Sliema Wanderers / Valletta FC: a story about a groundhop and a sightseeing bus

There are some groundhops which, when written about, bring out the most cultural and aesthetic terms an author can come up with. Some others are already worth the read without even writing a word, but due to the sheer known magic of a place in particular.

This groundhop is none of either.

The gang waiting in line for tickets. €7 for two matches. “Wait, two?”

Together with probably the craziest bunch of nutters one could put on a plane, I ventured off to Malta in order to visit my main bro Laurens ( who had moved to the tiny island of Malta to spark some much needed new life into his career.

Next to beer, parties, hangovers, bars, pubs, everything in between and a tiny dash of culture, Laurens also promised me a groundhop. He mentioned that Malta has a couple of interesting teams … “if you’re a fan of something like the Belgian 4th divison”. Which I am.

My first impression of Ta’ Qali was not too bad. This could well be the outside of any stadium in western Europe.

Due to the small size of the island and its high population density, every game is a derby. Nearly all of them are played in the country’s national stadium: Ta’ Qali. The teams who call it home are Birkirkara FC, Marsa FC, Marsaxlokk FC, Melita FC, Msida Saint Joseph, Pietà Hotspurs FC, Sliema Wanderers, St. George’s FC and Valletta FC. Sure that’s all of them? At 2PM, the first game is played, at 4PM the second and sometimes at 6PM the third. It’s like a – pun intended – football factory.

Ta’ Qali Stadium fits 17 000. Here, England will face Malta in September for the 2018 World Cup Qualifiers.
The very laid back game of Balzan v Sliema Wanderers gave a false image of how the rest of the afternoon would fare.

The first game was be Balzan versus Sliema Wanderers. We had no idea in which team’s stand we ended up, until we noticed a girl wearing a Sliema Ultras hoodie.

“Okay, so there is a scene here.”

After a couple of cheap beers, the game started without anything noticeable happening at all. The level was horrifying so we entertained ourselves with a couple of chants, knowing well that the players could hear every word we sung. The Ultra girl didn’t appear to be in to singing. So by the time we were pissed up, we fully took the credit for Sliema’s 1-2 win over Balzan. Furthermore, there is absolutely nothing to mention about this match apart from our drinking capacity .

The match was over before we knew it. Due to our drinking behaviour, most of us even forgot there was a second match to come.

“What?! Another one?!”

The players barely saluted the fans as the next teams, Valletta FC and Hamrun, took to the pitch. The metamorphosis began.

The Maltese appeared to be masters of taunting.

The main stand was the only stand filled for the game, where a buffer section separated the two sets of fans which were sat along the length of the field. For the second game, we sat in Valletta FC’s end. A turn of fortune. Immediately after the previous game’s whistle, large flags, a couple of drums, a marching band and chants started to cheer the capital’s team. As our group first looked at each other in awe, we decided to join in as good as we can, since all of their chants are in incomprehensible Maltese. The locals noticed us and seemed to appreciate that we showed an active interest in their team.

A marching band was playing, singing was going on in an exotic language and we were swayed by the swaggy rhythms and songs of what seemed to be the most popular club on the island. The whole experience had a very South American feel to it. It seemed like a River Plate match … a friendly, but still a River Plate friendly.

Since we’re not capable of understanding any Maltese, the slightest turn of a couple of Valletta supporters towards the Hamrun supporters which were taunting, was enough to spark all of us in to joining the local Ultras Beltin. By doing so, we doubled the usual number of crazy nutters in the stands.

The scenes when Valletta scored 1-0. Half of the people in this picture are Belgian.

In fact, the taunting got to us so much that we made our way to the first row of the stand, stood on an open fence and caught the attention of Ultras Beltin. In any other European country, tourists or groundhoppers who behave like this in any stadium would be immediately kicked out. Not in Malta. The Capo smiled at us and encouraged us to carry on. Not long afterwards, Valletta scored 1-0 and the crazy Belgians celebrated with the local Ultras while, of course, taunting the opposition.

There were plenty of these.

As the game kept heating on, Valletta scored the 2-0 decider. It didn’t stop the Hamrun supporters from taunting back, but you know who had the last laugh. The last minutes of the game are a blur of shouting and alcohol, so pardon the total lack of detail here.

Final whistle: Valletta FC 2 – 0 Hamrun. Let’s fuck off.

Laurens absolutely unaware of what’s happening after the final whistle. Michael in the background was doing a can-can at double speed. Don’t ask.

The Ultras were outside of the stadium regrouping. So were we, having a much harder time regrouping a group half the size and filled to the brim with drunken Belgians and two Brits.

Before we knew it, we stood in front of a sightseeing bus, the kind of old red English double-decker you see driving tourists around looking like a bunch of twats. The top deck was filled with people. Girls were looking down on us shouting “Go away!”, at the same time the Ultras’ capo told us to get on the bus and join them.

The girls’ faces when we arrived on the upper deck were priceless.

What followed was one of the weirdest scenes I had ever seen on a groundhop. The bus started driving, all of the Ultras on top and it drove straight through the area where the ‘visiting’ supporters had grouped up. Chants and other stuff got thrown in both directions, but the feeling of victory made us untouchable.

The bus started driving, surrounded by visiting supporters. But hey, we still had our pints.

Keeping our balance, ducking for tree branches and, yes, one even taking a piss off the back of the bus. We had absolutely no idea where the ride would be taking us. I was too busy to mind, after exchanging stickers with the capo and showing him our gratitude for the hospitality.

The bus dropped us off on the outskirts of Valletta. We had to be in Saint Julian’s. Malta may be small, but it’s still quite a drive away. “We’re in Valletta?!” Chris angstly shouted, throwing his hands to his hair with fear in his wide-open drunken eyes. The lad had been sleeping the whole bus ride. Drinking Belgians 1 – 0 Drinking Brits.

In October, a new Maltese episode will follow. Stay tuned.

The walk home was going to be a tough one.

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