COVID-19 may have restricted club basketball in Malta this year, but a FIBA decision on May 12 to go ahead with this summer’s European Small Countries Championship has brought back the excitement of watching our national team play competitively.
While Malta’s men have the task of defending their crown in August, the women will be looking to conquer this year’s competition starting
Speaking to the Times of Malta, Malta Basketball Association (MBA) president Paul Sultana is aiming high and said that the team’s goal is to “win it all”.
Speaking about the male contingent this summer, Sultana explained that preparation is in full swing to “defend our gold in the best manner that we can”.
“We don’t have any excuses, except for that we would like to play a number of friendlies because we haven’t played in four months, but we don’t have any teams to play with. The tournament starts in August but apart from lockdowns, many teams would be on holiday and that would be a minus for us as we can’t really prepare much for games – that is the only setback I envisage.
“Preparation has been going on for around a month. We’ve got another two or three weeks to go where (the players) don’t have as much game practice as we’d like but physically, we will be well prepared.”
Asked about this year’s squad, the MBA supremo explained that it would be very similar to the side that won gold in San Marino back in 2018. However, there will be one downside to the story as the team will be without its playmaker – former Hibernians guard Roderick Vella – who retired and will be this year’s assistant coach.
“The squad has not been confirmed yet, but it will be similar to that which won gold, plus the introduction of a number of youngsters,” Sultana explained.
“You can say we’re in full strength apart from the loss of Roderick Vella, which is a big setback – were he not retired, he’d still be very valid. But we have him as our assistant coach this year, and the young players we have are very good.”
Since 2018, MVP Samuel Deguara has gone on to play in Japan, while fellow All-Star Five winner Aaron Falzon is now playing with the Leicester Riders – one of the most prestigious sides in the British Basketball League (BBL).
Malta’s young center Kurt Cassar will be joining the side on the back of a promotion to the Italian Serie A2 with Janus Fabriano. Australia-based Jacob Formosa and Nelson Kahler will be unable to join the squad due to the COVID-19 situation.
As for the locally-based players, David Bugeja and Peter Shoults will also be able to leave their mark on this summer’s games, while Gżira Athleta’s Nathan Xuereb has already been confirmed to be one of the new additions.
Sultana explained that the rest of the squad would be confirmed later on by Malta coach Andrea Paccarie.
‘Bronze at minimum’
The women’s team may have also beat Norway in their final game of the 2018 tournament like the men, but they will be out for blood this week to go from bronze to gold as the team opens its Group A commitments on Wednesday against Andorra and face Ireland the following day.
MBA secretary-general Joseph Muscat echoed Sultana by saying that the women’s aim is to win.
With the side having less time to prepare for the tournament in July, Muscat explained that training under Malta coach Angela Adamoli had become
intensive since the easing of restriction.
“The players trained intensively, even sometimes twice a day – obviously we still had the problem of players juggling work,” Muscat told the Times of Malta.
While the goal is always gold, Muscat admits it will be difficult, considering the fact that COVID-19 has restricted play and eventually halted it in March.
“In March, we weren’t even allowed to train, and we started around three weeks ago. So, we don’t have as much game experience and that area I’m sure will be quite a problem, except for the players who play abroad.”
Kristy Galea and Sophie Abela, both playing in the US, have had an impressive season as they took their teams to their respective post-season tournaments.
Mikela Riolo, who has been playing in Spain for the past season, will be making the leap into the senior side together with UK-based Sasha Lecuyer who also took her side, the Loughborough Riders, to the playoffs.
The side will be without “one of our foundations”, Hibs guard Ashleigh Vella but Muscat said the side will usher in a younger generation for the tournament.
“I think we can make it to the semi-finals and fight for bronze at minimum. If we do more than that I’d be super happy because the team is young and not as used to each other just yet,” Muscat said.
‘Preparing for 2023’
MBA president Sultana said that apart from aiming for gold, these Games will serve as preparation for the Games of the Small States of Europe 2023 which will be held in Malta.
“Usually we wouldn’t have finances to take part in tournaments but this year we do, through the government and SportMalta. With the help of the MOC (Malta Olympic Committee), we have good funds. So apart from defending our gold, we’ll be preparing for 2023 – that’s the goal,” Sultana said.
“The good thing is we have many young players who are very promising and the problem we have is actually who do we leave out. It’s a ‘great’ problem to have because it means we can use them for the future.”
WOMEN’S SQUAD FOR FIBA EUROPEAN SMALL COUNTRIES CHAMPIONSHIP
Stephanie De Martino, Josephine Grima, Kristy Galea, Maria Bonett, Christina Curmi, Samantha Brincat, Sophie Abela, Mikela Riolo, Cristina Sollami, Julia Xerri, Claire Ciantar, Sasha Lecuyer.