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Malta’s football reputation on the line as World Cup match against Russia in doubt

The Malta national team faces an anxious wait on whether they will be able to prepare and play their opening World Cup qualifier against Russia. Photo: Domenic Aquilina

Will Malta’s opening World Cup 2022 qualifying match against Russia on March 24 go ahead as planned?

Many local football followers have been asking this question as the government’s measure banning sports events in Malta up to the day of April 11 due to the surge in COVID-19 cases has raised questions about this match.

Some have gone as far as to speculate whether, for the first time in Maltese football history, the national team might have to forfeit the fixture, an unthinkable scenario.

The sporting restrictions introduced by the Government have been met with mixed reactions – for some the measures were necessary to try and prevent the further spread of COVID-19 but others have suggested that elite sports competitions regulated by effective coronavirus protocols should have been allowed to continue. 

One thing is sure – the restrictions have caused serious issues for the Malta Football Association at international level.

Attempts by the Times of Malta Sportsdesk to obtain official information, both from the Parliamentary Secretariat for Sport and the Malta Football Association, about the extent of the restriction and whether it will also apply to important international events such as the national football team’s World Cup fixture against Russia, have been unsuccessful so far.

In its statement about the suspension of the domestic football competitions on Wednesday, the Malta FA made reference to these challenges, stating that it is maintaining regular contact with the Ministry responsible for sport “as it continues to monitor the situation very closely, also in view of the national teams’ upcoming international matches, scheduled to take place in the final week of March, and the required preparations for these commitments.”

While the national team’s first match against Russia is at home, the other two matches during the March international period are away fixtures against Slovakia, considered as one of the European countries with the worst COVID-19 situations, and Croatia which has also seen a significant rise in the number of positive cases.

Yet, as things stand, their World Cup matches in March do not appear to be in danger.

According to a report on Sky News, three-quarters of the European countries have reported a rise in COVID-19 cases and it is clear that Malta is no exception.

However, with regards to football, most if not all of the European countries have not suspended their top leagues, even during lockdowns, let alone the national teams’ games.

Although there is no disputing the fact that public health issues should be the main concern, one hopes that the situation regarding Malta’s World Cup match against Russia, to be played in less than two weeks’ time, becomes clearer and that every effort is made by all interested parties to find the best solution.

The successful hosting of Malta’s UEFA Nations League matches and friendlies between September and November 2020, through the implementation of UEFA’s strict Return To Play Protocol, should be taken into consideration.

The option of not honouring the fixture should not even be contemplated as this would seriously damage the country’s reputation in international football. Added to that it would also cause serious financial and sporting repercussions which might threaten the stability of Maltese football. 

Times Of Malta understands that the MFA has asked the government to grant an exemption for the match to take place in Malta and for the national team players to be allowed to train with strict health and safety protocols in place.

The other option would be to stage the match at a neutral venue and for the Maltese team to conduct their preparations overseas.

But one has to ask whether this is financially and logistically viable in the current circumstances.

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