Malta are one of a few teams in international football that hold the title of perennial underdogs. There are teams who are, and have always been ranked lower, even within Europe. Andorra, San Marino and Gibraltar are on a level below, pretty much only ever beating one another. But if we’re honest with ourselves, the first reaction from fans of most other sides, when they’re drawn against the Falcons, is to head to a site like sinlicencia.org and check out the odds they can get on what they presume will be a straightforward win. When your population is around half a million and there’s not a lot of room for facilities, it’s hard to get much better.
Nonetheless, there are other long-time underdogs that have either elevated themselves above where their level is perceived to be, either in the long term like Wales, or in shorter bursts like Northern Ireland or Iceland. Generally, these sides have certain advantages: Wales have the Premier League on their doorstep and their players often get attention from big clubs from an early age. Northern Ireland have a similar benefit, while Iceland has a lot of open space and lots of government money has been spent on facilities. For Malta, it would be beneficial to have something to hang onto in the hopes of improving – so what can they do to enhance their chances?
Play to their strengths, not the opponent’s
Lower-ranked teams have a tendency, when they come up against the strongest, to play as defensively as possible in the hopes of frustrating the opposition, nicking a goal from a set-piece, and maybe winning 1-0 in the best-case scenario. In truth, even the most tightly-packed defence will struggle to keep the score down if there aren’t good defenders to pick. If the better players in your team are the more attack-minded, it’s a better idea to try and play positively. In one of Northern Ireland’s most famous wins, they outscored Spain 3-2 by getting the ball to prolific poacher David Healy as often as possible. He scored a hat-trick, so it worked.
Will the underdog usually lose when doing this? Yes – but as the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.
Find a wonderkid and hope
There are more than a few teams who have found one legit star and based all their hopes on that player to deliver better results. David Healy is a fair example, as is Gareth Bale. Recently, Finland have achieved more than any prior iteration of their national side on the heels of Teemu Pukki. Of course, wonderkids don’t grow on trees – but at least the Maltese government is working on a plan to identify and enhance young talent. One player with half the gifts of a Benjamin Sesko, the new Slovenian hope, would make a huge difference immediately.
Geography – the original 12th man
It’s cynical, but if a nation has a climate that could be considered “challenging”, there is nothing wrong with harnessing that and achieving results off the back of it. Canada qualified for the World Cup because they have some excellent players, but they topped their group because all of their opponents hailed from warmer climates and the Maple Leafs arranged for qualifying games to take place in freezing Hamilton. As an island nation with hot summers, Malta are more used than most to playing FA Trophy games in pulsating heat on bobbly grass pitches. So why not ensure the pitch is as “Maltese” as possible when players more used to the green pastures of Wembley or the San Siro come to play?