A gritty display, probably one of the best ever from a Maltese women club on the European stage, still was not enough for Birkirkara to rewrite history. Olimpia Cluj’s narrow victory meant the Stripes bowed out from the UEFA Women’s Champions League at the first hurdle. Nonetheless, for coach MELANIA BAJADA, told Gianluca Lia this first round qualifier goes beyond the 90 minutes on the pitch…
For Birkirkara FC this was the third time they were set to face Romanian giants Olimpia Cluj in the Women’s Champions League. Most recently in 2018, Birkirkara crossed paths with Cluj in the qualifiers, succumbing to a heavy 6-1 defeat.
Make no mistake, this result was a tough one to swallow for the Stripes and given the quality that Cluj boasts, another large scoreline was on the cards.
Nonetheless, Birkirkara produced a spectacular team effort, in particular in the first 45 minutes where they also managed to forge ahead right before the half-time whistle.
However, that goal triggered Bajada’s nightmare.
“To be honest, when we scored just before the break I was terrified,” Bajada told the Sunday Times of Malta.
“At that moment, I knew that Cluj would come out all guns blazing at the restart and the players were aware of that in the dressing room.”
Coach Bajada has almost visioned that moment in her head prior to the game as just the day before, the team had a session with sports psychologist Dr Adele Muscat to boost their confidence.
“Ultimately, it is not up to the coach entirely to motivate the team – obiously, I need to show an amount of trust and belief in my team but it also depends on the environment the players are used to,” Bajada said.
“It’s time to step up for the challenge that lies ahead, in particular against foreign teams.
“And this is not just an issue related to women’s football – we tend to suffer even mentally against foreign opponents.”
Bajada, a former player herself, highlights the contrast between Malta’s men national team dramatic defeat against Faroe Islands and their last-gasp winner over Latvia.
“See? It’s all about coach’s trust and professional environment that enables them to have confidence in themselves, show no fear and stay concentrated until the final whistle,” Bajada highlighted.
“At the end of the game, I was frustrated because we just needed that little extra to overcome this hurdle and this reflected the benefits that professionalism can bring.
“Our team is formed of players who have their part-time jobs and obviously, this does not help them to prepare mentally and physically for football in the best possible way, but rather than being an alibi for this game let’s hope that this will be eye-opener for the authorities concerned.”
Tackling professionalism in domestic men’s football sparks controversial theories already, let alone in the women’s game.
Nonetheless, Birkirkara is a club who is gradually starting to give more consideration to its women’s side that has won the last four championships.
In fact, coach Bajada explained how the Stripes have formed a committee specifically for the women’s side.
“We have a solid relationship with the mother club, but in order to add more burden to the main administration and avoid bureaucracy, we wanted to start a new committe dedicated entirely to us,” Bajada said.
“The women’s team is a source of pride for Birkirkara and we are looking to embark on new initiatives that can gradually help this club start making further steps, even in Europe, such as financial incentives.
“Obviously, the coronavirus pandemic has halted some of our plans such as a training camp in Turin that included a friendly against Juventus and a number of fund-raising activities that usually help us relief a bit from our costs.”
Bajada’s vision is much larger than Birkirkara’s progress. She feels that the women’s game is ready to take a step into the next level.
“There are simple things which we can do in order to start injecting some boost in our movement, such as having our national team play in the National Stadium for example,” Bajada pointed out.
“Playing in big stadiums should not be an issue anymore because most of our players are now experienced in playing in such venues – case in point our game against Cluj which was played in the 30,000-seater Cluj Arena.
“It’s time to go for the challenge, push boundaries and work towards more acknowledgement.”
Bajada points out that whenever they are involved in the Champions League, she always feel overwhelmed by the facilities that host them during that short period of time.
“I remember going to Kharkiv in 2018 and I was stunned by the facilities that the club had,” Bajada underlined.
“I thought to myself, how can we ever achieve positive results on the big stages if instead of striving to build facilities and create a professional environment, we only seek to raise the paycheck of the players without any proper long-term plans?”.