In 1957, exactly 50 years ago, Maltese football finally came of age. An important milestone was reached when Malta played its first international match against Austria.
It was unbelievable for us, the Maltese football lovers, that a country with such great football traditions as Austria would even consider to play against the national team of a small country like Malta.
The match captured the imagination of the public and for a while, the event was the prime topic of conversation among the Maltese.
The national team began its preparations immediately. The MFA Selection Board named the Malta squad, then under the guidance of coach Joe Griffiths, for the first international match against Austria. The enthusiasm was huge and with everybody pulling his weight, the MFA soon had the nucleus of a very strong team.
The expenses of this ambitious initiative were considerable. Everything is relative and £2,000 was a big sum of money in those days. The MFA therefore had no option but to increase the entrance fees for the occasion. The new prices were 12s 6d (61c) for the reserved seats, 7s 6d (31c) for the enclosure, 5s (25c) for the ground and 2s 6d (11c) for boys.
These prices would appear very cheap by today's standards but in those days, when the average wage was about £3 a week, they were extraordinary.
The MFA left no stone unturned in their efforts to make this an occasion to remember. The match was given a lot of publicity and the enthusiasm of the public grew as the game drew closer.
The MFA managed to lure the world famous Italian referee Sig. Vincenzo Orlandini to officiate the game and his presence further enhanced the splendour and importance of the occasion.
It had to come one day. After years of dependency on the British Services, the game of football in Malta finally took a crucial step forward in an attempt to cut all its ties with the British and stand on its own feet.
Sunday, February 24, 1957, turned out to be a fine day. The Empire Stadium had a cheerful feel about it. The flags of Malta, Austria, England and Italy fluttered proudly from the top of the two covered stands of the stadium. It was Malta's first international match and the opponents were mighty Austria.
The ground presented a magnificent sight packed as it was to its capacity with supporters. A mighty roar greeted the two teams as they trooped out of their dressing-rooms led by referee Sig. Orlandini. No fewer than 17,421 spectators paid to watch the match.
It was a big occasion for the Maltese players, and for the first few minutes, they looked very tense. Passes went astray and the Austrians dictated play initially. It was not long before they opened the score.
Austria go 3-0 up
When Joe Cilia and Guzi Bonnici got into each other's way, the ball rebounded off the latter and into the net after 16 minutes. The crowd was stunned. The euphoria evaporated as the strong Austrians sought to widen their margin.
Two near-misses for Malta boosted the locals' confidence. The game gathered pace and the Maltese became more confident. The Austrian defence suddenly looked fragile but 20 minutes into the second half, Wagner made it 2-0 for the visitors.
It seemed all over for the Maltese, especially when Haummer headed in the third goal for Austria. Then came Malta's moment of glory. With only three minutes of the game left, the Maltese mounted a bold reaction. Sammy Nicholl cheekily dribbled Stotz and Engelmeier before passing the ball to Tony Cauchi. The centre-forward kept his head and slotted home from a rather tight angle to the delight of the Maltese fans on the packed terraces.
But that roar was nothing compared to that which engulfed the stadium when, after 89 minutes, Cini slipped the ball to Nicholl who cleverly beat Stotz before scoring.
The final seconds of the match saw the Austrians hanging on for dear life.
The end came, however, with the Austrians still in the lead. Many people wept with joy that day.
The crowd rose as one to cheer its heroes. Fifty years have passed since that memorable day. A lifetime for many of us but Malta still remembers its finest quarter-of-an-hour on the soccer field.
For The Record
Played at the Empire Stadium, Feb. 24 1957
Malta: Victor Scerri, Guzi Bonnici, Lolly Debattista, Ninu Calleja (George Jones), Joe Cilia, Joe Cini, Lolly Borg, Salvinu Schembri, Tony Cauchi, Sammy Nicholl, Pullu Demanuele.
Austria: Bruno Engelmeier, Ignaz Pusnik, Leopold Barschand, Ernest Kozlicek, Karl Stotz, Karl Koller, Paul Halla, Erick Hoff (Johann Buzek), Theodor Wagner, Paul Kozlicek, Walter Haummer.
Referee: Sig. Vincenzo Orlandini (Italy).
Scorers: Austria - Bonnici og, Wagner, Haummer. Malta - Cauchi, Nicholl.
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