During the last three weeks, the debate on whether the 2019-20 Premier League season should be completed next month has dominated the local football circles’ agenda. Valletta FC vice-president Alexander Fenech told Valhmor Camilleri that if the BOV Premier League is stopped this month it will have serious repercussions on the future of Maltese football….
At present, ten of the 14 top-flight clubs have been consistently demanding to the local governing body of football to end the season now while Valletta, Birkirkara and Gżira United are desperate for the championship to be decided on the pitch.
This week, the Malta FA has announced that a final decision on whether football can return next month will be taken during the association’s Executive Committee meeting on May 18.
During the meeting, MFA president Bjorn Vassallo informed the clubs that the local governing body had sent a letter to the Superintendent of Health, Professor Charmaine Gauci, which included a medical protocol which will be implemented once the association is given the green light to resume its competitions.
Speaking to Times of Malta, Alexander Fenech reiterated his club’s stance of wanting the season to be concluded on the pitch and said that he was heartened by the Malta FA’s increased efforts to ensure the season can continue.
“I was very pleased with the more pro-active attitude being undertaken by the Malta FA so that football can resume,” Fenech said.
“I welcomed this effort by the MFA as I always said that we needed to do more then just send a letter to ask if football can continue or not. The reply we always received was ‘at the moment we don’t know’ and that is an obvious one as it is difficult for them to give a clear ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer. So, all clubs involved welcomed the new approach by the Malta FA and the more positive kind of communication with the Superintendent of Health.”
Asked whether the fact that the COVID-19 situation in Malta is continuously improving makes them more positive that football will resume next month, Fenech said: “I think the situation in Malta, thanks to the efforts of the health authorities, is as good as it can be until an approved treatment or a vaccine is made available to the public.
“As a pharmacist, I cannot see a change in the environment from now until December.
“We have a clear choice in front of us. Do we want football to resume in Malta now? If it’s a ‘no’ today, it means a ‘no’ for a restart in October and in December.
“Such decision would mean that we are accepting that we are dismantling the industry of football in Malta.
“This industry is not making profit for Valletta FC, Hibernians or Gudja, just to name a few, but it leaves a revenue for hundreds of individuals, be it players, technical staff and personnel employed by the Malta FA on match-day which amounts approximately to over 500 people.
“If we are saying ‘no’, it means that in the next year and a half the clubs have to go to their players and technical staff who have a full time contract and inform them that their industry is finished, like a company that has closed its doors and their contracts are terminated. I’m sure nobody wants that.
“That is why we are contending that if the situation remains under control like it is and we have medical experts, who are authoritative figures in the sports medicine scene, who have drafted a medical protocol to ensure the safety of everyone, let’s continue to play.
“Because if we are not going to play now, I want to make it clear that Valletta FC will not start the season in October.”
The sustainability of the clubs during a football season relies mostly on sponsorship agreements with private companies.
Fenech said that if the season is terminated early, he cannot see how football clubs can approach their sponsors and ask them to extend their assistance in times when the majority of businesses are struggling due to the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Maltese football depends on a number of individuals who love their club and inject their own money into the club,” he said.
“Then there are the sponsors who invest in football clubs each year.
“If we take a sponsor who for example has a two-year deal with Valletta, we have now lost six months therefore the income from this agreement will not come through during this period as we need to extend the deal through next season to provide him with the exposure agreed.
“Added to that, one has to keep in mind that this pandemic has affected badly the businesses in the hospitality sector where there are many who support Maltese football.
“Do you think that when next season arrives anyone will even think of approaching these companies for a new sponsor?
“The reality is that Maltese football has been living in a bubble for many years and it had to be this virus to burst it. Football has been surviving beyond its means for many years and I think the time has come to reform the financing system of Maltese clubs.
“If we are not going to play soon, we will be giving another mortal blow to Maltese football.”
The 2020-21 season in Malta is set to start later than usual as the MFA is looking at kicking off its competitions in October to ensure clubs arrive for their European commitments in a better condition, and thus be more competitive.
Fenech says that the only way for Maltese clubs to come through this pandemic is if new ways to help clubs generate revenue are introduced.
“When one is involved in a football club, his priority is to see his team perform in the best possible way,” the Valletta FC vice-president said.
“You end up being engaged in unplanned commitments and you fork out not only all your revenue but many times more as you want your team to be the best.
“In my opinion, one essential way to help clubs generate more revenue is through the Law of Commercialisation of Sports Facilities. At the moment, clubs are facing a lot of obstacles to have it implemented in their organisation but it can provide valuable leeways for clubs to make the most of their assets.
“As regards TV rights in Malta, it may be true that crowd attendances in our stadia are always decreasing but when you look at the statistics regarding local football programmes on TV you realise that there is a strong viewership so people do follow Maltese football.
“Last year, I discovered that for the league decider between Valletta and Hibernians the TV cable companies in Malta had 70,000 digital boxes tuned on the match which is no joke. However, tangible initiatives to maximise the potential of Maltese football are not present, here.
“Abroad, clubs earn money through broadcasting rights and match-days.
“Our club, thanks to the effort of our supporters, manages to earn a small profit during match-days but that is not close to getting at a state where you can finance your club through your revenues. That is where we need to look at.”
Fenech said that the only way forward is to create new revenue mainstreams for our clubs and European football is the best medium.
“Progressing from one round to another in UEFA club competitions is the best possible way for our clubs to increase their revenues,” Fenech said.
“When our president said that he wants to see his team go past several qualifying rounds, there were people who laughed at him.
“But in reality that is the benchmark for us. Because if you qualify, you receive more money from UEFA and then you can re-invest those funds into your squad to bring in better players and that is half you increase the standard of football.
“In Europe there are several teams who are a case in point for this. When we played Azerbaijan side Qarabag, they had a budget of 16 million euros, today they doubled that, the same goes for Bate Borisov who started with three to four million and they increased that.
“But we need to create a sustainable model and each club has to be sustainable.
“One thing that can be done is turning every Premier League club into a limited liability companies so that who is leading them will have the responsibility of making sure of the long-term viability of the club.
“Maybe a bank guarantee is created but before all these things we need to help the clubs to monetise their assets.”