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Nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita...

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Champions League - it's a summer thing

Several hours passed since the results of First Qualifying Round of the UEFA Champions League draw were announced, yet neither official web-page nor Facebook page of Hibernians FC, Malta's fresh champion, mention it. The website was last updated in early May on the occasion of the title winning. Social network, somewhat more vibrant, still kept on congratulating club's owner with the yesterday's Father's Day, and offered members to sign up for the «BBQ Night» at the Hibs ground next weekend. To be accompanied by the presentation of the new season's team.

Andorran sister-dwarf «Santa Coloma» on the contrary was closely following events at the UEFA's Swiss headquarters stopping just barely short of broadcasting it live on Facebook. Both clubs have almost equal UEFA rankings, yet the Maltese team is followed by seven times more people on Facebook (around 5 000). And yet...

Watching the goals of the winning season left by and large a good impression, yet none of them was a capping stone of a work of many passes. Set pieces, penalties, some sweet and unexpected shots. In any case it was clear that I shouldn't count on tici-taca or a feast of football.

Unlike the Maltese side, their opponents won their league for the first time, and even managed to draw the ire of the UEFA, which demanded nothing less but the renaming of the club. «Infonet», team's previous name, mirrors that of its main sponsor, and football's continental authorities would have none of it. Just remember RB Leipzig, bought by energy drink manufacturer Red Bull, and who was denied the right to be called Red Bull. Curiously the winner of this Maltese-Estonian clash is drawn to meet precisely Red Bull, albeit the Austrian one. Which is also required by the same rules to figure under «Salzburg» in all European competitions.


«FCI Tallinn»'s site gingerly announces that tonight's game vs. Hibernation FC (sic) will be broadcasted live on Estonian news portal. A Freudian slip: the Maltese will be quite alert and not hibernating at all, while the Tallinn team will appear sleepy after absorbing enough of island's fierce sun. Their black jerseys apparently contributing much to the overheat.

Still no replies from Maltese fans on questions asked at club's pages and ultras' Facebook community. These are simple but essential questions: when and where the tickets are sold? Is there a fan's pub, where the faithful meet prior the game to anticipate the Champions League and bask in the reminiscences of the past golden season? Dismissive silence is my reply with only one fan suggesting sunbathing as a literal warming up procedure. Think you smart, asshole?

Yet only the locals are unresponsive. I soon start receiving messages from foreigners at Malta sympathizing with me and expressing their disbelief at the Maltese inhospitality: an Estonian, an Australian and a Dane write me how astonished they are by the level of communication at club and among the fans. Even the day after the important game the official website is dormant. May is still the season there. So the Dane and I agree on sharing a taxi to the Hib's headquarters. He, a «Silkeborg IF» ultras, on vacation here with his family, is struggling for already a week to locate shops selling Maltese clubs paraphernalia. Juventus, Roma, the National side – be my guest, but Hibs or Valetta – fat chance. Yet his special interest is fan's stickers, of which he amassed over 50 000. I empathize with his shopping mishaps, remembering my own student time's collection of football scarves (coincidentally mostly from Danish clubs) still collecting dust at parents’. Hopefully will offload them in August to a guy from Vigo, whom I befriended on an away game of FC Krasnodar in Europa League. They have to go somewhere, yet I shudder at simply throwing them away.

The cab stops in Paola's heart, Valetta's suburb. Huge flag and a HIBERNIANS CHAMPIONS banner on the wall of an edifice greet us. The edifice is a women’s prison. Its doors are closed but will be welcomingly open after ten in the night, when we'll be passing by from the game. The Danish ultras and I won't have heart to enter.

Headquarters shares the building with fan shop and fan's pub. The store is closed, just like the office, yet the pub appears to be breathing. Or rather snoring soundly. The bar is empty, safe for the grandfather type in wifebeater, snooze next to window. Our steps bring him back to reality, and we order beer and Coke. Coke to our fierce tattooed head to toe ultras. Who named his only daughter Sif to honor his club.

The walls are decorated with sepia-tinged photos of Hibs winning teams, winning twelve titles and a bagful of lesser trophies. Yet club's previous successes are not that far off – a title two seasons ago, and couple of other league wins in mid-2000s. Mail for the already closed office rests on the bar, included an official letter from the UEFA marked “For the attention of President and General Secretary”. Snap a pic of it and then ask the granddad if the Wikipedia factoid on Stanley Matthews is true. Hibs entry there claims that the winner of the very first Balon d'Or and XX's century footballer #11 according to the International federation of football history and statistics played for the Hibernians FC? «Playing coach», - comes the answer. Convincing enough. Whom else could have he been at fifty plus?

Somewhat touched, the old man invites us to climb couple of stairs higher to see the club office. We unbolt the door and ascend the steps. Walls are adorned with team photos with the club's president at the centre. Tony Bezzina, permanent president and owner since 1978 grows old with every new title-winning portrait. A graying patriarch now, he was young and handsome still in 1990s. He is the longest serving president in Hibs history, founded in 1922. Under his helm the Peacocks add nine more championships to three won in the preceding 56 years. Hibernians was never relegated from Malta's top flight, and this is a solid 80–years achievement. Officially. In reality they went bankrupt couple of times and missed a year due to the ruling of football authorities or courts.

Trophy cabinet is full of various chalices. Maltese champions cup stood separately on a stand still festooned with ribbons. Triangular pennants that captains exchange prior games are on the walls. I finally saw where they end up. Clubs of Barcelona's caliber most likely send them straight to bin, after games with minnows like Hibs. I won't be surprised actually, having so many international games.

It's surely too early for Hibernians to squander these attributes of international football. Even though the club was Malta's first team to play in continental competition back in 1961, and took part in further 26 campaigns, it still has little to show for its efforts. Well, none of the Maltese teams has. Champions Cup, Fairs Cup, Cup Winners' Cup, UEFA Cup, Intertoto Cup, Champions League, Europa League – only once did the peacocks squeezed past the first hurdles. In Champions League campaign of 2002/3 Irish Shelbourne was defeated on a two-game fixture. They failed to match Portuguese Boavista's class in the next.
Fans opinions left untapped, Thomas the Dane and I headed straight to the stadium. Grandfather in his white top waved loosely in direction of the venue implying «you just go straight», and should we heeded his gestures we would have hit the countryside. But I had an iPad and navigator with me, with arena's coordinates already planted, so we didn't miss. Hibernians Stadium is located in an industrial zone of the port. It's not dominated by floodlights masts but rather by a huge oilrig marooned at a dry dock, being assembled. Bezzina – sponsor on jerseys and club's owner – is a marine business company whose range of services encompass dredging Libyan harbors and repair of ships. Honorable and hard working business. Not a bookie or chips maker. Kind of marine «Torpedo».

Being enlightened by Google Maps is a bliss – you just walk tall full of confidence past God forsaken industrial landscapes, taking always correct counterintuitive turns to stadio. Interestingly Maltese language has a lot in common with Italian, while still structurally staying a Semitic one (i.e. a relative of Arabic and Hebrew). It's a mesmerizing mixture. Welcome would be a variant of «marhaba», while thank you is «grazzi». English is well understood though – British rule didn't pass unnoticed. Even now Malta is one of summer center for learning of world's chief lingua franca – every day hundreds of students are brought to island by planes to study and enjoy beach life.

10 Euro is the cost of pleasure to see Champions League game at this stage (domestic games as we see cost seven. We enter. It's half an hour before the whistle and very few people are there. Non-alcoholic beer is on sale, as well as a local pop Kinnie ...and yes, sunflower seeds, immensely popular fare at Russian stadiums. The stadium has only one tribune for 3 000 people. Its one sector is decorated as ULTRAS' preserve, yet these particular breed of fans will be occupying only the lowest rows. Those higher to graffiti will be taken by families. All in all there will be a dearth of «fan base» elements (youth between 13 and 21 years of old) at the stadium. Potbellied men, matrons with kids, Maltese «kuzmichi»s. Even every second of those ultras down there will be sporting beer belly.

Three large flags are arriving, custom made for the new title and new Euro campaign, sporting Champions League logos and peacocks, club symbols. These banners will stay unused for the most of the game – they will start waving them only after goals scored and at the start and finish of the match. And that's fine – otherwise they would have obscured us half the pitch.

People start amassing only ten minutes before the whistle. The tribune is mostly filled, - 1 068 viewers are officially at the game. Scorching sun washed dull colorful seats, and generally you wouldn't say the stadium is well looked after. The club is certainly not awash with money. However, its website proudly claims that Hibs were the first on Malta to own their ground, back in 1980s. Still, the team plays its most important games at the National stadium further inland, some half an hour drive away from here. During my previous stay I crossed the entire island in 30-40 mins lengthwise and in 15-20 across.
2017/18 Champions Leagues' second game (the inaugural one went underway couple of hours earlier in Yerevan) kicked-off without listening to its magnificent anthem. Bleached advertising billboards at the field's outer rim apparently didn't represent official partners of this elite competition either. The Maltese appeared in jerseys without players' surnames written on their backs. It looked like continent's most sublime tournament didn't rush to equal minnows’ clumsy football to masterpieces that pedigree clubs will start minting from the end of August.
Fans were still arriving, when briskly started Estonians, who to their discomfort were playing in black, won penalty. A man named Bezzina fouled in the box. He certainly didn't suffer from anonymity, since his surname was spelled across his chest anyway. Penalty was shot weakly in the lower corner and was saved by the goalkeeper. The tribune erupted with happiness and joyful whistles. Tallinn maintained pressure, while the locals tried to strangle the pace, fouling nasty. The referee decided to prevent a brewing brawl and quickly issued yellow cards to aggressive hosts. Spectators were enraged and one citizen started yelling angrily «Fuckoff ref» to linesman. Did he realize that the ref is the guy on the pitch? The game though calmed and everyone took their seats and fell quiet. Some kid's wail was flying over the crowd from the VIP zone. The kid managed to cry all game long, halftime and two water breaks included. It's good that game's tempo increased after the sunset, refreshing the public, who submerged the cries into its hum.

At one point the crowd started chanting and I joined, since the rhythm was familiar (though the words were not). «Ma-skov-sky Spar-tak» was doing the trick just as neatly. Mind you I'm not a fan of this team, but the chant itself is extremely well known in my city. At this point Thomas says «Spartak». I nod and confirm that I chant a Spartak chant. He, however, means something else – a man passed by in a red and white t-shirt. I turn to look and see that it is an Estonian fan, which talked to me on Facebook. I rush to great him. He lives and works on Malta with his wife, who accompanies him to this game. ...And they are taken to a separate sector. Through the VIP zone. Thinking they are taking to the relative comfort of that area I wave to Thomas to come join us. However we are paraded straight through the coveted location to the absolutely empty sector. Sensing where it all going – sitting through the match with two Russian Estonians wasn't in my plan – I reverse and head to Thomas and other Maltese fans. Our minder starts insisting that I'll like it there «There's a toilet and bar. You'll feel comfortable there». No way! I came to see reactions of the locals, and not to sit with fellow strangers.

Getting rid of the safety officer I return to my Dane and «the ultras». It's all peace and calm there. Swifts are pirouetting under the roof. Apart from distant wailing the silence is periodically pierced by single bleating of «Ayawaits»! This by far is the leading mode of self-expression of Hibs fans on stands. Real ultras down there have drums and percussion, yet they produce not an inflammatory drumming but some melodic and melancholic passages, remotely reminiscent of tango.

I quickly perform a linguistic postmortem on «ayawaits» in my head, and tell Thomas that it is something akin to «Go ahead Whites»! Whites is team's nickname and colors they play in tonight, sentencing white-loving Estonians to black. However, sometimes Hibernians play in black-white stripes a-la Juventus.

Halftime whistle is blown and I go down to ultras drummers, readjusting the ties, fixing their instruments to fences. «How do you spell «ayawaits» correctly»?, - accost I a strong tattooed beardy with the drum. He smiles and corrects my transcript version on my iPad. Ejjawhites! Means “Come on, you Whites”! Well, just like we thought it was. The last box to tick – taking a photo with a local female fan, sporting name MANDA on the back of her replica t-shirt. It’s hard to miss such a likes’ generator for Facebook (the word means cunt in Russian). The girl is pleased with foreigner’s attention and happily agrees. Her friend shots us on the same tablet. For the most desired picture I firmly turn the girl around, so she presents her back to the camera. Done – not receiving any feedback from the Maltese in the social network I return it them back to Facebook with an ironical boomerang.

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Second half commences with floodlights on, and swifts in skies over the pitch are substituted with equally agile bats. The game is tense. Tomas and I are gawking the locals, the locals are peering into their smartphones, while matronas behind us are discussing various cosmetic procedures available in Northern Italy. Sometimes a spastic «ayawites» is heard squeaked by this or that teenager. I start «ayawiting» myself under my breath, annoyed – when something will start happening?! And in the beginning we thought the red card in such intensive game was inevitable.

God heard «ayawites» on the 62nd minute: kick-off against FCI Tallinn. A lobbed ball into the box, a leap from Brazilian in white, a neatly flicked header just under the bar and upper 90. 1-0, the hosts took the lead. This event brought the crowd back from its lethargy. The flags started waving, half minute of enthusiastic chants and bursts of «ayawites». It's all quiet a minute later. Strangely no Russian swearing from the pitch as the Estonian squad coach included is almost completely consists of Russians. Scrawny ones at that. They are not showcasing football intellect under this heat at all. The Maltese are not geniuses on pitch either. «Sukablyat», - regales me with Russian slang Thomas, pleased with his knowledge. Sukablyat, indeed.

However ten minutes after the first the next one occures. Hibs wins a corner and then evidence differs. According to Russian and Estonian media it's an autogoal, according to the stadium's announcer and international mass media (thanks to Thomas's internet in smartphone) and to the Maltese the next day – goal of the Hibernians legionnaire Christensen. Thomas is somewhat pleased, since in this case his compatriot scores a goal. The tribune is happy for that standard little time.

That goal turned out to be the last, which weren't so cool as we were sentenced for another half an hour of struggling football on the pitch, and the ayawites threatened to haunt me in my sleep. The final whistle ultimately comes; the fans sing couple of nice and heartfelt songs accompanied by drums getting into the heat just before the end. They start leaving the stadium. We wade to the exit too. Thomas notes that he won't come back to see the Europa League game in two days between FC Valetta and a San-Marino team – if the champion plays like this, the fourth team is unlikely to produced anything more remarkable.

In a week Hibs wins the away leg too. The Estonian champion concedes a late absurd goal: Tallinn's goalie and the last def fail to communicate, run into each other and present the ball to Maltese forward. It’s 1-0 and 3-0 on aggregate after the two games. Hibs won an away game for the first time since 2002 and have won both legs for the first time in their history. A dozen of Hibernians fans were present on the away match, situated in the corner sector with an enormous banner. The Whites played in black.
Screenshot 2017-07-05 18.41.27
Next opposition will be strong Red Bull from Salzburg. First game at Malta, and I'm considering visiting the away match. 11-times Austrian champion also never made it into the group stage of the Champions League. Last year after passing two qualifying rounds they stumbled upon the final play-off and were eliminated by the Croatian Dinamo Zagreb. I suspect the Bulls will deliver already at Malta. All the more interesting to see who will show up in Salzburg to do the ayawiting.

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