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West Ham United v Birkirkara

Filed: Tuesday, 14th July 2015
By: Preview Percy

We'll admit that we don't know a lot about Maltese football here at Kumb Towers. And, having read the fruits of Preview Percy's labours on the subject we're none the wiser to be honest....

And next on our 429-match trip to European glory (all figures approximate) we have a tie in the Thursday Night Lague against Maltese outfit Birkirkara. The home leg is this Thursday at 7.45pm whilst the away leg takes place out in Malta 7 days later.

Sometimes, Ladies & Gentlemen, a small gamble on forward planning pays off. You see here at the Avram Grant Olympic Rest Home for the Bewildered we have friends all over the world. (Except Liverpool of course. we do have standards). One of the places in which there is an outpost of comradeship is Malta, where the inmates of the Dom Mintoff Retirement Complex and Workhouse have been inviting us over for years. Now when the draw for this competition was first announced we got in touch with Professor Stephen Hawking to work out what our next round could be in the event that the Andorrans stopped rolling around on the floor for long enough for us to beat them. It took him a few hours of calculations before he came up with Ulissees of Armenia or Birkirkara, pointing out that there was a possibility of fixture reversal depending on Valetta’s result. He also pointed out that, in an infinite universe, there was the possibility that there was a duplicate of planet Earth somewhere identical to ours in every way except that the Piers Morgan on that planet was a nice chap. Of course we didn’t believe him on that point and we immediately had him towed away to a place of safety.

So, armed with the draw details off I went to see the rest home bursar suggesting that, if he were to use some of those funds on deposit in a Swiss bank account in his name on funding a trip to the George Cross island, I wouldn’t let on as to how so much of the home’s funds ended up on deposit in a Swiss bank account in his name in the first place. This left us sweating a little on the Valetta v Newtown match which, had it gone the wrong way, could have seen us stranded in Malta trying to find somewhere showing our home leg.

However, the gamble paid off which is why we now have a week in Malta paid for before all the flight prices went up in anticipation of possibly 3,000 Hammers making the trip, at the end of which we will get to see a game of football.

So what of our opponents then? Well Birkirkara FC are a relatively young club having been formed by the merger of Birkirkara Celtic and Birkirkara United in 1950. They are sponsored by McDonalds – which I am informed is a chain of restaurants specialising in minced beef products. I think I went into one once – I got slung out after the most frightful row when the waiter refused to come over to take our order for a pot of tea for two. Birkirkara play in the same colours as Melchester Rovers - though they’re not nearly as successful as Ben Galloway, Roy Race, Blackie Gray and co. were over the years.

The most familiar name associated with the club in the past was that of Alan Sunderland, who has a conviction somewhere for causing death by dangerous driving or something similar. He also played for Arsenal, eventually retiring to Malta where – and I swear I didn’t make this quote up – he enjoys the fact that “there’s no traffic”. Sunderland had a season as Birkirkara coach in the 1990’s.

As a club they’re on a bit of a run of European qualification having qualified pretty much every year since 1997/98, the one exception being 2007/08 when they took part only in the Intertoto. However, including the Intertoto, they’ve only won three of the 19 ties played so far. Their best result on paper was their 7-3 aggregate victory over FC Santa Coloma of Andorra (it’s that country again) in the 2010/11 so-called Champions league qualifying stages. On closer inspection that score isn’t quite as impressive as it looks though, as the 7-3 total includes a 3-0 win awarded to them by UEFA when the Andorran pitch wasn’t fit to play on in time. All that rolling around by Lusitans must have damaged it. The 4-3 victory in the Maltese leg of the tie suggests that the overall result might have been a tad closer had they been able to play both legs.

They qualified for the Europa League by finishing third in the Maltese Premier League, a competition that is so complicated that, when we called Professor Stephen Hawking back he pretended to be out rather than risk ridicule by having to explain how it works. I’ll give it a go though: They have two phases in the league. In phase one they play each other home and away meaning that, in a 12-team league, they play 22 matches up to this point. That takes them through to February, Then they halve the points. Yes you read that correctly, they halve the points won so far. They then play each other again – just the once mind not home and away – and after all that they call it a day and whoever is top wins the league. So last season, after their first 22 games Birkirkara were in third place with 43 points from 22 matches, which was 17 points behind league leaders Hibernians who had 60 points. In the second phase Birkirkara won 6 and drew 3 of the closing 11 matches which saw them finish on, er, 43 points which meant they had closed the gap on the Champions, Hibernians, who finished on, er, 57 points. I think there was something in there about playing your jokeras well but I can’t be sure. Possibly the best thing about last season’s competition was the fact that a team by the name of Pieta Hotspurs got relegated.

As mentioned earlier Birkirkara’s first qualifying round match saw them prevail against Ulisses of Armenia, drawing the first leg in Malta 0-0 before coming away with a creditable 3-1 win out in , er, Ulisses. Actually Ulisses are based in Yerevan and are neighbours of Ararat Yerevan who we met in the 1975/76 Cup Winners’ Cup but, since Birkirkara beat them, that’s not really relevant and I apologise for wasting the last two seconds of your life. Birkirkara also won the Maltese equivalent of the FA Cup (called the FA Trophy) last season, denying Hibernians the double with a 2-0 win in the final.

Their most experienced player is probably Italian forward Fabrizio Miccoli who arrived this summer. The 36 year old striker is winding his time down in Malta after a career that saw him spend time at (amongst others) Perugia, Juventus, Benfica, Palermo, Fiorentina and Lecce. He also netted twice in ten internationals for Italy in his time. There are strong resemblances to Steven Gerrard, not in looks or in playing style, but in the fact that, like the reprehensible scouser, he has close links with some very dodgy people and was once investigated for using Mafia chums to prise money out of a nightclub owner who was said to owe him money. He also is said to have referred to a murdered investigating judge as “filth”. Nice guy.

He once paid €25,000 (I think that’s about £2.50) for an earring that had belonged to Diego Maradonna. Maradonna, no stranger to dodgy Mafiosi (or “legitimate businessmen” as they prefer to be called) from his time at Napoli, had had the diamond bit of tom confiscated by the Italian tax authorities to whom he owed several million Euros (probably nearly as much as £10) in taxes that he’d forgotten to pay whilst playing out there. Miccoli’s not the tallest of chaps at 5ft 6 or so and recent photographs suggest that he’s carrying a bit of timber in his veteran years. However, he’s experienced and a bit wily though so will need watching.

Oddly, for what even their most fervent of patriots would admit is something of a backwater in world football terms, they also have a Brazilian striker. Ellinton Antonio Costa Morais who in, the Brazilian tradition, goes by the mercifully shorter nickname of Liliu. arrived after a short and apparently none too sweet spell with Israeli outfit Hapoel Ra’anana for whom he’s listed as having scored zero times in as many appearances. He’s not exactly settled much in his career, something that suggests that he’s one of those journeymen whose agent does a decent job of marketing. Since 2009 he’s been on the books of no fewer than seven clubs, encompassing spells in Belgium, Kuwait, his native Brazil, Cyprus, Israel and now Malta. His three year spell with Belgians Westerlo is the longest he seems to have stuck in one place. However his 13 goals in 21 games for Birkirkara suggests that he may have finally found a level he’s comfortable with.

The skipper is Gareth Sciberras who is a Maltese international with over 30 caps to his name. Sciberras started his life out at the aforementioned Pieta Hotspurs and it;s all gone downhill for then since he left. Hmmmm. A player called Gareth leaves a team called Hotspurs and things go wrong? That sounds vaguely familiar. After a few years with the as difficult to type as it is to pronounce Marsaxlokk, Sciberras found himself relegated down a division after Marsaxlokk were implicated in a bribery scandal. Sciberras stuck around for a while though, moving to Birkika in 2011 where he’s been ever since.

There may be an injury doubt over usual first choice ‘keeper Justin Haber. Haber missed the second leg of the Ulisses tie after doing a hamstring in the first leg and Thursday may be a tad too soon for a return. Haber is an alumnus of Sheffield United so his injury is of course all our fault and, should Birkirkara not go on to win the so-called Champions League, we can expect a long drawn out course of arbitration until Haber can find someone gullible to believe him. If he’s fit I am assured by our local correspondent, that fine fellow Maltese Hammer, that Haber’s twin sister Pearl attends most matches but I have a slight suspicion that he may be pulling my leg. In the meantime should Haber be too busy suing us to play his place by Nigerian shot-stopper Iri Atkpan. He’s rom Nigeria and keeps goal for a living, from which you’ll gather that, thanks to the New Horizons space probe, I probably know more about Pluto than I do about him.

And so to us. The trip to Andorra ended up ok in the end despite Sakho’s dismissal. Whether or not Sakho actually did anything untoward is unclear from the footage that seems to have been filmed by someone with a Chinese knock-off iPhone who was filming a particularly interesting patch o grass at the time. However, in some respects the red card didn’t come as a surprise – Lusitans spent much of the first leg trying to get him sent off and he was naïve enough to put in a couple of challenges that could easily have gained him a second yellow I the first match. He’ll have to wise up in later rounds lest a similar indiscretion against someone who is actually any good costs us dearly.

Sakho’s red means that he’ll miss both legs of this one plus the first leg of the next round should we get through. Team wise we can probably expect a similar XI to start with – though expect one or two of the more seasoned pros to be introduced. Modibo Maiga (remember him?) and new boys Payet and Hendrie have all been added to the official UEFA roster so perhaps the odd glimpse of those over the two legs might be granted.

This one is another one that we should win – Maltese Hammer for one expects the match to be over by the end of the first leg. They should, however, provide a slightly sterner test than the Andorrans – Maltese football is a bit better than that provided by our last opponents but even so we will have far too much from them over the two legs. Especially with a couple more first-teamers coming in. As with the last match I’ll shy away from a specific score - Winstone’s The Turf Accountants are still offering somewhat unforgiving odds on any score you care to mention. As ever let’s just get through the two legs without injury and hope that we can see our name go into those wonderfully- sized brandy glasses come Friday.

Enjoy the game!

When last we met: You ask me this every week. Think about it. How likely is it that we’d have played this lot before? Stop wasting my time.

How did they get here?:That’s better – a far more sensible question.

QR1: Ulisses (Armenia) h 0-0 a 3-1 agg 3-1.

Danger Man: Fabrizio Miccoli – veteran striker whose marker will find a horse’s head in his bed if they upset him.

Referee: 1st Leg: Markus Hameter (Austria) 2nd leg TBA

Daft Fact Of The Week: Malta is officially the 48th happiest country in the world according to UN statistics. (We’re 22nd if you’re that interested). The country was awarded the George Cross as a result of the population’ efforts in World War 2 and the islanders are rightly proud of the award. They also came second in the 2005 Eurovision Song Contest with the song “Angel” sung by Chiara, but they don’t like to mention that much.

Please note that the opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of, nor should be attributed to, KUMB.com.

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