Two days after the Council of the Malta Football Association took important decisions with regards to the championship titles in the various divisions, promotion and relegation after the COVID-19 pandemic led the association to terminate the season, MFA President Bjorn Vassallo said he had no regrets, saying that the decisions were democratic, transparent and in respect of regulations.
Floriana were awarded the Premier League title, Zejtun Corinthians the First Division championship while Marsa and Attard were declared champions of the Second Division and Third Division respectively. Birkirkara were awarded the Women’s League championship and Luxol Futsal the Futsal Elite championship.
Council members voted in favour of retaining Tarxien Rainbows in the Premier League although they had been mathematically relegated to Division 1. Apart from Zejtun, Lija Athletic were also promoted to the Premier League while Marsaxlokk and San Gwann join Marsa in the First Division – set to be renamed the Challenge League.
The MFA president said that following the premature termination of the season, Article 7 of the Rules Governing Competitions could not apply as this was meant for a normal situation and in case of force majeure, Articles 49 and 161 showed clearly what should be done in extraordinary situations.
Vassallo said that the Council, and not the Executive Committee, had to decide as this was beyond its powers. The MFA President said the Council is the largest forum and made sense to have this largest forum where all member clubs and member associations were represented. He defended the Executive Committee’s decision to agree on two different votes, saying that the principles of promotion/relegation and the awarding of champions were different.
The decision had to be taken after the Executive Committee decided to terminate the season on May 18. Vassallo said the association could not continue to delay its decision. He said the association had to respect the position of the ten clubs who wanted to stop and three clubs who wished to continue. However, there were no guarantees to conclude the season by the deadline given by UEFA. He pointed out that clubs needed at least three weeks for pre-season before the actual competition could resume. And above all, the association had responsibilities – the health and well-being of the football family and the community in general.
Monday’s vote led to a situation where next season, there will be sixteen clubs in the Premier League. Something which most people deem to be too much for a small country like Malta. Bjorn Vassallo said that had Tarxien been relegated, there would have still been fifteen teams and that was only for a transition period until the current league composition would be established once again.
Although the association is preparing for the coming season, the MFA President admitted that the Deputy Prime Minister said that October – the time when the next season was due to kick-off – could be a challenging period to start in, due to influenza. He added that the MFA was studying all options, even to start from February, in case of emergency, and play over a calendar year. The association will continue to monitor the situation while keeping constant contact with health authorities as there are no guarantees yet for the coming season.
When asked whether the association would be speeding up its reforms with regards to the league format, Vassallo said the MFA has been working on the classification of as professional in the Premier League, semi-professional in the Challenge League which would replace the First Division and amateur in the National Amateur League which would bring together the clubs in the Second and Third Division. He said that this was part of the reform in statute which would also tackle the representation in the different fora and voting powers. He said a number of scenarios were presented and the composition of 14-14-25 would be back in place in a few years.
Meanwhile in his introduction, Bjorn Vassallo said that this 120th anniversary of the association will be remembered for the second pandemic after that of the influenza in 1917. He said that in the mean time, no regulations regarding what would happen in case of force majeure were written and this was something the association will soon start working on – clear provisions without any room for interpretation, so that a similar situation would be avoided.
He thanked the Bureau, Executive Committee, the Council, officials from clubs and member associations for their input over this period of time. He explained the role of the various organs of the association: the Bureau made up of the Officers of the Association, the Executive Committee which includes representatives from the various divisions and member associations and the Council which includes the representatives of all clubs and member associations – football’s “parliament”.
These fora operate within the statute and in case of situations which are not referred to in the statute, Articles 49 and 161 state that matters would be decided on the basis of regulations of FIFA and/or UEFA and in any other case, decisions shall be based on Maltese civil law and if even this is silent, on right and justice.
The MFA President went through a timeline of events during this pandemic. He said football was temporarily suspended on March 12 and on March 17, UEFA, on behalf on national associations, signed a resolution together with the ECA and FIFPro, stating that if possible, competitions should be completed. The Malta Football Association started consultations with all stakeholders. This included meetings with representatives of players, coaches, referees and clubs. On March 23, the government published Legal Notice 101 of 2020 which banned all organised events. Towards the end of the March, the Malta Football Association and member clubs, employing over a thousand between full-time and part-time employees, benefited from the financial aid given by Malta Enterprise.
Football in Malta was suspended indefinitely on March 30. In the mean time, FIFA presented guidelines with regards to contracts and contractual obligations and on April 7, the Malta FA adopted these guidelines in order to guarantee uniformity.
On April 20, the Association met Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health Dr Chris Fearne and Superintendent for Health Prof Charmaine Gauci. During this same meeting, the MFA was informed that football could definitely not resume by the end of May and informed clubs about this.
The UEFA Executive Committee approved guidelines for participation in UEFA club competitions on April 23 based on sporting merit. Two deadlines were presented in circulars 24/2020 and 28/2020. By May 25, national associations had to inform whether they intended resume their leagues, change the format and terminate competitions prematurely and by July 20, associations ranked 16 to 55, including the MFA, had to inform UEFA about which clubs were going to represent them in the UEFA club competitions. Countries ranked 1 to 15 were given a later deadline to submit their clubs’ names.
Meanwhile the Malta FA continued working on the medical protocol with the objective of resuming competitions so that verdicts could be decided on the field of play.
On April 29, the Malta FA ExCo terminated all competitions, apart from the Premier League and FA Trophy. This was due to the fact that Legal Notice 101 was still in force, the commitment to safeguard clubs with regards to the financial aspect and the inability to adopt the medical protocol in the lower divisions. This is also what is happening in other countries with regards to their lower divisions.
In a letter to Parliamentary Secretary Dr Clifton Grima, on May 6, the Malta FA informed him that the Executive Committee would be meeting on May 18 to decide whether top-level could resume – by having training in June and playing the remaining league matches by July 20. The medical protocol was annexed to the letter. The MFA President said May 6 was two days after the first measures were relaxed and by May 18, the association was giving authorities enough time to evaluate the situation and analyse the MFA’s request in view of the relaxation of measures. MFA officials were invited for a meeting on May 14 during which they were informed that there were no guarantees on further relaxation of measures with regards to contact sport, such as football, by the time indicated by the MFA.
Two days before the ExCo meeting, Vassallo asked the other officers of the association to abstain abstain in the interest of the association to safeguard impartiality and independence, even those were democratically elected. The president only has a casting vote.
During the Executive Committee meeting on May 18, members unanimously agreed to terminate prematurely the Premier League and FA Trophy since there were no guarantees to complete the competitions by the given deadline; that it was clear that there would be no relaxation of measures with regards to contact sport later in the day; that Legal Notice 101 was still in force. The position of the Premier League clubs was also taken into account – both those in favour and those against; the financial aspect; the well-being and health of all those involved and the community in general. And apart from all this, there were still uncertainties with regards to the implementation of the medical protocol for the fourteen clubs for two months, considering that the league was not a professional one and one third of players and staff were not full timers; apart from officials and committee members. The MFA asked for assistance with regards to resources to be able to implement the medical protocol but at the time, there were 300 health care professionals under quarantine and therefore, no guarantee could be provided. At that point, the MFA had no other option other than decide that way.
During the same meeting, the MFA decided to submit the names of Floriana for the UEFA Champions League, Valletta, Hibernians and Sirens for the UEFA Europa League, Birkirkara for the UEFA Women’s Champions League and Luxol Futsal for the UEFA Futsal Champions League. These were chosen on sporting merit for season 2019/20 as per UEFA guidelines.
The following day, the Malta FA informed UEFA of its decision with regards to the premature termination of competitions. This was done as UEFA needed to verify the legitimacy of the MFA’s decision.
On May 21, the MFA Executive Committee agreed on having two separate votes. Since competitions, according to MFA regulations, mirroring UEFA’s guidelines which stated that these could not be deemed as null and void, the MFA administration proposed that what had happened on the field of play had to be respected – teams which had mathematically already been relegated should be demoted. However, following a discussion, members suggested that the decision had to be taken by the Council. Since play-offs had been cancelled and Council members were against having an odd number of teams in the top division, the democratic decision by the ExCo members had to be respected. The second vote was on whether to declare the teams lying in first place in the various leagues as champions.
On May 25, just a few hours before the Council meeting, the MFA received a letter by the UEFA General Secretary who stated that the MFA’s course of action by the Bureau, and ratified by the Executive Committee, was correct and recognised in full by UEFA. UEFA also recognised in full the fact that the Council would have the final say.
The MFA President said that this was not the first time, council was asked to decide on something which is not covered by the statute. This process based on facts, evidence and in full respect of MFA regulations. He stressed that it was, it is and it will continue to be his duty to safeguard the interests of the association, its structures and football in Malta.
Vassallo added “Our aim is to continue working together without antagonism due to meaningless rivalries which leads to nowhere. The MFA is autonomous and independent and will continue to work transparently according to the statute which for the past hundred and twenty years was the ‘bible’ for each president and member of the association.”
He went on to clarify allegations in his regard – especially in the participation of celebrations of a particular club. He explained that while all football administrators were coming from clubs, he denied attending events of celebrations organised by any club while serving in his previous role at the MFA. He went on to deny the allegation that San Gwann were promoted because of his previous involvement with the club. He went on to deny that he, or any other officer of the association, amended regulations to facilitate one club or another.
Bjorn Vassallo said that although he was at the receiving end of criticism, he received several messages of support and solidarity from others. He said that there was no manual of solutions for this challenging situations and that he had no regret in what the association did was in the safeguard of regulations.
Amid reports of clubs mentioning the prospects of taking legal action against the association, the MFA President said the statute excludes legal proceedings in the Maltese civil court. However they could turn to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in Lausanne, in accordance with MFA regulations.
With regards to the split between clubs, the MFA President said that over the years, there were similar situations over other issues. He stressed that the MFA will be aiming for reconciliation and if a sense of maturity was shown and everyone returned back around the discussion table.