Currently 156th on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Malta pulled off a fabulous result on 9 February when they held 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ participants Switzerland to a 0-0 draw. Ottmar Hitzfeld's men were ranked 133 places above the their opponents heading into the game, so it was little wonder the players from the tiny Mediterranean nation celebrated the stalemate as if it were a famous win.
Justin Haber was the central character in the upset, saving not one but two penalties, first from Alexander Frei and then Gokhan Inler. The Ferencvaros goalkeeper was understandably overjoyed with the result: "I'm really happy and not just because of my saves, but because we gave it everything against such a team. Switzerland beat Spain in the [FIFA] World Cup, don’t forget.”
Haber described the result as being “good for morale” and it came as just reward for Malta’s improving performances since hitting rock bottom in June 2010. The side fell to 169th on the global ladder that month, their lowest-ever position, but the draw with the Swiss propelled them up seven spots.
"Maltese players, past and present, have always taken great pride in playing for their country," said the man at their reins John Buttigieg, a former defender who was capped 97 times for Malta in a long and distinguished career. "It’s a great honour, whether you're a player or a coach."
There's no magic wand in football, you just have to work hard and give 100 per cent every time. And then, sometimes, you get a great result in return.
Buttigieg is the first Maltese coach of the team since Pippo Psaila vacated the hot-seat in 1993. Explaining the difficulties the job entails, he told FIFA.com: "It’s always hard for a small nation like ours to play against the big footballing countries."
On the face of it at least, recent results would back him up. Since a 2-0 friendly win over Georgia in the summer of 2009, Malta have failed to register a single victory in 14 games. "That can be a bit disheartening, but we know our limits," said Buttigieg.
"We just try to give it our all out there and keep our heads up. There's no magic wand in football, you just have to work hard and give 100 per cent every time. And then, sometimes, you get a great result in return."
The 1-1 draw with Macedonia in August 2010 was arguably as positive as holding Switzerland. "We play to win, every time," continued Buttigieg. "Obviously you have to be realistic too. When you play the top sides, it is a very tough call, but we always try to put in a good performance. That can sometimes mean we get a draw, or just miss out on a point. Take the game against Greece recently, where we were beaten by a very late goal."
That loss to a 94th-minute Vasilis Torosidis goal in UEFA EURO 2012 qualifying was a bitter blow for the brave Maltese, who remain rooted to the bottom of Group F. For all that, Buttigieg refuses to be downhearted: "We can’t qualify anyway, so we just need to have the same objective every game: do our best and make life hard for our opponents.”
Malta have recorded memorable victories in qualifying for major tournaments before. Back in 2008, when Slovak Dusan Fitzel was in charge, they beat Hungary 2-1 thanks to a brace from striker Andre Schembri, who still leads the line today. Although that was their first win in a competitive fixture for 15 years, it gave hope that more would follow. Three years on, Malta have five matches left in EURO 2012 qualifying to register another memorable success.