“We created a piece of history. It’s a source of great pride for us as well as for our country, and is a reward for all of our hard work.” Contrary to appearances, this statement was not made by a player having just booked a place at the 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™, or by the winner of a recent trophy.
In fact, the words belong to Malta forward Michael Mifsud, who was describing the Mediterranean nation’s away victory over Armenia on 7 June. And his enthusiasm is entirely justified.
Afer all, prior to achieving this unexpected result, the Maltese national team had gone 20 years without claiming a single victory in qualifying matches for the FIFA World Cup. Their last success – previously the only FIFA World Cup qualifying win in the country’s history – dated back to 12 May 1993, when they beat Estonia 1-0 in Tallinn.
“It had been so long; we owed it to ourselves to get a result,” said Mifsud to FIFA.com. The man who scored in the eighth minute in Yerevan to defeat Henrikh Mkhitaryan and Co added: “The credit should go to my team-mates. All I had to do was put the finishing touch to their excellent work.”
This mix of modesty and effectiveness perfectly sums up the clinical striker, who is a veritable national hero in his homeland. Malta’s all-time leading scorer (37 goals), most-capped player (98 international appearances) and current captain even lets out a laugh at the suggestion that he is a role model.
“I just try to do my best and put in the same effort as my colleagues,” he said, seemingly embarrassed at the thought. But the Pieta-born striker's CV speaks for itself.
One of precious few Maltese footballers to have plied his trade abroad, the dynamic forward has previously represented German club Kaiserslautern, Norwegian team Lillestrom and English side Coventry City during a varied career.
It’s extremely difficult for us to compete with the bigger nations. But I can guarantee you that we go into every game determined to win.
While with Coventry, the man nicknamed ‘Mosquito’ – due to his diminutive size – nabbed a notable brace at Old Trafford, eliminating the mighty Manchester United from the third round of the Carling Cup in 2007. However, the only trophies he has lifted have come at home, in the archipelago’s national league (2004 and 2010) and cup (2000 and 2010).
“I’m very proud of my career, of which I’ve got nothing but great memories," he said. "I wouldn’t be able to give you just one – every single match that I’ve played in has produced special, memorable moments, and even more so when my team has got a positive result.
“I know that doesn’t happen very often at international level, but we’re just a tiny country. It’s extremely difficult for us to compete with the bigger nations. But I can guarantee you that we go into every game determined to win.”
Closely contested losses inflicted by the Czech Republic (3-1) and Italy (2-0), as well as by Denmark (2-1) on Friday, combined with the historic triumph in Armenia, indicate that the gap could well be closing between football’s traditional heavyweights and the Maltese, who currently sit 134th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking.
“Those results have definitely given us cause for optimism. A lot of progress has been made since I earned my first cap in 2000, in terms of coaching and infrastructure. We’re starting to reap the benefits,” explained the veteran striker.
“The desire to give our all has remained constant, though. Our record in qualifying matches is perfectly respectable when you take into account the size of our country.”
Since Friday, it is no longer mathematically possible for Malta to advance to Brazil 2014, although they still have three more fixtures to fulfil, including one on Tuesday 10 September against Bulgaria.
“You have to be realistic,” continued Mifsud, who went into season 2013/14 without a club but with as much desire as ever. "When you start off in this type of competition, you don’t expect to pull off shock wins every time. Our goal is to obtain the highest number of points possible. We want to be able to leave the pitch with our heads held high, safe in the knowledge that we’ve defended our colours with pride, and that we’ve done our very best.
“I’ve been giving some thought to my next career move. I don’t want to get it wrong. I’m currently in discussions with some foreign clubs. We’ll see what happens,” he said, before concluding, “I’m 32, but as long as my body allows me to play, I’ll keep going. As for motivation, well, I’ll always have that.”
The rearguards of European national sides have been well-warned: Mifsud intends to continue making history for Malta on the road to Russia 2018.