City and Stripes give life to a modern classic Published on: 23-06-2017

Season 1997-98 saw Valletta and Birkirkara fighting it out for the biggest honour in Maltese football.
However, at the start of the season Hibs seemed to be the best bet for the league title.
Traditionally slow starters, the Paolites defied the record books to win the first three encounters of the season.
But when Hibs lost 1-0 against Valletta they kept alternating fine displays with mediocre performances and by the end of the second round, they were already out of the title race.
Hibs’ struggles left Valletta and Birkirkara as the sole contenders for the title.
As luck, would have it the championship was decided in the last game of the season when, on May 2, 1998, the two rivals met in a do-or-die encounter for the crown of champions.
It turned out to be a day to remember.
For the first time ever, a Maltese national league game was transmitted live on television. Despite this, the National Stadium was packed with an enthusiastic crowd which was probably the biggest-ever for a league match.
This match will always be remembered for the way referee Alfred Micallef handled the game despite the difficult conditions.
He never baulked, although at times he was stretched to the limit by the antics of players and supporters.
In the face of such a partisan gathering, it took strength and courage to award penalties and send off players.
Valletta won this encounter 2-1 to become champions for the 16th time in their illustrious history.
For Birkirkara, it was a disappointing end to a great season in which they went their closest ever to winning the league title.
However, it was only a matter of time before their dreams were realised.
The game started briskly with both teams taking turns to attack the other’s fort.
Twenty minutes from the start, Chucks Nwoko was brought down by Kris Laferla and Joe Camilleri and referee Micallef pointed to the spot.
Valletta goalkeeper Reggie Cini dived to his left to turn to a corner Brincat’s effort from the spot.
Birkirkara were punished for this lapse as a few minutes later Stefan Giglio scored with a shot on a loose ball which went searing into the net.
But the Stripes were soon on level terms.
On the stroke of half-time a quick throw-in on the left had Brincat transferring to Nwoko who beat two defenders before sending in a low cross into the centre of the penalty area.
Ivan Zammit darted in from nowhere to flash the ball into the net.
With twenty minutes left for full-time, Drasko Braunovic was sent off after a late tackle on Zammit.
Valletta, however, summoned all their resilience and five minutes later they hit back with a penalty.
A bold substitution which was nevertheless very rational given the circumstances of the game, had the swift Jeremy Agius coming on for the tiring Nenad Veselji.
And it was Agius who procured the all-important penalty.
The referee adjudged that Jonathan Magri Overend’s charge from the side near the left bye-line was illegal and pointed to the dreaded spot amid the Stripes’ players’ dissent.
Joe Zarb stepped up to send Musbah Shangeb the wrong way.
All Valletta had to do now was to administer those final minutes coolly and in an ordinate way.
Fast raids
Apart from a couple of fast raids which almost had the Stripes caught on the wrong foot, Cini and his defenders were called to wipe away menacing balls as their frantic opponents made a desperate assault on goal.
On and on came the Stripes but somehow the Citizens held firm even though they suffered another set-back when Giglio was sent off.
The final whistle was greeted with unimaginable scenes of joy by the City supporters.
It was a very long time since the Maltese game had witnessed such scenes.
However, one could not help to spare a thought for plucky Birkirkara for the effort they put in this game. Indeed, on another day and with a little bit of luck the honours could have gone to them.

Carmel Baldacchino - Source - Times of Malta