“The Maltese are not into sport,” remarked Jan, a foreigner who settled in Malta, “and there are fewer opportunities to indulge in sports in Malta.”
Is that so? So it may seem, but the Maltese most certainly love their sports. There are several traditional Maltese sports that remain as popular today as when they were introduced by the Knights of St John or the British during their occupation. Meanwhile, other popular sports in Malta have more recently become an integral part of local culture.
Discover the most iconic Maltese sports.
Credit: Graziella Grech
The scene has not changed much in centuries. Old men and a growing number of youths and women gather on a level, sand playing field. Concentration is high as two teams of three players roll balls and throw cylinder shapes with impeccable precision to hit their targets. Onlookers watch in anticipation.
The boċċi game is one of the most traditional Maltese sports, very similar to that played during the period of the Knights of St John in Malta, who introduced it. With similar rules and some modifications, it retains unique characteristics that separate it from similar games of boules played in other countries.
Boċċi clubs are prevalent in most of the towns and villages of Malta and the national league sees the participation of more than thirty teams. The Maltese love this traditional sport so much that emigrant communities in Australia, Canada and the United States have boċċi clubs of their own.
Credit: Steve ZL
Football needs no introduction and has become so popular locally that it is considered the national sport of Malta. Children play football in the school playground, in their local football field or in the street. Most localities have their own team and competition is fierce.
The British introduced football in the mid-19th century as entertainment for soldiers stationed in Malta. The first football association was established in 1863, but it was only in 1909 that the game changed from amateur competition to a league format.
Alas, Maltese football rarely makes it beyond local tournaments, but the Maltese football supporter is not deterred. During international tournaments, most Maltese will support either England or Italy. However, on every World Cup game night, carcades bearing the winning country’s flags are sure to blare their way along the coast!
Credit: Reazzjoni fuq One
Horse racing is another huge sport in Malta and a very traditional affair. It was introduced in the 15th century by the Knights of Malta, who loved and encouraged this sport. It still forms an integral part of the Imnarja celebrations on 29th June at the original location in Rabat and horse races are held regularly at the race track in Marsa.
Since the Imnarja horse race was revived by the British Governor Lord Plumer in 1869, men, boys and horses still gather at Triq it-Tiġrija, beneath Saqqajja Hill, in the hope of winning the silk flag (il-palju), which is presented at the original 1696 arched podium.
Also since 1869, horses run the 2.8km race-course in Marsa all year round. In the back streets of Marsa, horse enthusiasts keep their horses, exchange race gossip and set out to take their horses to the track for a daily run. This is no part-time sport endeavour.
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Of all traditional Maltese sports, il-Ġostra is unique and dates from the middle ages. Il-Ġostra is set up mainly for entertainment during some coastal village feasts but does involve competition, fitness and skill.
To the screams and shouts of excited onlookers, participants take turns at running up a greasy pole that is erected over the sea, with a view to gather the flag at the end of the pole. It is mostly fun and games, as most attempts end in a splash after a few steps, but the winner will definitely have something to brag about.
Credit: Drew Creative Studios (3:08)
Another sport closely related to traditional local celebrations is the regatta, a rowing race which dates from the middle ages. The regatta races are national events held on 31st March and 8th September, both of which commemorate the end of foreign occupation or invasion.
A number of coastal towns and cities participate in ten races under two different categories. A points system determines the winners in this grandest of traditional Maltese sports.
Spectators gather in large numbers at the water’s edge overlooking the Grand Harbour, where the races are held. Modified Maltese working boats such as the “frejgatina”, “kajjik”, “dgħajsa tal-pass” and “dgħajsa tal-midalji” prepare for the race. It will take five hours for the colourful boats to complete all the races along the 1,040-meter course against the backdrop of Fort St Angelo, Birgu.
Credit: Olympic Channel
Water polo just has to have a mention. Although water polo gained popularity only in 1925, Malta already participated in the Olympic Games in 1928 and its popularity kept increasing. The interest in watersports is probably natural for islanders and water polo – an unlikely marriage between football and swimming – just hits the nail on the head for the Maltese.
Just as most towns and villages have a boċċi club, most coastal ones have a water polo pitch. Many Maltese families head down to the pitch just to enjoy an evening out by the sea on cool summer nights while others go to watch the toned, tanned players during their practice sessions.
Other water sports popular in Malta include paragliding, windsurfing, kitesurfing, wakeboarding, water skiing and scuba diving.
Clay pigeon/skeet shooting
Bird hunting and trapping are considered more traditional, but, with bird hunting restricted to a few weeks per year and moral concerns debating its validity as a sport, many turn to clay pigeon or skeet shooting.
A number of shooting ranges are scattered around the Maltese countryside and the great weather allows practice all year round. The Maltese seem to enjoy firing a gun, but we are thankful that they do not tend to shoot each other (very often).
Credit: Justin Mifsud/Viking Media
Motor Sports in Malta is not strictly traditional as it has not been around for centuries, but it certainly will be for as long as motor engines will exist.
What started off as a small group of enthusiasts in the 1950s, by the influence of the British Forces, has led to plans for a race track in Malta within just a few decades. The first Maltese motorsport federation was established in 1976 and the Malta Motorsport Association we know today was established in 2009.
¼ mile races are held regularly at the Ħal Far Race Way and hill climbs at Imtaħleb, (l/o Rabat) are also popular. Maltese motor enthusiasts are fanatics indulging in drag racing, hill climbs and sprints, navigational exercises, off-roading and karting, in every kind of vehicle imaginable.
Sports in Malta
Malta sports facilities at the Marsa Sports Club, Ta’ Qali and the University Grounds at Tal-Qroqq are plenty. These include the National Football Stadium, the Basketball Pavilion, the Athletic Stadium and Tartan Track and the National Swimming Pool. Facilities are also available for baseball, softball, netball, rugby, archery and several other sports activities. Moreover, Malta has hundreds of private clubs and schools ranging from various martial arts to slacklining and pole dancing!
The truth is, if you want it, facilities for your choice of a sport are probably already available in Malta.