Malta’s Knights on the rise
© AFP

“I feel very proud to be a part of a national team that’s gone down in Maltese footballing history,” said a clearly thrilled Malta goalkeeper Justin Haber on 8 June 2013, the day his side beat Armenia 1-0 away from home in a 2014 FIFA World Cup Brazil™ qualifier. For coach Pietro Ghedin and his charges, they had achieved Malta’s first competitive win on their travels since another 1-0 success in Estonia back in May 1993.

Haber’s team-mates Edward Herrera and Clayton Failla were quick to broadcast their delight via the medium of Facebook and dubbed the match “the perfect way to round off the season”. In the words of Failla, his feelings “are difficult to put into words. For us it’s like the icing on the cake. We’ve worked very hard for a long time for this.”

Ghedin to the rescue
The Maltese were not only able to celebrate their first three points in Brazil 2014 qualifying, they can also savour a significant leap up the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking. In the latest edition of the standings, they have moved up no fewer than 23 places to 133, their highest position for nearly six years.

One of the key factors in this rise is, without a doubt, the work put in by coach Ghedin. The 60-year-old supremo, at the helm since May 2012, boasts a more than respectable record since taking the post, having won four matches, drawn one and lost five. “We need to believe that we can improve,” he had said upon his appointment. “It’ll be a challenge for me and for the players too.”

The Italian strategist previously held the same role between 1993 and 1995, with a record of four wins and five draws from 24 games. The period also helped the former Lazio defender gain valuable coaching experience, which would subsequently open the door to opportunities such as, among others, being Italy’s assistant coach at France 1998, Korea/Japan 2002, UEFA EURO 2000 and EURO 2004.

Step by step towards a brighter future
Haber and Co’s next aim is to continue furthering the Red-and-whites’ cause on the international stage by drawing inspiration from their triumph on Armenian soil. “I’m proud of being Maltese and of winning away against a team that’s much higher-ranked than we are,” said the goalkeeper, following the win in the Republican Stadium in Yerevan.

The Knights have lodged other respectable results in recent years, including February 2011’s 0-0 draw with Switzerland and a 1-1 against FYR Macedonia six months prior to that. But, as so often happens in life, the Maltese had to hit rock bottom before bouncing back.

After sinking down to a historic low of 173rd in July 2011, they began to progressively rise back up the rankings. However, they have some way still to go before reaching their best-ever placing of 66th, which they held between September 1994 and September 1995.

Opponents be warned
“We only ever play to win but, obviously, you have to be realistic too. When you play the top sides, it [winning] is a very tough task,” said former Malta boss John Buttigieg, in the post between 2009 and 2011, when speaking to FIFA.com during his reign. “We always try to put in a good performance though. That can sometimes mean we get a draw, or just miss out on a point.”

Capped 97 times by Malta during his playing days, Buttigieg was his country’s first native coach since Pippo Psaila occupied the hotseat between 1991 and 1993. “It’s always hard for a small nation like ours to play against the big footballing countries,” said Buttigieg.

“Maltese players, past and present, have always taken great pride in playing for their country. It’s a great honour, whether you're a player or a coach. We just try to give it our all out there.”

Current incumbent Ghedin will surely demand nothing less either, with the result that upcoming opponents Bulgaria, Denmark and Czech Republic will need to be wary of the Maltese threat. Indeed, who knows when the Knights could gallop away with their next big scalp?