As is the case with all other walks of life, Maltese sport has come through a long journey of episodes most of which are heavily influenced by a foreign imprint more or less in line with the socio-political development of the nation.
The manner in which different sporting disciplines mushroomed around the islands over a span of more than 150 years has shaped today’s sporting culture in towns and villages with some maintaining the unique characteristics inherited from different generations to the extent that they form a prominent role of the locality’s way of life.
All 68 legally recognised districts in the Maltese Islands, locally referred to as local councils, identify themselves with the roots of origin of at least one sporting discipline.
With Great Britain seizing control of the islands from the French in 1800 and Malta becoming a Crown Colony in 1813, it took quite some time for the British sporting culture to take off yet once it did, it flourished and left a long lasting legacy.
In fact, the Malta Polo Club together with the Malta Racing Club are the two oldest national sport associations in Malta having been established in 1868. Both were founded by British Army and Navy personnel stationed in Malta. The racing horses were the same ones used for polo hence why flat races were only organised at first at the Marsa Racetrack. Imported horses only came from Tunisia.
Years later, the first ever football match to be played locally was held on March 4, 1882 at Marsa between soldiers of the Garrison and the Royal Engineers. In the following years, local teams were formed leading to the official foundation of the Malta Football Association in 1900.
With wild hunting having already been a mainstay on the islands for decades, it comes as no surprise that one of the oldest associations is the Malta Shooting Sport Federation that was established in 1908 with the first shooting range built in Attard.
With Malta playing an important role in World War I between 1914 and 1918 due to its strategic location, as expected, the sporting culture went through a lull and it was not before 1923, two years after Malta achieved self-governance, that the Malta Chess Federation was established. Chess in Malta dates back to the times when the island was under the rule of the Castilians and Aragonese.
In the early 1920s, Croce Bonaci, the first official chess promoter, established a club in Valletta while two brothers from Senglea, Oscar and Erin Serracino Inglott, started a chess club in Cottonera. In the meantime, a similar group started in Sliema under the helm of Oreste Pitre.
Waterpolo was introduced in Malta when competitions were held between the British Servicemen who practised this new sport either in the quiet waters of Marsamxett (Valletta) or at Għar id-Dud, below Sliema Battery Point, better known as Il-Fortizza.
In fact, the first two Maltese aquatic sports clubs were established in Valletta and Sliema. The ASA was founded in 1926 and also caters for diving, swimming and synchronized swimming.
Although in 1877, the English province of the Society of Jesus (Jesuit Fathers) opened a College for secondary education in St. Julian’s and included athletics as a sport discipline in the teaching curriculum, the first athletics meeting was held in 1888. Yet, it was only 40 years later that the Malta Amateur Athletic Association was founded in 1928.
Billiards and Snooker were introduced in Malta by members of the British forces and the game was mainly popular in barracks’ sports rooms in Kalafrana (Birżebbuġa), Pembroke and Mtarfa as well as in Cottonera where many personnel were stationed. The first newspaper references to the playing of the game goes back to 1896 yet it was not until 1935 that the Malta Billiards and Snooker Association was founded.
Post World War II in Malta
With World War II in Malta between 1939 and 1945 leaving a devastating effect, mainly in the latter three years, once again this left a negative impact on the sporting culture on the islands.
Table Tennis was already being played in Malta within the Services’ quarters in the late twenties but it was the Royal University Sports Club that introduced the game to local enthusiasts and it soon became a popular indoor sport.
With St Cajetan Band Club in Ħamrun being the first to purchase a table tennis table in 1936, the venue soon became the cradle of this sport in the Maltese Islands leading to the creation of the Malta Table Tennis Association in 1948.
In the same year, the Island Car Club, through its origins in the Malta Branch of the Forces Motoring Club, was set up but was restricted to persons who wore or had worn British Forces uniform.
The first two Maltese members were Francis Gera and Alex Agius Cesareo, who both joined in the late 1950s because they had been in the Territorial Army.
Later, the ‘uniform’ rule was relaxed to allow Maltese who were keen motorists and were considered assets to the Club. The first ever hill climb was held at Għar Lapsi (Siġġiewi) in the early 1950s yet the first official hill climb in Malta for many years was held at Miżieb (St Paul’s Bay) in 1961 under RAC Regulations and was a huge success.
It was won by Sergeant Penny driving a Speedwell conversion of an Austin Healey Sprite. The club then went through two or three name changes, first dropping ‘Forces’ from its name and, when new legislation prohibited the use of the word ‘Malta’, changing from Malta Driving Club to Island Car Club.
A year later, the Malta Model Aircraft Flying Association was founded when a chance encounter with an RAF Squadron Leader, who was based in Malta and himself a keen aero modeller, opened the doors to the Maltese “model aviators” to Ta’ Qali Airfield (Attard). They were “allowed to share” the runway with their RAF counterparts and full size military hardware in what was still at the time very much a fully active fighter airfield.
Note: Kevin Azzopardi is an Education Officer (Physical Education) within the Ministry for Education and Visiting Lecturer at the University of Malta.