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Watch: Zach Muscat’s sacrifices reflected in Casa Pia’s remarkable promotion

One of the most astonishing stories that European football has produced in the 2021-22 season has Casa Pia as its protagonists.

Casa Pia, a Lisbon-based club, halted a run of 83 years without playing top-flight football in Portugal after sealing promotion last week.

Despite being a barely known club, especially outside Portuguese shores, Casa Pia has a rich history in the local game having contributed to the birth of the national championship.

They were also one of the teams that featured in the first-ever Portuguese top-flight, dating back to 1939.

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Having been relegated after just one season, Casa Pia never really had any other glory days until a 5-1 routine victory over Leixoes completed a remarkable promotion.

That was a fitting tribute to a club that does not represent a city or a town but has the community as the priority in its agenda.

Casa Pia is a Portuguese children’s charity that provides shelter to homeless people; therefore, they could not have wished to be represented by a better group of players this season.

A key figure in the team was Zach Muscat, whose strong showings at the heart of the defensive line played a starring role in Casa Pia’s promotion, in his second season at the club.

The Malta international played 28 league games during which they obtained 23 positive results including 15 clean sheets as well.

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Casa Pia’s resilience at the back was essential to keep their hopes of promotion alive, boasting the best defensive record in all Portuguese championships together with Porto – who dethroned Sporting Lisbon at the top of the first-tier – with just 22 goals conceded.

Looking back at the decision made prior to this season, Muscat believes that it was the right move as it paid dividends and made justice to the sacrifices he made throughout his football career.

“When I signed in the first year, I was attracted by their project while it was an opportunity for me to make a step up from third-tier football to second-tier football,” Muscat told the Times of Malta.

Zach Muscat (left) in action for Casa Pia in the Portuguese league

“Prior to this season, I was not sure about my next step and Casa Pia presented another offer to me even though I was told that I would not be a starter.

“In fact, I was not in the starting formation in the early stages of the campaign but that motivated me and afterwards I established myself in the first XI, playing 28 games in the process.”

Muscat, 28, had the right intuition when he decided to spend another year at Casa Pia.

“I believed in the project, I believed in the staff and Casa Pia has a setup that it is very close to the ones of the top four teams in Portugal. Therefore, it was always at the back of my mind that we could challenge for promotion,” he explained.

Although he was not promised a fixed place in the starting formation, Muscat was still one of the most experienced players at Casa Pia.

Having been at the club the previous year, he was already familiar with the environment and that enabled him to flourish more as a leader as well.

Being vice-captain of the team, Muscat was often the one with the captain’s armband throughout some league outings.

“Besides football, I feel that I have continued to grow from a human aspect this season,” Muscat admits.

“I had a lot of responsibilities at the club, for example helping in managing a large group of players, bridging the gap between the staff and the players, and keeping the players motivated to maintain a certain level of competitiveness in the squad.”

Video: Matthew Mirabelli

Muscat lauded the efforts that his team made to achieve what it looked unthinkable just before the season started, with the odds heavily stacked against a Casa Pia promotion.

“It was a very interesting league where we made a name for ourselves, producing a run of 10 unbeaten games earlier in the season,” Muscat explained.

“At some point, we slipped, and it cost us the first position but at the end we achieved what we worked for and what we deserved – the promotion.

“Although the club was planning to achieve promotion into the top-flight, no one was willing to bet on us. Moreover, on a personal level I feel that this has been my best season.”

During the 2021-22 season, Muscat made 32 appearances for Casa Pia in all competitions and scored four goals – to bring the total to seven in 60 games at Portuguese club as a defender.

Having already spent a year in Portuguese football – at Olhanense in third-tier – it was helpful for Muscat to adapt to the playing style in Portugal which is completely different from the one he was used to in Italy where he played at Akragas, Pistoiese and Arezzo.

Muscat feels that his journey in football helped him to forge a strong character which allows him to overcome the hurdles he encounters.

“Having not been guaranteed a place in the starting formation, I motivated myself to do well and I am aware that through my own commitment I can achieve things,” he said.

“I remember playing my first game and it was not really a solid showing but after that I featured against Benfica B, won 4-2 and that was a turning point for our season as we started to believe in our own abilities.”

Benfica B is one of the high-profile names that Muscat faced during this season. Porto B were another team who faced Casa Pia twice in the second-tier. But most of all, Muscat captained the squad in a Portuguese cup fourth round match against then champions Sporting Lisbon, at home.

A Lisbon derby which pitted Sporting Lisbon as heavy favourites to win big and qualify.

However, Muscat-led Casa Pia put on a gutsy display, managing to draw first blood as well before eventually Sporting qualified thanks to a narrow 2-1 victory with goals from ex-Liverpool player Sebastian Coates and PSG loanee Pablo Sarabia.

“I am used to face top-level opponents when I am with the national team, so I was familiar to play these type of games,” Muscat, who has 52 international caps, said.

“However, this was a particular game because we were facing the champions of Portugal and therefore you feel that if you manage to cope against these type of opponents, then you are on the right path.”

Should Muscat don the colours of Casa Pia in Portugal’s Primeira Liga, he would follow the footsteps of former Malta internationals Udo Nwoko (Leixoes, 2007-2009) and Andre Schembri (Boavista, 2016-2017).

However, the former Birkirkara player is yet to commit himself to a club, with his contract at Casa Pia coming to an end following this campaign.

There is one thing he is sure of, though. His next move will be another step forward in his career and being at the back of a such a strong season, Muscat expects to have better opportunities knocking at his door.

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