Alex Vella rolls back the years to evoke personal memories of Malta’s first international match against Austria 60 years ago today
Nostalgia has a soothing feeling of satisfaction as years are rolled back and events recalled. Life is full of such pleasant memories, not the least in football.
Past episodes are evoked mentally and, nowadays, visually through footage of goals and triumphs, particularly on landmark anniversary dates.
One such occasion is Malta’s first international match 60 years ago, on February 24, 1957, when our team played the mighty Austria who had obtained a prestigious third place in the Switzerland World Cup three years earlier.
As a 16-year-old football fan I ventured to join the massive crowd that made its way to the Empire Stadium, in Gżira on a wintry day that eventually turned bright.
All roads led to our main football playing venue, in those days devoid of turf. We could only offer a dusty, abrasive surface which, however, was also amenable to cultured football the Austrian were capable of producing.
Like many others, I feared that our national team would be the chopping block. At best, we could only offer patches of artisanship against the artistic skills of our continental opponents. The gap in playing levels between Malta and Austria was too wide for any comfortable expectation.
Our team, coached by Joe Griffiths and captained by that football wizard, Salvinu Schembri, with the great Tony Nicholl in the background, may have been too optimistic in offering an honest challenge to our continental aristocrats.
Nevertheless, these fears were to be allayed on the pitch. Spirited commitment and good tactical application were to be our weapons.
Our formation of Victor Scerri, Gużi Bonnici, Lolly Debattista, Ninu Calleja, Joe Cilia, Joe Cini, Lolly Borg, Salvinu Schembri, Tony Cauchi, Sammy Nicholl and Pullu Demanuele, all local heroes in my eyes, walked onto the pitch greeted by a massive ovation from a bumper crowd that had thronged through the gates hours earlier.
Players from both teams were led out by the Italian referee, Vincenzo Orlandini, wearing a conspicuously elegant jacket.
The visitors’ superiority yielded three goals, the first of which a Bonnici own goal, and soon my thoughts revolved around how our team could avoid an embarrassing defeat. We could not ask for more in those circumstances.
Surprisingly, we were transformed after the interval and started stretching the Austrians with some bold attacking fare. I then felt the crowd sensed some recuperative signs from our lads. To my relief, that was on the cards.
With the minutes ticking away, Cauchi nipped in to reduce the arrears and, minutes later, the inimitable Nicholl scored a superb second goal off substitute’s George Jones’s free kick and a Cini assist when he fired into the top corner of the net after side-stepping the Austrian defender Karl Stotz.
Could the unthinkable happen? Would tiny Malta draw level in those last minutes? Fate deemed it was not to be.
However, that did not deter a group of enthusiastic Maltese supporters from expressing their jubilation at the end of the match. Yes, our heroes walked tall as they left the pitch shoulder high. I relished those moments.
In the words of Nicholl and Scerri, now 82 and 89 respectively, “our performance against the great Austrians defied logic. That resulted in a group of supporters carrying us jubilantly to the dressing room at the final whistle”.
The lanky goalkeeper, still very lucid despite his age, recalled that, some days before I met him recently for his comments, his son had showed him clips of that match.
“My memories were again revived when I saw that film showing a capacity crowd of over 18,000 spectators filling the stands and the vantage points surrounding the top of the dwellings overlooking the stadium while we went out on the pitch,” Scerri said.
Nicholl was equally moved as he evoked the match. “The never-give-up approach spurred us on to a great second-half revival after conceding three goals in the opening period. This culminated in goals by Cauchi and myself.”
“The fighting element was part of my set-up, which was also evident in several late goals I scored for Sliema Wanderers to overturn results in my team’s favour,” the former ace scorer remarked.
Both players agreed that the memories of that match will remain. “Subsequent to that match and along the years we did obtain a few prestigious results in and out of competition but nothing will compare with the aura surrounding that memorable February day six decades ago. The significance of our first international match could not be erased.”
I, too, was proud to be part of that scenario even if in a vociferous but relatively passive way.
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