To err is human.
To hassle your girlfriend, harrying her up right to the bathroom door and expecting her to be out and ready in 2min 30 sec is plain diabolical. She almost did (4 long minutes if you asked me). We stopped to buy a piece of “chocolate” along the way as we were absolutely famished. I was determined, in my heart of hearts, to be there fifteen minutes on time and sing our National Anthem, clearly and loudly, with my occasional loss of tune that would normally make the experience very embarassing. But hey this is my country, my anthem, probably the only thing together with my mother tongue that keeps me close to this extended family of fake moralists, hypocrites and dumb sheep. I don’t even like pastizzi.
(I’m fully aware I should be writing this in Maltese, and I will do a rendition of it, but for now I want everyone who doesn’t speak our language to feel the pain I felt.)
Malta play Croatia in less than thirty minutes time and we manage to park. Parking close to a football stadium should be impossible, but this is Malta, where the national side lurks towards the bottom of the UEFA rankings. Why do I go to watch my national side? To see the half empty stadium (weren’t it for the nursery kids it would be 7/8 empty) in front of me? To witness the desolation of a trashing? To see a valiant effort thrown to fuck at the last minute (Malta 0-1 Greece, oh how I swore)? To remind myself that we are the minnows who should be competing with San Marino and Andorra?
What is it? I can tell you it’s nothing to do with Hornby’s delirious love of everything Arsenal. It’s just… hope. A faint glimmer of hope that never dies, despite the humiliations and severe blows accumulated throughout the years.
Entrance to the stadium was another such blow. We stand in what looks like a short queue that doesn’t appear to be moving. Here I can only shudder at the thought of how badly the MFA fucked up proceedings for everyone. After fifteen minutes I am finally close the ticketing cash point only to discover that the tickets are being printed there and then. It takes more than two minutes to print two tickets. The men buying tickets in front of us were part of a group of around twenty people, so you can imagine how long it took. We finally got our tickets, got wrong directions from the police and body searched twice as, once past the first police check, my ticket refused me access to the stadium. I had to walk around the bend and try my luck there. Maybe I was slow, stupid, lost, panicky and everything that goes with it, but even if you’re lost in the most decrepit of airports in Siberia you’d find a sign to give you directions, or something.
Outside of Ta’ Qali there is nothing of the sort.
By time we get to the inside of our national stadium, with its arcane architecture that evokes the glory days of Tito and Lorry Sant, the match has started already. National anthem?
We sit down in the area usually reserved to the South End Core, who have finally ditched the black t-shirt with white Maltese cross that made them look like downright fascists for a red t-shirt (a sponsor intervened, but once the colour is right it’s a step ahead). Louis Agius is yelling himself hoarse, as usual, on the megaphone. The band plays on. The crowd isn’t what it used to be. Among squeals of feedback from the loudspeaker in front of us, the following dies down bit by bit.
Croatia (or Croatia’s reserves) edge 0-1 in front through Vukojevic (his name is misspelt on the scoreboard and the lousy, nasal announcer on the tannoy can’t quite pronounce him) after a mistake by Hogg. Then they make it 0-2 and by now I’m regretting spending €5 to watch my country. But the Maltese, technically and physically limited, are not playing that badly. The midfielders win a number of balls and some of our defenders tackle superbly (at one point during the second half one of ours lunges beautifully at the ball clearing it away from an opponent’s foot and consequently a goal, well done pal).
Then Malta scores. A goal. And it wasn’t offside either. Michael Mifsud, a player who most criticise for his attitudes (I don’t follow club football, don’t ask me) and who once put two past Manchester United in an epic Coventry win, slips through the centre backs and tucks it in the low corner behind Pletikosa. We were close to scoring earlier on: a shot fizzing wide, an open goal opportunity… but this one went in.
GOOOOAAALLLL… my turn to cough, choke and sputter, and come back to yell more. Half time ends 1-2. Not bad.
Eventually Malta loses, conceding a soft third goal from a corner (Lovren heads it in on the far post) but overall the display wasn’t that bad: at certain moments it seemed we could even draw. Kalinic tries a solo effort after dribbling past four or five of ours but tries an insolent, irritating and ultimately innocuous chip that goes wide. The few scores of Croatian fans (a multitude of flags compared to ours) start cheering at around 77 minutes, not because they woke up halfway through the game to find they were winning, but probably, I suspect, because of news coming from other stadia meaning they’re about to qualify. I didn’t really bother to look up why. Better not know why they’re happy and I’m frustrated about passes going astray or long balls to Mifsud, who is after all no match for Corluka and Lovren in the air.
Meanwhile the South End have gone from fever (1-2) to mild enthusiasm (second half) to almost complete silence (1-3). The final whistle arrives and we leave without as much as a whimper, through the turnstiles (which I think should control entrance to instead of exit from the stadium) and out into the open, to smells of Arriva bendybuses and hotdogs.
Why, then, do I bother to watch Malta knowing we’ll still lose?
We’ll lose for another ten, twenty, thirty years. Hopefully someone is doing something about it, teaching our kids how to pass the ball and move around instead of simply gaping at Barcelona in some pub with a pint of lager and crisps.
How I hoped those football nursery kids sitting in the stands could understand what was going wrong, what the football we played wasn’t doing for us, and why and how other teams seem to be so good. Someone has to show them that, too.