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Sunday 15th January 2014

13.00 Gozo League Division One

XEWKIJE TIGERS 5 (R Buttigieg 20 54 Shields 31 Portelli 52 Camilleri 72)

ORATORY YOUTHS 0

Att c300

15.00 Gozo League Division One

VICTORIA HOTSPURS 1 (Nanapere 41)

SK VICTORIA WANDERERS 1 (Nwankwo 29)

Att c600

At Gozo National Stadium, Xewkije

Entry €4 (both games)

No Programmes

Team Sheet FREE

Coffee 50c

Gozo is the second largest of the Maltese Islands, and is easily reached by ferry from the port of Ċirkewwa. The crossing takes around 45 minutes and costs €5.65 return. It’s an odd system, the only tickets available are returns and they are only sold from the port of Mġarr on the Gozitan side. It reminded me of trips over the Severn Bridge!

On the ride over we passed the only other inhabited island in the Maltese archipelago Comino. That has a population of only 4 permanent inhabitants so the possibilities for football are rather limited!

A day’s bus travel on Gozo cost €1.50, once again on Arriva buses, and as on the mainland we slowly picked our way through tiny villages astride narrow twisting roads. If Roman Catholicism is strong in Malta then its even more the case here, with the Church of St John the Baptist in Xewkije capable of holding more than the village’s population of 3,000!

In 2000 the island became the origin of a major ethical court case. Rina Attard gave birth to conjoined twins Rosie and Gracie, travelling to Manchester England to do so. It became clear that without surgery to separate them both would die, but the surgery would kill the weaker twin, Rosie. The Attards followed Catholic doctrine that God alone could decide life or death and so refused the surgery. The doctors took the case to the courts who found in favour of surgery. This occurred in November 2000 with Rosie dying in the process. Gracie survived and now lives in Gozo with her parents.

When researching this trip I was surprised to find out that an island of only 26 square miles and a population of 36,000 has its own football association, and a 14 team, two division league. There are only three stadia, at Kercem, Sannat, and the Gozo National Stadium at Xewkije where the Gozitan FA are based in an office suite in one corner.

We got to the ground around 90 minutes early, enough time to be able to stroll round to the far side of the two-sided ground to take pictures as the Tigers Ultras put up their banners. From there I paid the FA offices a visit, mainly to get teamsheets for the games but also to find out more.

Gozo’s football has its quirks, the league is separate from the Maltese League, but Gozitan clubs do enter the Maltese Trophy, (currently styled the U*Bet Trophy). The Gozo National Stadium is owned by the Maltese Government but the Gozo national team play as a non-FIFA, New Federations Board side. A Gozo FC side also used to play in the Maltese League.

The Gozo Stadium, formerly the Silver Jubilee Ground was built in 1936 when the Gozitan FA was formed. It was renovated in 1995 and since then new changing rooms and a seven-a-side pitch has been added. The VIP and Press section is being rebuilt, and there are moves afoot to improve facilities for the disabled. The odd thing about the Xewkije side we were in was that the best view by far was from the patio area to the left of the seating area. The stadium is the only one on the island to have a grass pitch.

I’d wondered what the standard would be like for such a small island, and population base. In fact it was far better than I’d hoped mainly due to the fact that clubs do bring in “Imports” to supplement the local talent. A case in point was Dene Shields, playing up front for Xewkije. He’d played for the likes of Raith Rovers, Cowdenbeath and Ross County in his native Scotland but was lured to Malta firstly by Hamrun Spartans in 2013, then on to Gozo for last season. Football is a part-time activity for local players in the two Maltese Leagues, but clubs seem to be able to raise sponsorship for a couple of imported full-timers.

Shields looks to be an inspired signing for Xewkije, leading the line well and scoring with a deft header. Oratory didn’t put up much of a fight in a entertaining game but the crowd was swelling considerably in anticipation of the second game, a huge local derby. But to be honest I was more pleased at ticking off my first club at home that starts with an “X!”

It appears that if you’re young and on Gozo, there isn’t much to do on a Sunday than go to football. The parade of fashions on the patio was as touching as it was amusing. At times it was as entertaining as the game as the two sides from the Gozitan capital got bogged down with injuries. At one point we had the ambulance present as Joseph Vella for Wanderers needed assistance but that had to be delayed as the injury to his keeper Simon Agius at the other end of the pitch was deemed to be more serious. The game was delayed for 10 minutes while the ambulance was filled.

The draw was probably the correct the result, Nigerian Eric Nwankwo’s deft lob being cancelled out by his fellow countryman Saturday Nanapece’s cross-cum-shot that drifted in with Dylan Bellotti in close attendance. The second half was punctuated by the occasional explosion from the crow-scarers being set off in the hills behind, illegal bird killing is a real problem here, but soon enough the young fashionistas disappeared to watch the Manchester United game in the bar under the Gozo FA, and we retraced our steps back to the ferry.