The grass is greener and the balls are brighter.
Gazing at a handful of Nike balls lying on the new hybrid pitch at the National Stadium yesterday, Bjorn Vassallo, the Malta FA general secretary, had good cause to feel satisfied.
“Last year, we received constructive criticism about the quality of the balls for Premier League games and we responded by changing them.
“Now, a year later, we have also installed a new pitch at our National Stadium. It’s up to the players to deliver now,” Vassallo remarked with a wry smile.
Vassallo made these comments in front of a small crowd of media personnel, MFA employees and officials from SIS Group after an informal ceremony marking the handover of the new pitch to the local governing body of football.
Completed at an estimated cost of €1.5 million, the new pitch will be used for the first time on September 3 when Malta and Scotland hold their mandatory training sessions at the match venue on the eve of their opening 2018 World Cup qualifier.
“After several weeks of intensive work, our new pitch is ready. It replaces the old surface which had been in existence for 35 years,” Vassallo told a news conference earlier.
“I want to thank SIS Group for their professional approach, also during the consultation and negotiating process.
“SIS Group is a major company in this sector. They have been installing hybrid pitches in Europe and in many parts of the world for the past 18 years.”
Vassallo said the installation of a new hybrid pitch is the latest in a series of infrastructural projects undertaken by the current MFA administration since 2010.
“This project is further proof of the commitment of the Association and the current administration to enhance the country’s footballing infrastructure,” Vassallo said.
“As the MFA president (Norman Darmanin Demajo) said during the last Annual General Meeting, in the next three years we will be focusing on embellishing our facilities at Ta’ Qali.
“Today marks the handover of the new pitch while the floodlighting project at the Ta’ Qali training grounds is at a very advanced stage.
“As for the new surface, it looks better aesthetically but will also give us a lot more than the old pitch, considering also that around 100 matches are played at this venue every season.”
Vassallo explained that the money for the pitch project came from FIFA and UEFA assistance programmes, and the MFA coffers.
He thanked Alan Ferguson, the head groundsman at the English FA’s St George’s Park, who had been sent by UEFA to offer advice to the MFA on the installation of a new surface.
George Mullan, CEO of SIS Group, said the large amount of matches played at the National Stadium on a yearly basis made it incumbent on the company to construct a strong pitch.
“The requirements in Malta, with its climate and the fact that 100 games are played on it every year, meant that we had to build a strong and robust pitch,” Mullan said.
“We have injected 20cm fibres into the pitch. Ninety-five per cent of it is natural turf and five per cent is artificial… this combination improves the stability, playability and durability of the pitch.”
Mullan said that SIS Group have laid new hybrid pitches at several stadia this year, including Besiktas, Olympiakos and Derby County plus 25 training pitches across Europe.
Over the next three weeks, the Irish-based company will also start stitching the new pitch of Moscow’s Luzhniki Stadium which will host the final of the 2018 World Cup.
Mullan was full of praise for the Malta FA, saying they found great co-operation from Darmanin Demajo, Vassallo and Emanuel Cassar, the association’s head of infrastructure and maintenance, before adding: “The tender process was very rigorous, probably more rigorous than that for the Luzhniki Stadium”.
Carlos Reis, the man in charge of all works, said the biggest challenge SIS Group encountered during the installation process was the excavation.
“We had planned to excavate up to 40 cm but because the base was too soft, we had to dig up to one metre,” Reis said.
In stressing the importance of good maintenance, Mullan said the new surface at Ta’ Qali should last for 25 years.
For his part, Cassar, who oversees the MFA’s infrastructural projects, said the length of the playing surface at the National Stadium has been extended by three metres, from 102 to 105, while the width has remained 68 metres – the official pitch dimensions set by the International Football Association Board (IFAB).