base in Essen, Germany, set his sights on Malta and the exodus began.
Many players were approached. Speculations were rife as the newspapers tried to scoop the names of those willing to defy FIFA’s warnings of a life ban.
Panic reigned supreme among the clubs as first one name and then another was linked with the US league. At the end, four players from our league took the plunge – Debono, Ronnie Cocks, Edward Aquilina and Charlie Williams. They all signed for Pittsburgh Phantoms.
Happily for Maltese football, the exodus was halted at that stage.
Cocks, Debono and Aquilina returned after only one season richer, perhaps, more with experience than American dollars, but Williams stayed on to make a name for himself and help establish the game in the new continent.
On his return, Debono was expected to rejoin the Wanderers but, controversial as ever, he signed for Hibernians.
The Paolites still had Mizzi guarding their posts but there were some differences between the club and their regular goalkeeper at the time.
Whatever the reason, Debono stepped into Mizzi’s boots but when the latter mended his differences with the club, Debono found himself benched.
It was obvious that he had made a mistake by choosing to go to the club from Paola.
In the three seasons he was with Hibernians, Debono made only 12 first league appearances.
In 1971-72, after a whole season of inactivity, Debono was transferred to Valletta. This was the start of another golden period for Debono. He settled down nicely in the city, helping the team win six major honours in seven eventful seasons.
Player of the year
In 1972-73, Debono became the first goalkeeper and, for a long time, the only one to win the MFA Footballer of the Year award.
This prestigious honour had eluded many fine goalkeepers before. Mizzi, to name just one, was finalist five times but was passed over on every occasion.
In 1974-75, Debono had the distinction of winning the FA Trophy, the Scicluna Cup and the Independence Cup in the same season, conceding only one goal in the process.
In the league, however, he missed a number of key matches through injury. This was probably the reason why Valletta had to surrender the championship to rivals Floriana.
Debono continued playing up to the start of the 1977-78 season. By now he had gained weight considerably and although still quite capable of guarding the Citizens’ fort, he had lost much of his agility.
Moreover, Valletta had two able goalkeepers ready to take over – Frankie Grima and Raymond Mifsud.
It seemed, therefore, to be a good time to retire. Debono, however, was determined to go out with a flourish. In his last match for Valletta, he guided the team to victory in the FA Trophy final against Floriana.
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