The word great is used very loosely in football. It is an adjective which should be used more sparingly, especially in Maltese football where this level of excellence is restricted by the smallness of the country.
One Maltese player, however, who thoroughly deserves such praise is Salvinu Schembri who unfortunately passed away on Monday night at the ripe old age of 85.
I personally rate Schembri as one of the best 10 Maltese players ever. The all-time greats, in my humble opinion, are Tony Nicholl, Ruġġieru Friggieri, Gejtu Psaila, Karmenu Tabone, Salvu Sammut, Lolly Borg, Wenzu Gabaretta, Eddie Theobald and Carmel Busuttil.
Schembri was a product of the war. Barely in his teens when hostilities broke out, he was drafted into the Army, joining the 1st Coast Regiment RMA. In those days, the Maltese Regiment had a formidable team. Many of the best Maltese players of the era were in uniform, and most of them served with the Coasts Regiment.
During the war, the island was still awash with British professional players. Therefore, Schembri could not have had a better football apprenticeship.
Despite the constant enemy bombing, football was played daily.
Schembri played regularly for his Regiment in the United Service League and in the many competitions organised by 'Meme' Scicluna at the Stadium.
By 1943, the war in Malta was nearly over and the MFA embarked on an extensive programme of organisation.
Schembri joined Sliema Wanderers. He stayed at Sliema for two seasons before joining Valletta at the start of season 1945-46. It was a great era for the Citizens. Between 1945 and 1948, they won the league championship twice and the superstar of that fine team was Schembri.
Schembri was an extraordinary footballer. At his peak, he could play for any team. A clever inside-forward, he was the master of what is known in football as 'running off the ball'. He would start an attack with a quick pass to his winger, or centre-forward and then 'ghost' into position to receive the return pass.
He made everything look so easy and eight times out of 10 the ball would end in the opposing team's net.
There has never been a more intelligent player than Schembri. He could read the situation in a flash and then wait until his colleagues took position before splitting the defence with a perfect through-pass or a deadly shot at goal.
He was so clever, that one could almost hear his mind ticking!
Some people might not agree with me about the way I described Schembri but one person who certainly did was the sports editor of the Times of Malta Scott Hall.
Hall was in Malta during and immediately after the Second World War.
A shrewd judge of football, he knew the game inside-out.
Hall said that Schembri would star in any country and that he was sure that if they knew about him, British managers would flock to Malta in search of his signature.
Perhaps Schembri's greatest match was against the Yugoslav club Zaboversky on January 12, 1947. This game was a tribute to one of the greatest ever Maltese footballers. That day Schembri showed that he had the skills and talent to beat the visitors at their own game.
Schembri was yards faster than any of his opponents. His footwork was impeccable and he set up two of the three goals scored by the Combination. The goals came from Leli Cauchi, Pearson and Bennetti. The Floriana/Valletta selection won 3-1 and at the end the crowd rose as one to applaud its conquering heroes.
Schembri certainly played the greatest game of his career against Zabovresky but this team was a bad omen for the Maltese star. The game between the visitors and the MFA XI played on January 19, 1947 should have been a tribute to Schembri.
A huge crowd filled every corner of the Empire Stadium to watch him in action but unfortunately he got seriously injured after a reckless tackle by full-back Slavic and had to be taken to hospital.
Schembri was ruled out of action for three months. Valletta dearly missed his services and after losing in the Cassar Cup final against their rivals Ħamrun Spartans, they made every effort to have Salvinu back in the team for the crucial league match against the Spartans. To make matters worse for Valletta, the Army authorities refused to give Schembri permission to play for his club because they were afraid that he would aggravate his injury.
During the week before the big game, everyone was talking about Schembri and if he would turn out for Valletta. The big day arrived on May 11, when the league leaders met in what was considered to be the decider for the championship.
A hush enveloped the ground as the two teams walked out of the dressing rooms. Then, to the imaginable joy of the Valletta supporters and the dismay of their Ħamrun counterparts, Schembri led his team out on the pitch of the Empire Stadium.
Salvinu made all the difference to his team. Playing very discreetly from behind, cunningly testing his injury, he waited for the right moment to take his chance and score the winning goal for Valletta.
Schembri stayed with Valletta until the end of 1953 when he rejoined Sliema Wanderers.
It was the start of another great period for Schembri.
Now more mature and skilful as ever, he became the mastermind of the great Sliema team of the era. In seven glorious seasons, he helped the Blues to win three championships, the FA Trophy, the Cassar Cup and twice the Scicluna Cup.
Schembri was also one of the most honoured players of his era.
An automatic choice for the national team, he played 35 times for the MFA XI. In 1957 he had the honour of leading the team for Malta's first ever international against Austria.
He went on to play two more international matches before retiring in 1961 after an uneventful season with Ħamrun Spartans.
I had the privilege to watch Schembri play during the last two or three seasons of his illustrious career. Perhaps much slower than in his best days, his skills however were still very evident and one could not help but marvel at his positional play and his touches which never deserted him up to the last game of his career.
Schembri had two sons who played football, Ronnie and Eric, the latter even emulating his famous father by donning the Maltese jersey. He was also the proud grandfather of current Maltese stalwart Andre Schembri, who plays for German club Carl Zeiss Jena.
His only disappointment was that he never won the MFA Footballer of the Year award. An honour he fully deserved, but one that somehow always eluded him.
Roll of honour
League: 1945, 1947 (Valletta); 1953, 1955, 1956 (Sliema).
Cup: 1955 (Sliema).
Cassar Cup: 1950 (Army & RAF); 1956 (Sliema).
Scicluna Cup: 1955, 1957 (Sliema).
Victory Cup: 1945 (Malta XI).
Top scorer: 1948 - 14 goals (Valletta).
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