Monday 20th January 2014
Empire Stadium, Gżira
Monday morning saw us swap the north-east of Malta for Sliema just over the bay from the capital Valletta. It was altogether more urbane than the zoo-like hotel with the nervous pensioners we’d left behind.
The real bonus was the views over the bay of Valletta, and the proximity of so much of interest to visit, but our first destination was a site that has been derelict for over 30 years, and it was just a few stops on the bus along the bay.
Once upon a time the Empire Stadium, Gżira was the National Stadium of Malta. It was opened in 1922, replacing the Mile-End Football Ground, in Hamrun close to the site of the Victor Tedescu Stadium, home to Hamrun Spartans. Prior to being a football ground the space had been used as a balloon station by the RAF during the First World War.
The Maltese national side played their very first international here against Austria in 1957, and the footage is here.
Famously in February 1971 Malta faced England in a European Championships qualifier, and the British press managed to underestimate their hosts describing them as “A bunch of Spanish waiters,” and criticised the Empire Stadium’s notorious sandy pitch. A capacity crowd of 30,000 saw the gallant part-timers rather unluckily go down 0-1. Footage here,
The stadium also saw greyhound racing, boxing athletics and motor-cycling as well as finals of the Maltese Cup, but the relationship between the Maltese FA and the stadium’s owners was always fraught. The new National Stadium was built at Ta’ Qali in 1981, albeit without any input from the MFA, but once agreement between government and FA had been achieved the final game at the Empire Stadium was played on 29 November 1981, a Premier League game between Sliema Wanderers and Senglea Athletics.
Now with land in Malta at such a premium you would have thought the old ground would have been quickly bulldozed and a hotel erected. Not a bit of it, in fact until recently the ground was intact albeit littered with trees that had grown from seeds deposited by the local seagulls.
Our idea was to look around the edge and steal a photo or two through a gap in the wall, but when we discovered a gap at the bottom of a door, well it would have been rude not to have paid homage, and the place took our breath away. I hope these pictures do the grand old lady justice.