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Maltese women’s football at a crossroads, says coach Mark Gatt

Mark Gatt (centre) receives a memento from MFA president Bjorn Vassallo (right) as Pierre Brincat, Director of Women's Football, looks on. Photo: Stephen Gatt

Mark Gatt bid farewell to his spell as coach of the Malta women’s national team in style.

Two goals in the first half against Montenegro propelled the team to their second away victory in the 2023 Women’s World Cup qualifiers.

For the second qualifying campaign in a row, Gatt and his team kept breaking records after scoring seven points in this group – Malta’s best tally in the new format of this competition.

This follows up the successful Women’s Euro 2022 qualifiers when Malta had registered a record 10 points.

The benchmark is now set high and whoever fills Gatt’s shoes will have the task of taking this senior national team onto the next level.

A lot of records have been broken throughout these seven years with the cherry on the cake being the SportMalta Team of the Year Award in 2021.

Whether it is a question of mentality, changes in tactical shape or improvement in the players’ technique, there will be always room for improvement to push this team forward and continue to inspire the younger generation.

On the other hand though, Gatt believes that the upgrades should not only concern the senior side but the whole movement.

“When you see the improvement of other nations to whom we used to be superior to until a few years ago, you realise that it is time for us to step up as well,” Gatt told the Times of Malta.

“The women’s game in Malta is at a crossroads and we have to acknowledge our current position before embarking on a new direction.

“This does not mean scrapping what we have done so far and start from scratch, but improving on the solid foundations that have been built so far.”

Bosnia-Herzegovina, ranked only 63rd, clinched a historic place in round 1 of the European play-offs for next year’s World Cup, thanks largely to Malta’s win against Montenegro which allowed the Bosnians to afford a draw with Azerbaijan in their final qualifier.

In the first-round, Malta snatched a last-gasp 2-2 draw with Bosnia before falling to a narrow 1-0 defeat in the second game.

Only four points separated Bosnia from Malta, with Montenegro and Azerbaijan also taking points from each other.

This group showed that while Malta – Pot 5 – can still be competitive with teams coming out from Pot 3 and 4, a lot of other national teams are catching up.

Gatt points out to one of the crucial areas which makes the difference at international level – the physical aspect.

One of the changes he brought in his seven-year term was the introduction of a physical trainer to provide the players with the right tools to present themselves on the most important stage in the best condition possible.

On the other side, though, the limited time that a national team coach has with his players means that local clubs need to invest in this department as this would allow players to improve their physical shape even more.

“It is an important tool that we have to provide to our girls already from a young age. Combined together with more- qualified coaches and an increase in competitive games both at a club and international level would help to improve our youth level as well,” Gatt said.

“These are shortages that are being addressed in the men’s game just now, so you can only imagine the huge need there is for it in the women’s game.

“The Malta FA’s next decisions will be crucial as it is currently working on a new women’s football strategy which will hopefully pay dividends in the future.”

Shortages

During his 62 games in charge, Gatt steered Malta to 34 positive results with 83 goals scored. A strong statistic which reflects the growth throughout the past years.

In addition, solid showings against world class sides like Italy, Denmark and Sweden proved that the Maltese are also resilient when it comes to stand their ground in front of some of the best players across the globe.

For Gatt, though, these results might have created a downside – that of covering our shortages and therefore not being addressed instantly.

“Looking at the men’s game, they follow into the footsteps of women’s football by transforming our idea of an MFA Academy into the Regional Hubs where they are doing an excellent job,” Gatt said.

“It is now up to us to follow and adapting to the requirements of the women’s game at youth level.

“The results that we have managed to obtain were the result of the investment that had been done in the past, in particular in the MFA Academy and also thanks to the National Sports School. Therefore it is important this formula is put into place again to boost the women’s game and continue improving the international recognition gained along the years.”

Gatt benefitted from that investment throughout the years with the national team being competitive whenever they rubbed shoulders with international opponents.

His previous experience as assistant coach between 2007 and 2014 – 39 games – was also instrumental in being familiar with the environment.

Now, after 15 years, he feels he made the most of it and it was time to make space for a new cycle which Gatt hopes can build on his work.

“I have to thank the Malta FA and Director of Women’s Football Pierre Brincat for providing me with this opportunity while I continued to broaden my coaching experience,” Gatt said. “It was my decision to step down from this post because I feel this team needs to start a new cycle under a new management.

“My wife has been fully supportive in these 15 years and I could never have this experience without her backing.

“I am also grateful to the technical staff that has been beside me and have combined their excellent work to help this team improve performances and reach new heights.

“I acknowledge we would not have achieved all this without their consistent passion to excel.

“I would like to thank the players I coached throughout the years for their commitment as they were the protagonists that raised the bar on the field.”

Asked about what’s on his mind now, Gatt said that he is currently fully committed to a pilot project called Fun Fit Five which derives from the Malta FA’s Fun Fit Football and is under the responsibility of the Inħobb il-Futbol Foundation.

“It is a very important project tasked with studying all the benefits of different aspects through daily physical activities organised during school hours,” Gatt explained.

“It’s very important to emphasize the importance of nutrition and physical activity from a young age for the benefit of the whole community but also for Maltese sports.”

Gatt’s mentality has always been that of trying to anticipate what’s to come and be prepared as much as possible to grasp any opportunity that comes along the way, whether it is a positive result or a record.

Back in 2013, Gatt took charge of the U-19’s selection in their first appearance in the European Championships qualifiers, in a mini-tournament played in Bosnia-Herzegovina.

That historic debut was even memorable when two late goals from Raina Giusti and Brenda Borg handed Malta a 2-2 draw with much-quoted Serbia in their group opener.

Much like that result, Gatt’s reign at the helm of the senior side was defined by history and records. That 2013 draw against Serbia was just a sign of thing to come.

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