The chimera known as European soccer’s “close season”—roughly 15 minutes after one 10-month slaughterfest ends, new competitions and the inevitable round of money-spinning pre-season friendlies, Asian-American grand tours and transfer-market freakouts begin—is over. (Our long international nightmare, one might say.)
The UEFA Champions League commences with its First Qualifying Round, starring 28 victors from the august top divisions of Bosnia, Wales, all the Irelands, the odd Baltic state and various other leagues where clubs tend to use mysterious combinations of initials for names. These teams will compete for the right to be beaten in the Second Qualifying Round by marginally larger clubs, who will in turn then be beaten by teams that finished third or fourth in one of the real leagues, who themselves will proceed to fuck up their group-stages campaigns, resulting in fired managers, ruined transfer prospects and fan protests organized around the chucking of celery, anchovies, rugulac or some other local product.
It all leads, of course, to the supreme drama of the Champions League knock-out rounds, culminating in semifinals featuring AC Milan and Barcelona taking on Overrated English Clubs A & B, the lattermost coming through on dodgy away goals or penalties, or preferably both.
The importance of the First Qualifying Round, then, is clear. [[[The Official XIDevils Fatwa on the Champions League states that ALL participants should be—y’know—champions and that the fussy business of qualifying rounds and group stages should be done away with in favor of straight two-legged knock-out play. Like the Old Days, which as an American sports fan I am constitutionally required to prefer.]]] A scan of participating teams reveals plenty of intriguing, exotic entrants, none more so than the CHAMPIONS OF MALTA, mighty Marsaxlokk. Because I am a sucker for any place name with a rogue X in the middle, let’s take a closer look.
Turns out Marsaxlokk is a beautiful fishing village of just over 3,500 people. If it weren’t for those bastards in the Faroe Islands forever taking the mickey, I’d say it’s entirely likely that this hamlet is the smallest locality represented in the Champions League. The hometown team is quaintly nicknamed The Southseasiders, or less quaintly, “Tal-Lampuki,” which might actually be quite quaint in Maltese for all I know.
The club seems to play its home fixtures in Malta’s national stadium, meaning every man, woman and child in the actual town of Marsaxlokk could bring five friends to a match. The Southseasiders have been at it for close to 60 years, but appear to be a club on the make: two promotions in the last decade; recently linked to Paul Gascoigne (Wikipedia might be making that up, but I’m not); importing Eastern European, Nigerian, English and Brazilian players with some regularity. The bulk of the squad, of course, is Maltese, meaning that not even the most cosmopolitan opponents will be able to decipher the team chatter.
Team Tal-Lampuki Fighting achieved qualfication for Qualification by winning the Maltese Premier League, a 10-team circuit full of amiable-sounding, old-school-ish clubs like “Hibernians” and “St. George’s” and “Wanderers.” The MPL (Eleven Devils will be bidding on US English-language broadcast rights in due time) boasts an unusual and sort of interesting set-up. After the traditional home-and-away schedule, the league splits into a six-team Championship Pool and a four-team Relegation Pool, and another home-and-away series commences. It’s hard to work out just how points carry over, but it seems Marsaxlokk won the first phase with a single defeat and a goal difference of +30, so it’s safe to say they kicked ass by the bucketful throughout.
But how will Marsaxlokk cope with First Qualifying Round opponents FK Sarajevo? And how will they handle playing in front of Sarajevo’s ultras, the “Hordes of Evil”? Southseasiders v. Hordes of Evil? This is the stuff that dreams, and the First Qualifying Round, are woven of.