Imagine you were alive 100 years ago. You were middle-aged, a British subject, experiencing the trials and tribulations of your native island as a fortress colony. You lived at first hand the escalating tensions between the Church and the state. You were inexorably enmeshed in the antagonisms politically-ignited by Italophile and Anglophile proclivities.
Fortunately, however, from this milieu of discord, tonic refuge was at hand – football! The fanaticism you had for this sport was precisely what motivated you to impatiently leaf through the newspaper in search of updates on the subject.
So when on October 25, 1922, you opened the Daily Malta Chronicle, the enthusiasm with which you greeted the news that the ardent sports admirer “Governor Field Marshal Lord Plumer was to open the new Sports Ground at... Gżira, on Saturday, 4th November next, at 3pm” must have reached fever pitch! You also learned that “This ground... is to be known as the Empire Sports Ground... intended for the use of the Imperial forces and civilian teams...”.
The inauguration of the Empire Sports Ground in 1922 signified a new chapter in Malta’s football history which traces its roots to the second half of the 19th century. It owes its introduction in Malta to the then stationed British naval and army services.
Such military personnel, alumni of English public schools where sports was central to their curriculum, were responsible for spreading cricket, horse racing, athletics and football all over the Crown colonies.
By the 1880s, football was at the helm of tremendous popularity across the British Empire. Indeed, Malta was very much on the ball of this phenomenon and not surprisingly “came to host the first overseas playing fields of the British Empire” as stated by the late Lino Bugeja in the Times of Malta of November 23, 2015.
Gary Armstrong and Jon. P. Mitchell, in their 2008 Routledge publication Global and Local Football: Politics and Europeanisation on the fringes of the EU, write that, by the mid-1880s, Malta earned its 22nd place globally, in the long list of countries that fervently embraced ‘the beautiful game’, even surpassing Italy!
So who was the proprietor mentioned in the Daily Malta Chronicle? Who was the far-sighted person who spared no pains to render the then newly-opened Empire Sports Ground as complete in every detail as possible? It was none other than the astute, intrepid and entrepreneurial Carmelo Scicluna, OBE, (1887-1952) or “Is-Sur Memé tal-Ground” (my paternal grandfather) who merited every encouragement for this ambitious project.
After the inaugural match between HMS Ajax and Malta XI, “attended with the most gratifying success and with the result of two goals each”, the Daily Malta Chronicle of November 6, 1922, goes on to report that Lord Plumer “congratulated Mr Scicluna... on the success of the arrangements and hoped that Service people and all in Malta [would] give Mr Scicluna every support”.
The governor had moreover championed Scicluna’s bold initiative from the onset, when the ground was still in its early construction phases. Substantiating this is a letter from Castille communicating Plumer’s wish to visit the “new sports ground... when it is more advanced”. It was dated June 22, 1922, that is, around four months before the Empire Sports Ground was officially opened.
Summer and autumn of 1922 must have been incredibly hectic for Memé who had to oversee the gradual materialisation of his childhood dream. His son, Joseph Scicluna (my father) has treasured memories of Memé reminiscing about his pastime as a youth, collecting cigarette packs and match boxes, varied in colour and size, to build his own imaginary football ground.
Finally, at 36 years of age, Memé was standing on a 24-tumolo piece of land, known as “Tal-Fawwara”, in “Gżira, limiti della Sliema”, incredulously watching his “arena per giuogo del calcio ed altro” steadily taking shape.
This is how the project is described in the building notice file (475/1922), dated August 8, found at the National Archives, Rabat. It includes the architect’s drawings that show a full-sized football pitch, quite a novelty for the early 1900s, complete with the half-way line, penalty and goal areas demarcated by stitch lines, and the centre circle. Surrounding the ground is a rectangularly-shaped stepped terrace for spectators as well as a grandstand.
The Daily Malta Chronicle edition of November 4, 1922, reported that the ground catered for the accommodation of the impressive capacity of 30,000 seated persons.
Quite a modern sports complex for its days, the Empire Sports Ground could also boast of four decently-sized dressing rooms for players, referees and linesmen, and a sufficiently-equipped first aid station. Separating the spectators from the considerable space behind the goal posts and along the lateral confines of the pitch was an eight-foot-high wall that not only elevated the tiered seating, thus permitting vantage viewing, but also acted as a deterrent to the impetuous and the euphoric who contemplated invading the pitch to harass or to bear-hug players, which was customary behaviour in many match scenarios.
By 1922, as far as Malta’s chronology of main football venues was concerned, the Empire Sports Ground was successor to the Marsa Sports Grounds; Blue Ditch Football Ground, just outside Portes des Bombes, Floriana; Corradino Football Ground; Lyceum Football Ground, Marsa; the National Ground, close to Ta’ Braxia Cemetery, Pietà; and the highly popular Mile End Sporting Ground. It was also the descendant of the ubiquitous barracks, exclusive to British Service matches, and the many rudimentary ground-converted fields formed in the vicinity of Maltese clubs and their affiliated teams.
Now, try to imagine the young raring-to-go Memé living this very dynamic climate spurred by football’s soaring popularity ever since its debut in the 1880s. He could keep tabs on the ins and outs of the gradual standardisation in the administration of association football.
He busily networked with the council members of the Malta Football Association, founded in 1900, and with the committees of the rapidly sprouting clubs. He attended matches, took note of those teams that attracted the best turnouts, and observed the strengths and shortcomings of the physical structure and management of the then extant grounds, while he was slowly but surely envisaging his very own.
Formerly used by the Royal Air Force as a balloon barrage during World War I, the sizeable plot on which the Empire Sports Ground was built formed part of the “prima genitura” estate of Baron Salvatore Testaferrata Moroni Viani (1866-1911), which was inherited by his first-born son, Pietro Paolo (1886-1954).
One of the latter’s sisters was Elvira (1891-1962) who, on October 14, 1919, married Carmelo Scicluna, the enterprising mastermind and chief investor of the building of the Empire Sports Ground. Scicluna had negotiated with his brother-in-law an agreement of a 40-year lease of “porzioni divise del territorio ‘Tal Fawwara’ posto nei limiti della Sliema... di tumoli venti quatro confinate da levante e mezzodì con strada Gżira Via Misida a da Ponente con Rue d’Argens” with effect from March 25, 1922.
The inter-war decade of 1922 to 1933 saw a vibrant Empire Sports Ground hosting 10 seasons of first, second and third division fixtures, league and cup competitions that awed, enraged and captivated the thousands that thronged every week to root for their beloved teams, while not sparing adversaries of their fair share of jeering.
Flags, banners, home-made posters, pigeons powdered with or tied with ribbons in team-emblematic colours feasted the eye, while petards, firecrackers, roaring, applauses, protestations, anthemic and disparaging chants filled the ear at the teeming Empire Sports Ground.
Its dusty and unforgivingly hard pitch was ground to the nimble feet of Ruġġieru Friggieri (iż-Żibġa), Emmanuel Vella (Spagu), Salvu Troisi, Gejtu Psaila (il-Ħaċċa), “Gejta” Azzopardi, Jack Herbert (ta’ Sosa), Johnnie Perrin, Robbie Decesare, Turu Theobold, Joe and “the one and only Tony Nicholl”, a few from the abundant cream of the crop of Maltese players and goalkeepers.
Sporting the Gżira Ground were also the hundreds of British players from the Services whose rather ‘might-is-right’ tactics had considerable bearing on the way football was played. This style was adopted by Maltese professional and amateur players, sometimes turning the playing field into a battlefield.
Memorable saves, breath-arresting penalty kicks, strategic passes, admirable tackles, remarkable headers, historic goals and other moves to the dance and tune of football were performed on the Empire Sports Ground stage. Highly-charged anticipation was typically the prelude to many matches, especially where local and British regimental teams were due to meet their match.
Yet the frenzied thrill that was fuelled by the fiery longstanding rivalry between Sliema Wanderers and Floriana was scarcely surpassed. Blues and Greens supporters from all over would gravitate to the ground on such red-letter days to watch their heroes play fiercely until the referee’s final whistle blew the hopes of the defeated team and signalled victory for the other. The Sliema Rangers, Vittoriosa Rovers, Paola’s Hibernians, Ħamrun Spartans, to mention the few of the many Maltese teams, were all the rage too.
Grit and acumen propelled Scicluna to fly high. His pursuit for innovation was indefatigable and it came to fruition early enough. Already from its infancy, the Empire Sports Ground had the scene set for a number of international teams that he (and, often, the tireless magnate Joseph Gasan Snr [1891-1976]) brought over to mesmerise the football public that back then was only exposed to the British style of the game.
April 1923 welcomed the arrival of Melita FC from Tunis, the very first foreign and official football club to play in Malta. This pivotal occasion in Malta’s football history set the ball rolling for the many Continental teams of great repute to exhibit their trade in the field, these being former Yugoslavia’s SK Hajduks Split, Gradjanski and HAŠK; France’s De Cette and Grenoble; Austria’s Floridsofer and Wiener WAC; Montenegro’s Cronogoroc; Romania’s Timisoara AC; Tunisia’s Union Gouletoise; Hungary’s Somogy; and former Czechoslovakia’s SP Meteor and Kladno.
The ground was witness to yet another unprecedented event: the hosting of Tottenham Hotspurs, the first English club to ever set foot on Malta. Offering marvelling stratagems and techniques hitherto unseen, these foreign teams, or “il-ġodda”, played friendlies against the British Services, civilian clubs and MFA selection teams in the annual Christmas and Easter tournées that Memé Scicluna himself conceived and organised.
These soon became staple events in the ground’s football calendar, the Yuletide tournaments in particular being played in such unusually favourable weather that it entered the annals of colloquial meteorology as “is-sajf tas-Sur Memé”!
Entertainment at the Empire Sports Ground was not exclusive to the 90-minute game of the people, although it occupied the lion’s share. Memé’s aptitude to diversify and explore new avenues was vital for the wheels of his enterprise to continue turning. He was thus the brains behind the organisation of horse, pony and donkey parade contests, or the boxing bouts that were fought in an 18-foot ring. He also turned his ground into the go-to venue for athletic competitions and extended its recreation scope by having crowd-pulling shows put up by circus companies from overseas.
The ground is replaced by a stadium
1933 saw the sun set on the Empire Sports Ground. It was also the dawn of Scicluna’s next success story: the Empire Stadium, opened on Christmas Eve, 90 years ago. During the 10 years of its standing, the Empire Sports Ground regaled so many thousands in its enclosure that it was rife on the tongues of many well beyond its walls.
It influenced the ebb and flow of the stature of Maltese football throughout the 1920s and early 1930s, exactly at the pinnacle of the fomenting Language Question. It, in fact, provided the arena where football faithful, steeped in Maltese partisan culture, could unwittingly vent their political sentiments through the encounters of their idol teams stemming from the privileged and lower crusts. Its lasting impact on the social, urban and commercial development of Gżira and environs was enormous.
The Empire Sports Ground, Carmelo Scicluna’s timely brainchild and monumental trophy, meant much to many, but ultimately served as the fitting impetus for the further growth of football in Malta.
The author thanks the Scicluna family, Clinton Farrugia, Kenneth J. Formosa, Louis Micallef, Charles Farrugia, Melvin Caruana, Jeremy Baldacchino, Noel d’Anastas from the National Archives of Malta, Rabat; Maroma Camilleri and Jeremy Debono from the National Library, Valletta. Reference was also made to publications by Carmel Baldacchino, Lino Bugeja, Charles Camenzuli, Gary Armstrong and Jon P. Mitchell.
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