The new 2021-22 BOV Premier League is set to launch on Thursday evening when Sliema Wanderers take on Balzan.
However, all attention will be shifted to the main event of the opening day when champions Ħamrun Spartans will cross swords with eternal rivals Valletta, tomorrow.
For the Spartans’ president Joseph Portelli, the meeting with Valletta is like heading to war.
“We are going to war against Valletta – this what I told my players,” Portelli told a news conference.
“I want my team to be fully focused when it matters to stay competitive and we have to start to showcase ourselves once again this Friday, against Valletta.
“We have maintained the core of our team in order to be prepared for a new campaign while upgrading our quality level as well.”
For the opening game of the season, the Spartans will be without club captain Matthew Guillaumier who will be sidelined for the next six weeks due to a meniscus injury that he sustained in their last friendly against Nadur Youngsters.
President Portelli is also eager to attend a Ħamrun Spartans match alongside the fans after the local authorities gave the go ahead to let supporters attend football matches as from Matchday 1.
“My wish is to see the Ħamrun Spartans fans pack the stands like the old days, but having a number of fans allowed inside the stadia is already a big step,” Portelli said.
Meanwhile, coach Mark Buttigieg explained how the pre-season was longer since they had started early to prepare for the UEFA Champions League qualifiers from which eventually they were banned due to their involvement in a match-fixing case way back in 2013.
“The pre-season schedule became longer due to factors that we did not have control on and that has affected a bit our players,” Buttigieg explained.
“Nonetheless, this team has showed a lot of maturity and we are now prepared to defend our league title, as it will be another long journey.”
Buttigieg heaped praise on the club’s administration that not only managed to keep the most influential players but has also improved the technical level, bringing in several key players to strengthen the side.
A latest addition to the team is Gozitan player Chris Mercieca, formerly of Victoria Hotspurs and who has already been called with the Malta U-21 squad under Silvio Vella.
In addition, Buttigieg can also rely on an expanded technical staff that will now include also a full-time physio and a full-time physical trainer, alongside a masseur on a part-time basis.
The club president was eyeing a particular criteria of foreign players to bring in at the Spartans, but he admitted that he could not lure them only with money.
“Our league is limited and despite having the financial possibility to bring certain players, we still did not manage to lure players that we thought we could bring just by offering them more money than foreign competitors,” Portelli said.
“So, one way of trying to overcome this hurdle and inject more quality in the team is to be president of a foreign club, maybe Italy or England, which would make it more easy to exchange or negotiate with players.
“It would cost me a lot of money but for me it’s not a problem and I believe that could boost Ħamrun Spartans.”
Portelli also explained that a lot of clubs knocked the door for Joseph Mbong, but they offered much less than his value and despite tempting the player with a chance to play in foreign leagues, financially it was not worth it for the Spartans.
The biggest regret for Portelli and for the rest of the team’s administration is the absence from European football.
Although according to the Spartans’ president they still managed to double their sponsorship despite not being in the Champions League, the UEFA ban hurt them a lot.
“Personally, it does not make sense to condemn a team for a mistake of seven and a half years ago, when the club was under a different administration,” Portelli said.
“I wish Hibernians all the best, of course, but I would prefer if I would be the first person to guide a Maltese team into the group stages of a European competition.
“I am here to set history and not only by winning domestically, but I want to dominate domestically and have this club in the main stages of UEFA tournaments.”
Portelli’s biggest project for Ħamrun Spartans is to turn this club into a self-sustainable one and he is urging the authorities to be cooperative and allow him to initiate his Victor Tedesco Stadium project to start commercialising.
“How can we pretend to compete with other nations, and not necessary the big ones, if we have low budgets,” Portelli said.
“The authorities must help the local clubs and once that happens, that will allow us to grow, improve and start compete financially with other countries.
“It’s useless to pass new laws and regulations if the clubs are still stumbling on several hurdles to transform their ambitions into reality.”
Portelli made it clear that if by the end of the year he is not allowed to start his project, he will turn his back on it.
“After all, this project is not in my personal interest but in the interest of the football movement in Malta and help Ħamrun Spartans become a self-sustainable club,” the president explained.
The Spartans CEO, Marcel Bonnici, took the opportunity to explain some of the projects that the club has embarked, on such as launching their new website and their social media profile on the platform Tik Tok, which is very popular among the young generation.
Bonnici also said that the academy of the team, now called Football School of Excellence and which will be sponsored by Daikin, is in its first phase of its development and they expect it to grow throughout the upcoming year.
In addition, the club is also eyeing to become more than just a sports club identity as they will be working on two additional pillars which are making this club more commercial.
There are also plans to launch Ħamrun Spartans as a social brand identity where they will collaborate with a number of notable sponsors to upgrade themselves from a merchandising and membership point of view as well.