Alfred Zammit (67) proudly gazes at his impressive collection of various football-related artifacts in his Naxxar residence. While football-themed collections, exhibitions and displays are nothing new around the world, few of them are dedicated to women. Shiny prizes, banners from various countries, kits and balls, various posters, magazines, newspaper clippings and other items crowd a large room, lovingly taken care of by the assistant director for women’s football of the Malta Football Association (MFA). Having dedicated his life to women’s football, Zammit professes strong belief in equality – but this was far from the reality when he started his journey.

Photo credit: Daiva Repečkaitė / Eve

“Here, decorate your room,” the football enthusiast offers calendars, bookmarks and other items with images of the Malta national team or female footballer figures as we sit down to talk about his work. While football is internationally glorified, it’s typically men who get featured on television, in advertising, as fashion icons, and even on chewing gum stickers. Meanwhile, women’s teams still struggle to find enough sponsors even when they shine brighter than men’s.

Today, MFA counts 14 women’s teams, but when women’s football took its first steps in Malta, Alfred Zammit remembers it being heavily stereotyped as a predominantly lesbian activity, and parents feeling worried. Still, team after team, girls blasted all obstacles with their dedication.

“In 2000, we [a team of the MidMed bank at the time – ed.] managed to win a tournament in Italy, and the boys had never won it. For the girls, it was a good feather in the cap,” the former coach tells. The victory impressed the new CEO of HSBC, which had acquired the MidMed, and the bank decided to fully sponsor its women’s team. “The same year I took up a team. A lot of girls were giving up football because they didn’t get selected [to the existing teams – ed.]. I took some of the rejects to this [same] tournament in Italy; we played against teams who were the best at the time, and we got very good results. When I came back to Malta, I went straight to the MFA president Dr [Joe] Mifsud, and I told him, listen, let’s get a national team going. We can compete with the other teams. Even with the rejects, we did such a good job.”

The president at the time gave his word and kept it. The Maltese team was successful in the tournament. It was time to take it one step higher. In 2003, the team debuted in FIFA Women’s World Cup. Later representing the MFA together with its vice-president at FIFA and UEFA women’s football congress in Germany, Zammit remembers being shocked to hear that the two international associations have pledged massive sums to support women’s football in every country, but none of this had been heard of in Malta. “Obviously, when I got back home I made a fuss about it. [The leadership] said, they [FIFA] were exaggerating [the amounts]. But things got better. During that time, the girls were paying for football pitches, for the referees, the physio – and the men were not. Then, after a couple of weeks of putting pressure, things started moving – free physio, etc.” Let that sink in: at the dawn of the 21st century, earning less than men, women had to fork out their own funds to maintain their passion for the game, when men were sponsored.

Photo credit: Daiva Repečkaitė / Eve

“When I started with women’s football, I had players aged 13, 14, players of 35, all walks of life – all in one team, all mixed. It wasn’t right, but that was the first step. Now at the MFA you’ve got under-11, under-13, under-15 – all organised, with their coaches, with members who follow them, with their kits and everything. We go to schools, we organise school tournaments, we have charitable tournaments for the Community Chest Fund and the Pink Ribbon campaign,” Zammit lists the engagements of the footballers and mentions that his latest project is a team of mothers.

What exactly inspired this strong dedication to women’s football in the hyper-masculine world of sport? Zammit struggles to answer – it just felt right. “I was a trade unionist in the 70s and 80s, and I always spoke up for women’s rights. Because women were always kept as a shadow of men. When you give them something, you give it as a present, not because it’s their right. That was a real hard battle – much harder than the football battle. I always believed in equality. I always treated my three sisters and my friends who were girls equally. I can’t explain why, but it was in me, that’s all.”

“I can assure you, they are more serious than the boys,” he asserts. “How many Maltese men are playing abroad? 2-3? About 5-6 girls are playing abroad!” the former coach speaks proudly. The first Maltese professional footballer Rachel Cuschieri is currently midfielder at PSV in Belgium (Eve‘s interview with her here).

Personal football museum. Photo credit: Daiva Repečkaitė / Eve

There still is some stigma in women’s football. In an interview in 2015, the current women’s team coach Mark Gatt admitted having still had to confront his own stereotypes: “At first, I rejected the offer because I thought that football was only for men. […] I remain surprised in every visit because the amount of girls who enjoy playing football is unthinkable,” he told Women’s Soccer United.

“But more than stigma, some of the men are jealous of the results the girls have obtained,” Zammit believes. “In these 15 years we made enormous progress – not me, not Pierre [Brincat, the first coach of the national women’s team – ed.], not the other helpers – all together.” The efforts are paying off. UEFA praised Malta for branding and promoting women’s football and making a good use of its 100,000 euros yearly investment. Most importantly, new girls keep joining the game and striving for ever-better results.

Further reading:

Interview with footballer Ylenia Carabott

Interview with Dorianne Theuma

The rules of the game: Esther Azzopardi

The science of sport – Danica Bonello Spiteri