MFPA: Let's embrace Schembri's comments to kick-start real change

20th October 2016

MFPA has been trying to voice a number of concerns regarding Maltese football over the past years, but it seems these have fallen on deaf ears. Not surprisingly, following Andre Schembri’s comments after the national team’s match against England, some of those running the game are now trying to divert the focus from the lack of a strategic direction, onto the players. This is definitely unacceptable and unfair. If MFA wants to continue being taken seriously as a regulator, it needs to understand that the role of a local Football Authority, comes not only with power, but also hand in hand with the burden of responsibility.

It has been said that young players are “spoiled” and that they are not willing to make sacrifices and live abroad to play football. Others questioned why part-time players do not change their status to full-time, since their income is considered to be enough to maintain a full-time occupation. The truth in practice is somewhat different.

The MFA President recently stated that the MFA sent at least 25 young and promising footballers to play abroad with foreign and professional clubs. This is a very good initiative but it is clear that somewhere along the way it failed. Players who move abroad need all the support possible. At a young age any teenager would find it difficult to adapt immediately from an amateur environment to a professional setup without support. One has to question also the extent to which such moves are being facilitated or hampered by the football movement.  It has come to our knowledge, for example, that 3 Maltese players over the past 2 years were offered a professional contract abroad and all were willing to join the foreign club, only for their respective clubs to ask for exorbitant amounts by way of transfer fee. The request was refused and the players had to continue playing in Malta.

What most people don’t know, and what people close to MFA hope people will never know, is that, local players have a much less glamorous life then some would like to have them believe. Maltese clubs still treat players as financial assets rather than as human beings pursuing a career. When a player is out of contract, clubs can still ask for a sum up to €30,000 in order to join another club. Often no club is ready to pay such an amount. It is not unheard of that players stop playing football. Alternatively they are forced to accept the terms and conditions offered.

Many issues today hinder young players from pursuing a full-time football career. For example, a number of players remain unpaid for months. Their only option is to file a complaint with the MFA’s Complaints Board. A recent change to the complaints procedure has improved the situation, however the process can take months especially if the club appeals the decision of the Board. Can you imagine a father having to pay his daily expenses and not being paid for months? 

Furthermore, as yet, players do not even have the right to seek remedy in the national courts for their unpaid salaries. The case of ex-international player George Mallia is only the most recent and well known. Mallia who played over 50 matches for the national team, spent almost a year without receiving his contracted salary. He granted his club time to pay and accepted a written acknowledgement of his debt, but nonetheless this was not honoured. When he filed the case before the national courts, he was immediately suspended from all football activities, a suspension that is still in place almost 3 years on.

Essentially, a club owns a player unless the fee set according to established parameters is paid notwithstanding the fact that, the right to move freely once a player’s contract expires has been acknowledged by European Courts in the Bosman case over 20 years ago.

Starting off from when they are children, players between the ages of 12 and 19, are traded in and sold off like cattle to help clubs raise their finances. Children cannot play with any team they want, unless a hefty sum is paid for them. Bear in mind that children are not allowed to move even if they are not in the coach’s plans at all. From a young age, our young players and their parents learn the dark side of local football and most of them are either too disillusioned to continue on their sporting journey, or have their opportunities severely mitigated by selfish clubs, who want to make a quick buck off, of our future generation of football. If by some sort of miracle, or by sheer personal perseverance a player makes it into adult football the hurdles only grow bigger.

How can a parent encourage his child to pursue football as a career in an industry where unpaid salaries is a daily occurrence? No responsible adult will ever consider football for his family’s livelihood.

In reality, the MFA is held hostage by the majority of its own clubs. Club delegates elect the MFA officials and these same officials can only change the rules if the clubs agree. You scratch my back and I scratch yours - a petty situation that goes on at the expense of the common good of Maltese football. This leads to  lack of strategic direction, because the MFA administration can only bring forward proposals that are palatable to delegates who represent the clubs.

Before pointing fingers at players, coaches or referees, the problem that needs to be solved is the decision-making process which without any doubt has failed. The decision-making body should be composed of all stakeholders and if need be even independent people. Certainly not only club delegates.

Ironically, most of these changes are free and considered to be minor ones. However, they seem to be tthe most difficult to implement. If we cannot implement small changes, how can we even think of implementing bigger and major overhauls in our football?

MFA needs to wake up to the realisation that pointing fingers is a futile exercise that will take us on a journey round a huge roundabout, but which will eventually lead us all back to the exact same place. A place reserved for losers.

Let's hope Andre Schembri's comments are heeded and acted upon.