The Malta waterpolo national team is determined to make the country proud when on Monday they kick off their commitments at the European Championships in Split, Croatia.
The national team, spearheaded by national coach Karl Izzo, left the islands yesterday to compete in the championship finals that will see the participation of the continent’s elite.
Malta open their commitments tomorrow when they face hosts Croatia at 9pm and coach Karl Izzo said that the goal is to finish among the top 14 in the 16-team tournament.
“It’s always a huge honour for us to compete in such prestigious tournaments,” the Malta coach told the Times of Malta.
“This is the fourth successive time that Malta is competing against Europe’s elite. Unfortunately, the build-up for this tournament has not been perfect for us. The national championship has only finished a week ago and during the last month there were a lot of matches played at high intensity with the result that players are still recovering.
“Added to that we didn’t have time to train properly and couldn’t set up any friendlies against other national teams as most of them already made the trip to Split.
“Unfortunately, we have four key players, Steve Camilleri, Jordan Camilleri, Jake Muscat and Jerome Gabaretta, missing as they couldn’t make the trip for one reason or another but I still think that we have the best group of players possible in the current circumstances.”
Apart from Croatia, Malta will also be facing two other strong national teams in Greece and France, giving them little hope of picking up points in the group stage.
However, Izzo said that he will use the group matches as a group build-up to what he described as a crucial positional play-off tie against either Slovenia or Israel on September 4.
“We have three very difficult matches to play in the group and we can’t have any pretensions to be either Croatia, Greece or France,” he said.
“Our most important match in the championship will be the play-off tie against the team that finished last in the group that features Israel and Slovenia, as a win there we would end up playing for 13th or 14th place which would be the highest ever achieved by Malta in these championships.
“So, the group matches will surely be a great build up for me to try out some tactical alterations and help the players gain the needed intensity to arrive for that play-off match in the best possible shape.”
In his final selection, Izzo has decided to rope in four young players in the squad namely Jamie Gambin, Sam Gialanze, Benjamin Cachia and Liam Galea.
The Malta coach said these championships should mark the start of a rejuvenation process of the national team.
“During the last years, we took the decision to compete with our national teams in every age group competition internationally so that we build a strong side,” Izzo said.
“We never thought that we could reach the senior European Championship finals so quickly. However, even in our junior national teams we are also reaping a lot of great results such as the U-16s at the world championships in Greece, the U-17s placed 12th at the European Championships while the U-19s will surely secure a great result in Montenegro next month.
“That shows that we have great talented youngsters like Jayden Cutajar, Sam Gialanze and Matthew Mifsud, just to name a few, who are the future of our national team. It’s important that we continue to receive the financial support to continue playing in major championships as the future of waterpolo in Malta is very bright.”
In Split, Malta will be one of few national teams that will not have any naturalised players in their squad. Asked whether he felt it was time for the ASA to try and bring in foreign players and award them a passport to make the team more competitive.
“I have always been in favour of giving passports to foreign players. In our last three participations one cannot but not single out the excellent contribution Aurelien Cousin gave to the team,” Izzo said.
“Every national team has foreign players in their ranks. France and Croatia have three, Italy five and Montenegro have three naturalised players too, and we’re talking here of countries who have a far bigger population than Malta.
“I believe that in certain positions in the team where may be we are weak, bringing these foreign players would help us. My idea was that every club in Malta would have two naturalised players and then the national coach will choose just two for a major tournament.
“I hope that future administrations at the ASA will look into this as, if you bring foreign players and hand them Maltese citizenship to represent us, this will not only increase the level of our national team but also help youngsters to become even better players.”