West Ham prepare to take on another titan of European football in Birkirkara, but some Hammers fans may not have heard of the plucky Maltease team. This is why we have put together our pocket-sized guide to the Malta Fa trophy winners ahead of their visit to the Boleyn Ground.
1. They’re from Malta, don’t you know.
Writing about Maltese football clubs (an experience I’m sure you’re all familiar with) requires a massive amount of personal restraint. Sometimes the temptation becomes too much to compare the teams/match/fans/ground to the eponymous small balls of crispy chocolate. Phrases such as “The Maltese side crunched the opposition” and “A sweet treat for the Maltese fans” could well creep into match reports following the tie. Must. Resist. Urge.
Malta itself is a Mediterranean island with a population of around half a million. That’s one sixteenth the population of Greater London, in case you were wondering. Its inhabitants enjoy a remarkably high standard of living, as the country is 39th on the Human Development Index, above Portugal, Argentina and Croatia.
2. They won the cup... of Malta
Although Birkirkara only finished third in their league last season, they did scoop the Maltese FA Trophy last season. Despite this, they are no minnows in their native land, having won the Premier division five times since 2000.
3. Their ground is surprisingly huge
The Maltese national team’s Ta Qali national stadium is set to be used for the second leg of the tie on July 23. It seats 18,000, almost able to hold the entirety of Birkirkara’s 22,000 population. You wouldn’t bet against them all turning up.
4. They lose a lot...
As with Lusitans before them, Birkirkara rock up to Upton Park with a not exactly fearsome record in European Competition. Aside from Ulisses, they have only won two of their previous 18 European ties. However, they once ran Russian giants Dinamo Moscow mighty close in 2003, drawing 0-0 in the first leg before the Maltease side were crunched (sorry) 1-0 in Russia.
5. ...but they have some pretty good players.
Genuinely good too. Not just good for the Maltese league. You've heard of Juventus, right? One of their former strikers, Fabrizio Miccoli, has just joined the club. The 36-year-old may not look as trim and quick as he did during his days at the Delle Alpi, but his know-how and nous for goal will be vital if the Maltease side are set to give the Hammers a challenge. They have a couple of Brazilians too, in former Westerlo striker Liliu, and attacking midfielder Rafael Ledesema, each of whom helped themselves to 13 goals last season.