For any Maltese national team, facing opponents who are considered as powerhouses in European football is always tough ask.
The most recent example is the men’s national team’s debacle against Croatia where Devis Mangia’s side shipped seven goals in the 2022 World Cup qualifiers.
When Malta will host Denmark women’s team this Friday, it will be another tough evening for Mark Gatt’s selection.
The Maltese players have already been on the losing end against the Danes in their previous three encounters, with the 15th-ranked side scoring 23 goals.
Denmark are runners-up of the 2017 European Championship, one of the hot favourites to claim this year’s crown in England and are well-placed to qualify for next year’s World Cup.
For Malta, this will be another stern test where they will have to be at the top of their game to try and keep the opponents at bay as much as possible.
Despite the level of difficulty that such a game provides for the Maltese side, it is always a remarkable moment in the local players’ career to have the opportunity to share the field with some of the biggest names in women’s football.
Goalkeeper Patricia Ebejer is on the books of local club Mġarr United. She is the understudy of regular goalkeeper Janice Xuereb with the Malta national team and is currently deputising for her as the Birkirkara custodian is recovering from a long-term injury.
Ebejer made her national team debut in a home friendly against the United Arab Emirates in 2017 and has collected six caps so far.
She has already tasted the experience of facing the likes of Denmark and Italy, having been part of the national team group in both the qualification campaign for the 2022 Women’s European Championship and the ongoing World Cup preliminary round.
“These games are always a learning curve for us, because we can learn a lot from these experiences,” Ebejer told the Times of Malta.
“Obviously, these type of games will always going to be difficult to play but at the same time these are memorable moments for us players, because we get to share the field with some of the most important players in the women’s game.”
In the women’s game, the discrepancy in quality between the teams is bigger than in the men. One of the main factors that comes into play is that many associations have started to invest in their female players only in recent years.
Denmark’s first ever international game dates back to 1974. On the other hand, Malta’s international debut was 19 years ago and while a massive leap forward has been recorded throughout these years, there is still a massive gap between the two teams that will cross swords this Friday.
Yet, this does not mean that a small island like Malta cannot stage important displays in these type of match-ups.
In fact, last year Mark Gatt’s girls had frustrated Sweden in the inaugural edition of the VisitMalta Tournament on home soil. The Swedes managed to win 3-0, with two goals scored only in the last 30 minutes of the match. Six months later, the Swedes went on to claim silver medal in the Tokyo 2020 Games.
Dressing room atmosphere
During the 2023 World Cup qualifiers, Ebejer was between the sticks in the 2-2 draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina and in the 2-1 away win against Azerbaijan.
The Mġarr custodian was also in the starting formation when Malta faced giants Russia at the Khimki Arena, back in October.
As expected, the Russians had clinched a 3-0 victory, but the Maltese made it hard for them, with two of the Russian goals registered only in the second half.
“Before these types of games, the atmosphere in the dressing does not change a lot,” Ebejer underlined.
“We try to look at what positives we can gain from the match in order to push ourselves and be proud of our performance.
“We make sure to build enough chemistry together and hype each other up, because although we are aware of the task ahead of us, we still want to try and impose our game.”
During these 2023 World Cup qualifiers, there have been some eye-catching results such as England’s 20-0 thrashing of Latvia and Norway scoring 20 goals in two games against Armenia.
In games like these, most of the attention turns on the losing goalkeeper, with everyone promptly criticising or mocking the level between the sticks in the women’s game.
However, more often than not, the bigger picture is not clear especially for those who do not follow the women’s game closely.
The goalkeeping level in the women’s game is still in its early haze, with clubs and national teams just starting to invest more in goalkeeping education.
At the same time, it has been a matter of a few years since female players are being subject to specific training for women athletes and not just copying what’s being done in the men’s game, which might not have the desired effect on their counterparts.
This, combined with the technical difference between the two set of teams on the field, might lead to some big scorelines but it does not mar the development and commitment that the member associations are putting into this ever-growing movement.
“The mental aspect in football is very important, of course,” the Mġarr goalkeeper said.
“It takes a bigger role in games against opponents of this calibre as well.
“From a physical point of view, you train yourself throughout the week but it is important to work on the mental side as well because that is crucial in particular for a goalkeeper – you are the make or break for the team.”