We have heard it before. The important thing is to take part, not necessarily to win. However, in sport results matter. So, understandably, we savour such moments as the recent victory by the national football team over the Faroe Islands. Yet, we must ensure the ‘ball keeps rolling’. Success is not a destination but a journey.

In his recent article on The Sunday Times, Angelo Chetcuti, the Malta Football Association’s general secretary, rightly noted that experiencing the power of the game through the myriad of emotions it evokes reinforces the belief that investing more in sport pays in so many ways.

But what will it take for the local football scene, at both club and national team level, to bring the results home? When will we emulate the successes achieved by similarly small nations like Cyprus, Belgium and Iceland? What is it we are not doing enough of?

We must understand what other small countries did and adapt their strategies to our local footballing culture.

During an event organised by the Scottish FA a few years ago, former Icelandic national team coach Heimir Hallgrimsson had attributed footballing successes to the collaboration between the authorities and sport, better qualified coaches and community-driven facilities. He also mentioned the importance of putting the health and well-being of children at the core of everything they did and then reap the rewards when it all came together.

In fairness, a lot has been done in Malta over the recent years by the MFA. The playing and training facilities of member clubs have been improved. There was more focus on the technical aspect and some very good head coaches now lead club nurseries and academies. Yet, clubs still depend too much on volunteers in both the administrative and technical areas and lack funds to invest in full-time paid technical staff.

In 2016, Iceland had an elite coach for every 550 citizens compared to England, which had one for every 11,000 citizens. In Malta, unofficial sources indicate there is one elite coach for every 15,000 citizens. More needs to be done.

In Belgium, it was decided to export as many players as possible to take part in foreign superior leagues and, now, 50 of their footballers can be found in the top European leagues. There are about eight senior Maltese footballers who play abroad and only a handful of youths are gaining experience with foreign clubs.

Lower divisions abroad can be a good stepping stone and still provide a level of football far superior than our national league. This will give us the continuity we so miss.

The government and the MFA need to support young promising players and their parents, financially and administratively, through joint programmes. On their part, the young players and their parents need to move away from their cocooned local environment and understand that sheer hard work and sacrifice are the only answer if they want to ensure career progression and success.

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was recently quoted as saying the government is planning to launch a national sport strategy with an emphasis on investment in football.

This is a welcome initiative and the government would do well to bring together the MFA, clubs and parents to formulate this strategy for the benefit of our children and football in general. Otherwise, it will not work.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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