A tendency for local Premier League clubs to strive for short-term success over long-term sustainability has come at the expense of youth football programmes, where a subsequent lack of investment and attention has become a significant roadblock in the growth of Maltese football.
Amongst the 16 BOV Premier League clubs in Malta, only two have youth programmes across all age groups competing in Youth League Section A, the top tier, which are Birkirkara and Valletta.
There are three clubs, Ħamrun Spartans, Mosta and Balzan, which have two teams in Section A and four clubs with just one team competing in Section A – Hibernians, Sliema Wanderers, Lija Athletics and Floriana.
The remaining seven clubs either have no teams in Section A or fail to produce any team at all at the youth leagues.
Most notably, Gżira United, who prove to be consistently competitive at the Premier League level, has only two teams competing at the youth level. Moreover, they both compete at the lowest rung on the ladder, with the under-19s placed in Section D and the under-15s placed in Section DE1.
Shockingly, Gżira United doesn’t have a team competing in the under-17s.
While producing a Section A under-15 squad, current BOV Premier League champions Floriana fail to replicate that success in the under-17s and under-19s youth leagues, with teams competing in Section B.
Arguably, the under-19 league is the final chance players have at going professional, meaning that it is ever-more crucial that clubs produce competitive teams at that level.
Conversely, Premier League giants Birkirkara and Valletta produce results both in the Premier League and youth divisions. Similarly, Ħamrun Spartans, now led by property mogul Joseph Portelli, have strong youth performances along with Mosta.
On the other hand, the same assessment of clubs at the Challenge League reveals a more telling tale about the divide between clubs and their respective youth teams.
Like the Premier League, two teams, Pieta Hotspurs and San Ġwann, produce competitive teams across all three youth sections while St Andrews produces two Section A teams and one Section B team.
At the bottom of the table lies Masrsaxlokk, Marsa, Mqabba and St George’s who produce in the bottom tiers and fail to produce a team across all three sections. Meanwhile, Qrendi and Vittoriosa Stars don’t produce any youth teams.
When measured side-by-side, across the Premier League, only 16 youth teams play in Section A while in the Challenge League, there are 10.
An equal number of teams in both the Challenge League and Premier League have youth teams in Section B with nine each. There are 11 Challenge League teams that compete in youth Section C compared to six from the Premier League.
More Premier League clubs have youth teams in DE2 compared to the Challenge League. While the Challenge League has a larger pool of teams with no youth squads.
Ultimately, what can be drawn from these numbers is that not enough attention is being given to the development of youth players, especially from Premier League clubs.
“If Malta wants to take sports seriously, we need to make sure there is the right investment, incentives, and support so that our grass-root football can be the best it can be,” said Justin Fenech, President of Swieqi United.
“Funding is the number one problem and the reason why very few clubs have managed to raise the bar,” he said.
Moreover, those who do invest in youth development are merely turning into feeder clubs for bigger clubs to exploit.
“Developing a young footballer, aiding him to reach his potential, preparing him mentally to succeed abroad (among other things) is not easy and requires a financial investment that easily spans 10 years,” Fenech continued.
“So its no wonder many clubs would rather acquire the finished product. It’s easier for these clubs to focus on one squad and throw all their resources behind that squad to win the league rather than invest in a youth development programme that might or might not produce results 10 years later,” he said.
Consequently, this has an adverse effect on Maltese football as a whole, including limiting the potential for players to play abroad. The same conclusion cannot be made for the women’s leagues were an all-or-nothing attitude has seen a number of female football players compete abroad in highly competitive leagues.
The Malta Football Association has recently launched a new four-year strategy, including building a strong foundation that aims to take players out of the comfort zone and play competitively abroad.
However, strategies and incentives need to be implemented to ensure that clubs are focusing on developing local talent for the prosperity of football as much as they are focused on acquiring foreign players to capitalise on short-term gains.
“The MFA and government should properly incentivise those clubs who have a strong youth development policy while encouraging and assisting those who do not to adopt their own youth development programme that will ultimately not just benefit them but also Malta as a whole,” Fenech ended.
What do you make of the current state of football in Malta? Let us know below