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Official Review by Peter Miles, Stadium Journey Special Correspondent
The Maltese National Stadium in Ta’Qali was opened in December 1981 and led to the mothballing of the iconic Empire Stadium in Gzira, the island’s pre-eminent stadium until that point. Prior to this date, soccer on the island had never been played on grass. The Empire Stadium had a compacted sand pitch. It was a much loved venue though, and in 1971 attracted an incredible crowd of 30,000 for the match against England.
Since renovations in 2002, the Ta'Qali National Stadium now holds just short of 18,000 people. A new East Stand, the Millennium, was opened in 2000 providing the MFA with luxurious new headquarters. It is a magnificent venue for a modest footballing nation and the imperious floodlight pylons can be seen from many miles away.
Football is so popular on this tiny Mediterranean island that the number of clubs in the four divisions of the Maltese league (the neighbouring island of Gozo, has its own league and stadium) exceeds the number of suitable grounds on the island. This leads to good value “double header” fixtures at the likes of this stadium, the smaller Centenary Stadium next door, and the stadiums owned by Hibernians and Hamrun Spartans. This means two games are arranged on a Saturday and a Sunday immediately following each other. There are several other small stadiums on the island but these four tend to host the Premier and First Division matches.
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Each area is rated from 0 to 5 stars with 5 being the best. The overall composite score is the "FANFARE Score".
For most League weekends only the West Stand is open. Crowds are rarely over 1,000 people for run of the mill League encounters. There is a well-stocked food counter under the concourse selling a large selection of snacks and hot dogs.
There is a very wide selection of snack and confectionery augmented by hot dogs, and soft drinks. Beer is not allowed in the stands.
There is a wide range of soft drinks including Coke and Sprite, all bottled versions. Cisk lager, a Maltese beer, is also available but has to be consumed in the concourse rather than the stands.
Cisk is a very popular and palatable beer brewed in Hamrun. While you won't feel particularly full with any of the snacks on offer, it will certainly tide you over until you leave the game. The stadium is roughly in the middle of the island near the ancient town of Mdina, but there is relatively little on offer in the immediate vicinity of the stadium.
As many clubs on the island do not have their own stadium, the Maltese FA stagger matches across a weekend and the likes of Birkirkara, Sliema Wanderers, Valletta, Msida Saint-Joseph, Qormi, Marsaxlokk, and Tarxien Rainbows will be allocated "home" matches at this stadium. Birkirkara are renowned to have the most vociferous and colorful fans on the island but many of the older traditionally big clubs have their own small hardcore of supporters.
The stadium is relatively modern so has the expected tip up seats which are comfortable and spacious enough. Crowds for Maltese League matches are usually very modest so you can spread out easily. As you would expect with a modern international standard arena, the sightlines are excellent from the majority of seats although a Perspex screen enclosing the VIP section hampers the view from some seats. The South Stand has a large electronic scoreboard that just shows the score and adverts with no footage of the match being screened. For the volume of games played on it during a season the pitch is well maintained and that is a credit to the upkeep on this very dry island.
The team line ups are read over the PA before the game and that is about it. No music is played before the game or at half time.
Due to the small crowds, usually only the West Stand is opened for League fixtures. Seats to avoid are those close to the VIP section as the Perspex screen fencing this area off is an annoyance. The tickets are unreserved so you can sit where you like. The VIP section is by invite only as there are no options available to buy an upgraded ticket to this area.
In the immediate vicinity of the stadium there is a craft village and a vineyard and that's about it. However, the ancient walled city of Mdina is around a two mile, or 30-minute walk away and it's highly recommended that you look here for pre-match entertainment and sustenance.
There are numerous restaurants and bars in Mdina, and a taxi ride to the stadium takes around 8 minutes.
The craft village, when open, is well worth a wander around and is immediately adjacent to the stadium. There is also an aviation museum in the craft village. Otherwise it will be any number of excellent restaurants in Mdina.
Public transport in Malta is excellent and very reasonable, so the recommendation would be to stay in the ancient capital Valletta or the popular tourist areas like St Julians. Malta is such a small island, no location is particularly far from anywhere else.
Due to the rotational use of the stadium, the fan experience will very much depend on the fixture you are attending. One thing is for sure though the Maltese love their soccer! Birkirkara, Hibernians, Floriana and Valletta all have decent support.
Malta have never had a great pedigree on the international stage, but soccer is uniformly popular on the island. With the "double header" tickets costing 7 euros you can choose to stay for one game or both. Unless you are seeing a vital end of season match, attendance will never exceed 1,000 people.
I was in the Birkirkara section of supporters and they had a small but noisy band of supporters waving huge red and yellow flags, and this was during a particularly dire 0-0 draw!
Its inland location gives the stadium a feeling of remoteness, but it also builds up that excitement when the huge floodlights come into view. The stadium is well designed and moving around the concourses is easy.
The Maltese have a superb bus network although sadly the famous old rickety yellow buses have now been consigned to history. The main bus terminus is in Valletta and buses 106, 107, 51, 52, 53, 202, 109, X3 all take you out to Ta'Qali.
There is a huge car park behind the West Stand costing 1 euro.
Tickets are purchased at the kiosk and are printed barcodes on a paper roll dispenser. There is no option to buy in advance as this is just not needed due to the small attendances. Searches by security staff are conducted upon entry.
The two sets of fans are housed in separate sections of the West Stand separated by the VIP section. Once you are in that section you can sit where you like and move around freely within that section. There are stairs to the stands, but there are not any noticeable disabled facilities.
The 7 euro double header ticket is an excellent value and is a set price across any top flight venue on the island. You can choose to stay for both games or leave after the first one. The strange experience is at the end of the first game when the fans supporting the teams in the first game leave and are replaced for those for the second.
While the standard of football is not great and never has been, the prices are extremely reasonable, the beer is good, and the sun nearly always shines! What's not to like?
Team sheets are available from the stadium office but Malta just does not "do" programmes anywhere. I saw no merchandise on sale at all at any of the venues I attended in Malta. However, souvenirs can be purchased in several football related shops in Valletta.
The double header ticket is great value for two matches.
If you do not raise your expectations for the standard of football you will be watching, this isn't Real Madrid, you cannot fail but to enjoy a match at this venue, or indeed any of the venues on the island of Malta. Friendly people, sunny climate, island life. Wonderful.
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7 Holy Cross St
Mdina, Malta MDN
+356 2145 4004
Mdina, Malta MDN