Small and slender with a pair of spindly legs that would not last the postman one morning... this is in a nut-shell the description of Joe Zarb.
His appearance, however, belied the fact that he was one of the greatest scorers of the modern era in Maltese football. His 140 goals in 281 league matches is a record which few Maltese players could better.
Il-Brimba (the Spider), as Zarb was more commonly known in football circles, was league top scorer four times, three of them in succession. He also won 24 major honours in a career spanning over 21 seasons, which make him one of the most honoured players in the game.
Surely, with such credentials Zarb can be considered a candidate for the title of the greatest Maltese goal-getter of all-time.
Although born and bred in Żabbar, Zarb never played for his home town club.
It seems that he had a lot of friends from Cospicua and they enticed him to join Cospicua St Joseph’s.
This amateur team did not play in any league but restricted its activities to playing friendly Sunday morning football.
It was while playing in one of these matches that Zarb was spotted by Peppi Delceppo. The St George’s FC mentor did not lose the opportunity to add Zarb to his brood of youngsters.
Zarb joined St George’s in 1980-81 and made his first-team debut late in the season as a substitute for Charlie Cassar. His advance, however, was slow and in the next two years he only played once more for the first team and that was as a substitute.
In 1983-84, however, he was given an extended run in the first team which produced the first four goals of his career.
Delceppo never stopped believing in Zarb’s talent.
Despite the player’s slender frame, he saw in the lad an extraordinary ability to score goals. However, the Saints official was not the only one to recognise Zarb’s potential and at the start of the 1984-85 season Ħamrun Spartans made a successful bid for his transfer.
The move was the turning point in Zarb’s career.
Before long he was hitting in the goals with a regular rhythm.
Yet, despite winning two championship medals with Ħamrun, the Spartans surprisingly let him slip through their fingers.
Perhaps they did not fully realise his potential.
It could also be because in Stefan Sultana Hamrun had another prolific goalscorer in their ranks.
Whatever the reason, midway through the 1987-88 season the Reds accepted Valletta’s offer for his signature.
That season Zarb was involved in a curious and unique record. In a campaign consisting of 14 games he played 15 times.
Zarb played in the Spartans’ first seven games of the season before he was transferred to Valletta with whom he played in the last eight games.
Ħamrun went on to win the league... therefore Zarb qualified for a championship medal when he was playing for Valletta!
Zarb stayed with Valletta up to the end of the 1998-99 season forming part of the all-conquering City team which dominated Maltese football in the 1990s.
Then, an eye injury cost him his place in the first team. With time he recovered but the next season he was transferred to Gozo FC who had just been promoted for the first time to the Premier Division.
Zarb passed an uneventful season with Gozo. It was the only season in his career in which he did not score a single goal.
So, at the end of the season, he joined Żurrieq FC in the First Division. For Zarb it was another mediocre year and when the Reds were relegated he decided to quit the game altogether.
He had only two regrets in his career.
The first was his failure to win the Footballer of the Year award and the other was the way he was continually passed over by the national team selectors.
Just 10 full caps are a meagre reward for a goalscorer of his calibre especially when one compares his record with that of other strikers whose number of international appearances are three or four times that number.
Zarb left behind him memories of a great footballer. Above all, he was a prolific goalscorer... a lesson to all those who think that to succeed one must be big and brawny.
After all, the English say that ‘the little ones are hard to beat’.
Surely, Zarb proved them right.
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