The introduction of television in 1958 brought Malta closer its European neighbours.
The Maltese could now watch the best continental clubs battling each other in UEFA competitions.
Dreams were conjured of Maltese clubs taking part in these competitions and it was not long before the first step was taken.
In 1959, Valletta FC applied to take part in the Champions Cup but their application was refused because Malta was still not affiliated with FIFA. The next season Malta became a full member of the world governing body and Maltese clubs were finally admitted to the UEFA competitions.
The honour of representing Malta for the first time fell to Hibernians. On September 7, 1961 the Paolites made football history when they played their first-leg match against Swiss champions Servette, in Geneva.
Playing for the first time on turf and under floodlights, both unfamiliar conditions for the local champions, Hibs were heavily beaten 5-0.
Hibs had no excuses to offer. Servette’s class was too much for them but Hibs won the admiration of the 15,000 crowd with their grit and tenacity.
With the Swiss enjoying a margin of five goals, the return leg at the Gżira Stadium, on September 20, was merely a formality.
It was a quiet game with most of the play confined to midfield. The match was dominated by two strong defences. The Swiss found it much harder to beat Hibs but, despite the locals’ stubborn resistance, they were the first to score.
A ripple of excitement ran through the crowd as Leli Sultana equalised in the second half but 10 minutes from time, Robbiani headed home Servette’s winner.
In the meantime, Floriana became the first Maltese club to host a European game in the country.
The Greens played the first leg against Hungary’s cup winners, Ujpest Dozsa, at the Stadium on September 17, 1961.
A huge crowd of over 14,000 spectators saw the Hungarian magicians run rings around the Greens before winning easily 5-2.
Defensive blunders had given the visitors a 3-0 lead by half-time.
In the second half, Ujpest eased up and Floriana were allowed to come out of their shell. They ventured forward and were rewarded with two goals which made the final score look more respectable.
Unsurprisingly, Floriana were outclassed in the return match in Budapest but no-one expected the Greens to be beaten by the humiliating score of 10-2.
This heavy defeat, however, could be blamed more on lack of experience than lack of skills.
In the following years, the Maltese suffered more setbacks due to their lack of experience in big games and it took some time for our teams to find their feet and avoid heavy defeats.
Floriana could, at least, draw some consolation from these encounters. Unlike Hibs, they netted a profit from their venture which came in very handy during the season.
All things considered, Malta’s first efforts in Europe were truly admirable.
However, our training methods, coaching systems and, above all, facilities were still primitive compared with those in Europe at the time.
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