Semi-professional, Totally Serious

When the Israeli national team touches down at Valetta airport today, ahead of Saturday night's Euro 2004 qualifying match against Malta, they could be met on the tarmac by one of the Maltese national team's midfielders, George Malia, who works for the local airports authority. And when the clubs take to the field of play in Ta'Qali, one of the home team's defenders will be phone company employee and fish shop owner, Darren Debono. And if he recovers in time from injury, the left-back position will be filled by the man responsible for marketing Tuborg beer on the island, Brian Said, while the Maltese striker will be attorney Malcolm Licari.

That's the way of things for nations where soccer players do not earn their primary income from the game, but need to supplement their pay packages from other, more serious, sources.

For the most part, the Maltese players are semi-professional. They spend the first three days of the week training with the national team, and the rest of the week practicing with their clubs. "The players can consider themselves lucky," says Kevin Atopardi, editor of the Times of Malta sports pages, "if their employees agree to pay them for the time they spend with the national team. If they do, the players are entitled to train twice a day with the national team. If not, there's no way you can play a part in the morning training session."

So does the Israeli team - with its millionaire players from England, Turkey and Spain - really have anything to fear from its semi-professional opponents? While the Maltese may have recorded their last away win almost a decade ago (1-0 over Estonia in 1993), they are a tough team with ample fighting spirit and determination.

Malta can in no way be lumped together with Luxembourg, Liechtenstein or San Marino. Just ask the Czech Republic - the losing finalist at the 1996 European Championships - which was lucky to escape with a 0-0 draw the last time they played on the island. It was that draw, incidentally, which prevented the Czechs from finishing top in their group, and ultimately denied them a place at the last World Cup.

That point may have been Malta's only result in the previous campaign, but it should be remembered that the same Danish team that slaughtered Israel 8-0 on aggregate in the play-off for Euro 2000, was far from being a convincing winner when it played in Valetta.

On the attack

In addition to bringing a new formation on the pitch (5-3-2, changing to 3-5-2 if the need arises), Malta's German coach Sigi Held, who joined the Maltese team in September 2001 on a three-year contract, also brought a new, more attacking style of play. "Previously, against a much superior team, Malta would play defensively, in the hope of disrupting the opponent's pattern of play," explains Atopardi. "Now, the mentality is much better and the games are much more open. Players are not afraid to show some initiative and to take responsibility."

In warm-up games and international tournaments, Malta has already recorded wins against Canada, Moldova, Jordan, Azerbaijan and Andorra. Now, sources in Malta insist, it is time to try and shock one of the middle-ranked European teams, and, they say, Israel appears to fit the bill perfectly.

This does not mean, of course, that Malta is favorite to beat Avraham Grant's charges. One of the most influential Maltese players, Stefan Giglio of Levski Sofia, was sent off in the last game against Slovenia, and will miss Saturday's encounter. For a team of semi-professionals, the lack of the one professional player is a huge disadvantage.

If his performance against Slovenia is anything to go by (a 3-0 defeat), first-choice goalkeeper Mario Muscat appears to be the weakest link in the Maltese defense. Muscat has finally shaken off a niggling injury, but he himself admits that he is a long way from full fitness - the sort of amazing form that earned his team that draw against the Czech Republic.

Defensive midfielder Luke Dimech, who has dual Maltese and British citizenship, has arrived on the island from his Irish team, Shamrock Rovers, to help veteran team captain David Carabott (34 years old, 110 appearances) shore up the Maltese defense. Incidentally, Carabott - who scored against Israel in a friendly international in 1989 - is the top scorer among the current crop of Maltese internationals, with 11 goals.

Held does not usually use Sliema Wanderers' 32-year-old midfielder Joe Brincat in his national team set up, but this time, with Giglio unavailable, Brincat could finally make his 100th appearance for Malta.

"Held does not intend to `man mark' any of the Israeli stars, including Berkovic and Revivo," says Atopardi. "He will continue, as he always does, to use a zonal marking system, especially since most of his players are in satisfactory physical condition, if not better. That said, some players have already started to complain of fatigue, which is understandable. After all, they are not full-time professionals."

The next two games - against Israel on Saturday and against European champions France four days later - are considered almost impossibly difficult for Malta. But still, Sigi Held's team hopes to get something from the game against Israel, knowing full well that against Henry, Zidane, Wiltord et al, the best they can hope for to avoid humiliated. Tickets for the two games have been sold as a package deal, but on Saturday night, the 16,000 capacity stadium in Ta'Qali will only be half full. Against France on Wednesday, however, there will be standing room only.