The COVID-19 pandemic has been a catalyst for major change within local sports, particularly in the field of football.
Since its outbreak in March, Malta has seen all of its leagues facing an early end to the 2019-20 season, the Premier League title awarded to Floriana FC with six games to go, promotions to the top two teams of the lower divisions but no play-off for the next in line, as well as bottom-placed teams escaping relegation.
With the help of its ‘Return to Play’ protocols, the Malta Football Association (MFA) managed to restart its competitions in October.
But because this restart was nearly two months later than the usual kick-off to the season, teams have since faced schedules that require them to play more than once a week.
This comes added to the numerous postponed matches as a result of clubs being put into quarantine due to positive cases.
In the case of Premier League clubs, where many are moving towards the more professional setup, this has been a challenge which sometimes looks to be stressful but manageable, but in the second tier – the Challenge League – clubs are struggling to safeguard their players’ fitness and overall safety.
This is especially because these players, who do not get paid as much to play, must juggle their full-time jobs as well.
Current Challenge League leaders Pembroke Athleta, who have yet to lose a match so far this season, have put to use their deep squad and speaking to the Times of Malta, coach Thane Micallef says they have used this as an opportunity to consider their options.
“Obviously it’s a challenge for all of us because when you play a big number of games in a very short period of time, recovery time is limited, Micallef said.
“Apart from this, coming from a long time away from football due to covid, the risk of players getting injured is higher.
“Luckily, we have quite a deep squad and this can contribute to an important factor – that all of our players are important and that they can give us different options, especially during such a season.”
Another club which, despite all odds, has had a bright start is Vittoriosa Stars.
The Cottonera side was one of those playing with fire at the bottom places of the standings in the First Division last season.
However, under the guidance of Ramon Zammit they have flourished and sit in the upper half of the standings during a season which will also be influenced by a greater number of relegations to the Amateur League, as part of the MFA reform in Malta’s football leagues.
“(Congestion) affects every team – We are basically squeezing our players,”
“In December we played eight matches, which is basically a game every three days. I don’t know the reason why this is happening but whatever it is, it’s not right.
“If we want Maltese football to progress, we need to see players doing well and improving their level. But I believe that with players on the pitch playing every two or three days, they can’t really improve.
“Actually, I think we’re risking their well-being, them getting injured and eventually incurring more expenses on the clubs.
“I believe that this way, we’ll never improve our level.”
While some clubs have found solace in reaching out to their youth squads for rotation, clubs like Pietà Hotspurs have revolved their squad around their youth element for years and as a result, this congested schedule is taking its toll on the club especially because a number of their players are not only having to play their senior team matches much more often than usual, but are having to fit in their U-19 matches as well.
“With the COVID-19 situation, it’s particularly difficult for everybody,” Pietà coach Brian Spiteri said.
“Even due to the fact that we started the season late, we had, I believe, five games straight and then with the international break and because the league has an odd number of teams, we had around four weeks off so we had to look for friendlies to keep going.
“On three occasions we’ve suffered from positive cases as well.
“Luckily enough, we’re getting close to a full squad again especially because our experienced players make a lot of difference in our squad.
“Half of the players involved in our matches will also be in action in the Minors team.
“The minors need to be with their age group and need time and space.
“You can’t just strengthen the senior team and not the minors – They’re sort of like the club’s B team, so you need to give it its importance as well.
“At the same time, Pietà have always worked like this, so I know there’s great talent coming in through the ranks.”