The Story of Spain 12 Malta 1
Group Seven of the 1984 European Championships was contested by Spain, Holland, Ireland, Iceland and Malta. With just eight teams in the finals the following summer it would be only the winners of each qualifying group who would join hosts France.
Holland and Spain met on 16th November 1983 in Rotterdam with Spain leading the group on 11 points, two ahead of the Dutch. In front of 57,000 fans, Peter Houtman put Holland ahead in 26 minutes, only for Spain’s Santillana to head a leveller four minutes before half-time. The home side won the match when Ruud Gullit’s 25-yard shot was deflected into the net on 63 minutes. The final match for both sides would be a home game against Malta. The Maltese had suffered an 8–0 defeat to Ireland in Dublin that same night.
On 17th December Holland recorded a comfortable 5–0 win over Malta, a side made up of amateur players. This left the Dutch with 13 points, two ahead at the top of the group, in the era of two points for a win. Their goal difference over the Spanish was practically worth another point. They had scored 22, with only six against for a plus 16 difference. Spain had scored 12 goals, conceding seven leading to a plus five goal difference. Going into the final game of the group Spain had to beat Malta by eleven clear goals if they were going to pip Holland, by virtue of goals scored, to a place in France.
Although Malta were certainly the whipping boys in the group having conceded 25 goals by this point Spain had found them tricky to overcome in the first game in Ta’ Qali in May, albeit on a dry, bumpy pitch. Spain led after only three minutes through Señor but Malta’s Carmel Busuttil scored either side of half-time to put Malta ahead. An equaliser arrived from Carrasco, but the winner from Gordillo only came with six minutes remaining.
The match took place in Seville at Real Betis’s Estadio Benito Villamarín on 21st December. Double headers with only four days between fixtures are commonplace in international football now, but that wasn’t always the way matches were scheduled at this time. Malta’s flight from Rotterdam to Spain was delayed for a day due to a storm in Spain. When the side arrived in Madrid they found that their luggage had been lost. When the players finally got to the stadium, at 10pm on the eve of the game, heavy rain had left the pitch waterlogged preventing the Maltese from training on the surface. Indoor space was located and they did some work there before retiring to their hotel where they would have a meal and then get some rest. Or so they thought. As the Maltese party settled in they discovered that the Spanish had booked them into a hotel that lacked a restaurant. As the players retired for the night they realised that the noise outside the central Seville hotel prevented them from getting a good night’s sleep. Players and staff subsequently claimed that all these factors contributed to what eventually happened on the pitch.
This would be the first time since 1929 that Estadio Benito Villamarín had hosted the national team. The attendance was recorded as 25,000, around half its capacity.
The sides lined up as -
Spain: Francisco Buyo, Andoni Goikoetxea, José Antonio Camacho ©, Antonio Maceda, Juan Antonio Señor, Rafael Gordillo, Víctor Muñoz, Manuel Sarabia, Hipólito Rincón, Francisco José Carrasco, Santillana.
Malta: John Bonello, Alex Azzopardi, Emanuel Farrugia, John Holland ©, Norman Buttigieg, Emanuel Fabri, Michael Degiorgio, Ernest Spiteri-Gonzi, Ray Farrugia, Simon Tortell, Silvio Demanuele.
Spain began the game with the urgency that you might expect from a side needing to score a goal every eight minutes, dispossessing Malta from kick-off. The first shot on goal came from Santillana after 33 seconds, John Bonello in the Maltese goal gathering easily. The Spaniards had a penalty on the two-minute mark when Francisco José Carrasco was bundled off the ball just as he approached the penalty area. Whether he was inside or not is debatable. Up stepped Zaragoza’s Juan Antonio Señor but his right foot shot struck the base of the post.
Malta’s Michael Degiorgio picked up a booking in 4 minutes not for poll-axing Señor but for standing in front of him as he attempted to take the resultant free-kick. The Spanish players were already placing the ball on the six-yard line to help Bonello take his goal kicks with expediency, on occasion even pulling the ball out his arms if he wasn’t moving quick enough for their liking. The keeper himself had to dodge the odd orange being thrown at him as he attempted to take his kicks.
Malta didn’t have much to offer but aimless long balls designed more to keep the pressure off for a second or two than to create a scoring chance. On the seven-minute mark, Bonello flapped at a cross but his defender was there to clear Sarabia’s drive off the line. In the 8th minute, Víctor hit the post, as Spain attacked the Malta defence. In the 13th minute, Sarabia was through on goal but shot straight at the keeper from the edge of the box. Two minutes later Bonello made a great block with his legs as Víctor struck at an angle from close in.
The first goal came on 16 minutes as Maceda flighted a diagonal ball into the box. Santinalla rose to head the ball low into the keeper’s right-hand corner. With the whole match being played with the urgency of the last five minutes of a cup-tie two Spanish players went to retrieve the ball intending to centre it quickly. This led to a ten-man scuffle in the net as Maltese players arrived to stop them. Malta’s Simon Tortell went down in the goal clutching his face. A leather-jacketed physio ran on with a plastic bag full of magic sponges to treat the player. Photographers in their numbered orange bibs rushed on to the pitch to record proceedings. Referee Erkan Göksel of Turkey had a brief consultation with his linesman, and with no action taken against anyone, he urged the Maltese to restart the game, fully two minutes after the ball had hit the net.
Spain huffed and puffed but couldn’t find a way through in the next few minutes as Bonello took goal kick after goal kick. In the 24th minute, Malta had a free-kick just outside the centre-circle, the deepest position they had held possession so far. After treatment to the injured player, Emanuel Fabri launched the ball into the box. The Spanish defence could only clear as far as Tortell around 30 yards out. He made a run forward, slipped the ball to Michael Degiorgio who shot from twenty yards. His left-foot drive struck Maceda and deceived Buyo in goal who only moved for the ball as it flew past him into the net. The Sevilla keeper, making his debut, hadn’t had a touch of the ball yet. It was now 1–1 and Spain had to start again to find the eleven goal victory they required.
Fabri of Sliema Wanderers, who had been throwing himself around all match, picked up a booking for a high boot on 26 minutes. From the free-kick, deep in their own half, Spain broke forward. The ball was nodded on to Santillana at the edge of the box. The Real Madrid striker strode on and fired the ball from 8 yards out under the keeper and into the far corner. Four minutes later Santillana headed in for his hat-trick from Gordillo’s cross.
Each time Malta had possession of the ball they seemed quite happy to relinquish control as soon as possible. On one occasion Degiorgio wasted a throw-in from a good position by hurling the ball into the Spanish penalty box with no team-mate within ten yards.
The Spanish keeper’s first touch of the ball came in 38 minutes when he left his penalty area to sweep a hopeful long ball out of defence. The last action of the first-half was Víctor firing in a shot from distance that Bonello got down comfortably to. Spain were 3–1 up, dominating possession, but still nine goals shy of their target.
Both sets of players were made to wait out on the pitch before the start of the second half, Spain knocking the ball around between themselves as the officials took their time to make their entrance. Santillana even found time to give an interview on the pitch.
Spain, now requiring a goal every five minutes, began the half in a 2–2–6 formation. The first chance of the second forty-five came on 47 minutes when Santillana shot tamely into Bonello’s arms from eight yards out. Demanuele then dispossessed Maceda inside the Maltese half. The Floriana forward took the ball for a run, before shooting weakly from 25 yards along the ground for Buyo to gather. Spain were certainly looking the better side, but even at this stage, there was no indication of what was to come.
Gathering the ball from a throw-in Rincón turned, leaving his marker for dead, he weaved past another defender before shooting into the net from an angle a few yards outside the six-yard-box. With 48 minutes gone it was now 4–1 Spain. As he got back to his feet Bonello picked up some objects from around his goalmouth that appeared to have been thrown on. He took them to the referee, as several of his team-mates joined him in protest. The Hibernians keeper held up what looked like a small bottle. Some Spanish players ran down to the spectators behind the goal gesturing for the antics to stop.
Although the Malta defence were no strangers to winning tackles in their own final third their ideas of what to do with the ball once they had it consisted solely of punting it long to Ernest Spiteri-Gonzi, who very rarely even had the chance to give chase before Spain regained possession and resumed attacking.
In the 50th minute, the referee awarded a free-kick to Malta for a Spanish offside. The ball ran on to Bonello, who scooped it up, only to find himself booked for time-wasting. The ‘keeper stood shaking his head. Maceda was next to pick up a caution two minutes later when after being penalised for a foul, he slammed the ball down in disgust.
Carrasco fired a shot past the post from the edge of the box before Fabri had a twenty-yard shot saved at the other end. The fifth goal arrived from Rincón on 58 minutes. A Spanish through ball should have been easily guided back to Bonello by John Holland, but the Malta captain failed to get enough on it as Rincón powered through, used some nice footwork to take the ball around the goalkeeper and slide it into the net.
Malta struggled to keep the ball in the Spanish half for more than a few seconds at a time, so it was no surprise when Spain landed their sixth goal a few minutes later. Down the left-wing Gordillo turned his marker superbly and launched a ball towards the back post where the defence only succeeded in nodding it on to Maceda who came running in and fired a shot across the keeper and a defender on the goal line into the corner of the net. A few minutes later Señor put in a corner kick which was met by the head of Santillana. The ball was acrobatically kicked off the line by Farrugia with the help of the post, falling to Maceda who threw himself headlong to send the ball into the keeper’s bottom right-hand corner.
There were still around 27 minutes of the game remaining, and the Spaniards were now beginning to develop real hope of reaching their target. Less than a minute later Rincón picked up the ball in acres of space. As he moved on he weaved past two Maltese defenders in the box, remaining upright as the second challenge clattered him, then slotted the ball past Bonello. Malta were now defending with eight men inside the box, while everyone bar Buyo in the Spanish goal was positioned inside the Maltese half of the field.
Victor had a twenty-yard shot that whizzed past the post, while Rincon headed feet wide. Malta were looking yards off the pace as Spanish players began to stroll past them with ease. Rincón appeared to be barged off the ball on 68 minutes by Holland as he ran in on the keeper, but Mr. Göksel wasn’t interested. Having booked Bonello much earlier for time-wasting the referee must have felt foolish as he found himself repeatedly urging him to be quicker over his goal-kicks. The Turk was giving Malta little leeway, practically harassing them to take a free-kick in the centre circle only seconds after he had awarded it. It almost seemed like he was insisting Malta play with the same urgency that Spain were, with Malta having no need to do so. ‘He was the worst I’d ever seen,’ left-back Emanuel Fabri would later say of Göksel. ‘He let the Spanish players get away with everything and he kept saying things like “Let’s go, play!” as if to hurry us up.’
With fourteen minutes remaining Santillana chested down a cross from Gordillo and drilled the ball in with his left foot. It was now 9–1. With fourteen minutes left the ball went out of play inside the Spanish half. While a Spanish player ran off to retrieve it Degiorgio wandered over to the dug-out, coming back to collect the ball and began to take the throw. As he stole a few yards the linesman intervened. Mr. Göksel marched over and walked behind Degiorgio, checking the number on his back. He pulled the red card from his pocket and sent Degiorgio off. The Maltese climbed into the dug-out before being told he’d have to get himself to the dressing room.
Maceda put in a nice cross from the left and Rincón leapt on the six-yard line to head into the net. A minute later it was eleven. A low cross from the right was sidefooted home by Sarabia. Spain now only needed one goal. As the minutes ticked away Malta had run out of any ideas on how to retain possession. Their tactics now largely consisted of immediately thumping the ball out of play for the ballboys to chase.
With five minutes remaining Víctor worked his way into the penalty box, he fell to the floor under the weight of a challenge. The loose ball was swept out of the box where it fell to Señor who cracked a left-footed shot from twenty yards. It flew into the net. It was 12–1. Spain had their eleven goal margin. Señor ran away with his arms in the air, several of his team-mates pulling him to the ground in celebration.
When the game resumed Spain quickly changed gears into running the clock down. Gordillo did have the ball in the net, but it was ruled out for offside. This led to a smattering of fans invading the pitch. Mainly youngsters, and seemingly all wanting to congratulate their heroes, the players and the police wasted no time in ushering them off the field. There was no further action, and as the Spanish players rolled the ball about between themselves, the referee blew the final whistle. That promoted a full-scale pitch invasion from both ends of the ground.
Not surprisingly rumours soon swirled of unscrupulous goings-on that engineered the result. Were the Maltese players bribed? Were they poisoned by half-time lemons? Were the Spanish players taking steroids?
Emanuel Fabri spoke to Spain’s Movistar+ in a 2018 documentary about the match. ‘In the first half we were very good,’ he said. ‘We were very tired. We were really exhausted. When I close my eyes and I try to remember the second half, what happened in the second half? I couldn’t remember. What happened to us? We were tired with the first match [against Holland]. We were tired with the ground. If they wanted 15 it would have been 15.’
Asked if someone approached the Maltese players looking to assist a Spanish win Fabri disputed the suggestion. Officials were with the players at all times on the trip Fabri said, and they saw nothing amiss. ‘For the experienced players, for those who were my age, it was their last game. We have pride in ourselves, and this happened and this is going to be with us for our whole lives.’
Of the referee, Malta squad member Carmel Busuttil said to Movistar+ ‘He was not helping us, for sure. Because Spain needed help. There was something dubious. He was only for Spain.’ On the atmosphere on the night Busuttil commented, ‘I was really afraid, to be honest, for the Spanish people were very hostile to us. One of them threw a big bottle of beer or wine at John Bonello. It was terrible. I remember every goal they scored there was a fight in the goalposts you know? Spain felt that we were finished, and they were not even shooting, they were just dribbling all the time into the box.’
Malta manager Victor Scerri said, ‘I remember a small man came in dressed in white with the big tray with half lemons. So the players sucked the lemons. And I said to the doctor, “Could they have been drugged?” Because they lose their mind in the second half. We have no proof and I don’t expect that Spain were going to do that. We knew that they were going to win, but we never expected them to get those twelve goals. I resigned. I had the contract finished and I resigned.’
Silvio Demanuele fuelled the drugging suggestions by saying, ‘It was like we were drunk. Like going out to Paceville [the main nightlife hub in Malta] and then getting a good sleep,’
In Holland, rumours abound that foul play was afoot. A Dutch commentator suggested Spain’s players had taken stimulants, and many of the Dutch press were convinced that Maltese players had been bribed.
Forward Silvio Demanuele commented, ‘During the game, the Spanish players had an unusual amount of energy, some were foaming at the mouth and drinking water constantly. My brother is a bodybuilder so I know the signs of taking steroids.’
The Spanish were quick to hit back at the rumours. An RFEF statement said, ‘The Royal Spanish Football Federation (RFEF) vehemently rejects all allegations made recently by some of the members of the Maltese national team that took part in the game on Dec. 21, 1983, at Seville’s Benito Villamarin stadium and that have been picked up by certain media. Those statements are absolutely false. They lack any foundation and are totally extemporaneous. The Royal Spanish Football Federation confirms that the [Spain] players were absolutely clean and reiterates that it has been one of the most important games in the history of the senior team.’
‘When we came back here all the players were investigated,’ Busuttil said. ‘We had to go in front of four people; a magistrate and lawyers and they asked us if we saw any money coming…some strange people. About corruption, I can’t say. There was nothing I am sure. Thanks to this everything changed for us. Our association made big things forward. We became all professionals.’
There was never any proof of any improprieties by either side. Although one player did end up making hay from the occasion. Years later Maltese goalkeeper John Bonello appeared in an Amstel beer campaign in Spain. The ad showed Bonello returning to Spain as he is welcomed at the airport by hundreds of well-wishers. He was then seen parading the Spanish streets, unveiling plaques, honoured by the town mayor, where he is toasted by thousands of Spaniards. Dutch brewers Amstel said Bonello was “the only person who made all Spaniards happy on the same day.”