IMAGO partner and Malta based sports photographer, Domenic Aquilina has been covering the Malta Premier League for a good number of years. Despite coming from a minnow football country like Malta, Domenic has seen Maltese football improve over recent years in the most dramatic of manners.

Today, Malta’s elite football division – the Malta Premier League – better known as the Malta BOV Premier League – despite not being regarded on the same wavelength as the other notorious local top leagues like the English Premier League, La Liga, Serie A, and many more –  creates quite a stir and big enthusiasm amongst the many football loving fans on the small Mediterranean island, year in year out.

Domenic has been covering Maltese football both for the Malta Football Association and as a “freelancer” for Malta dailies including, The Malta Independent, to whom he has been attached since 2016 as “chief photographer” and more recently with the Times of Malta.

IMAGO spoke with Domenic on what really makes the Malta Premier League tick.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Gzira United’s Steve Borg wheels away in celebration – by Domenic Aquilina

“To begin with I must say that Maltese football has come a long way. I still remember way back when Maltese teams were soundly beaten in the early rounds of the UEFA European club competitions.  After such dismal showings in European competitions, I still remember the phrase which the local fans used to communicate, “We are only good enough to play with each other”, in reference to our then limitations and the rival showings in the local top league and another level in European competitions. 

But things have changed in recent years. Nowadays Maltese clubs are not regarded as the “minnows” anymore. Most of the clubs in the top flight have invested big and in recent years we have seen quite a good number of Maltese top teams advancing further in the early rounds of UEFA Club competitions”

As we speak, clubs in the Premier League are eligible to have nine overseas players in their match sheet.  However, every team will continue to have seven players on the pitch at the same time with a maximum of two others included as substitutes. Every club in the Premier League is permitted to register 12 overseas players. 

Malta’s elite division is made up of 12 participating teams with around 340 registered players of whom around 123 come from overseas.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: The Floriana v Hamrun Spartans encounter produced exciting moments – by Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Mario Fontanella of Valletta celebrates scoring against Hamrun earlier this season – by Domenic Aquilina

Which are the top clubs in Malta’s top flight?

“If you look at the league winners table you will see that it is dominated by the names of Sliema Wanderers – who are still Malta’s record title holders with 26 titles – jointly followed by fierce rivals Valletta and Floriana, both on 25 titles.  

Times change though and we have seen the emergence – for the second time – of actual champions Hamrun Spartans, who with real estate development mogul, Joseph Portelli at the helm, broke off the dominance held by Valletta who have won the Malta title no less than six times in the last ten seasons. Birkirkara and Hibernians also list amongst the giants of Maltese football at the moment. Ironically, Sliema are languishing at the bottom places of the table this season. Interesting to note that Valletta, the club from the capital and Hibernians from Paola have been participating in Malta’s top division since 1944 and 1945 respectively.”

Big names like Messi and Ronaldo do not feature in Malta’s top football division but it is always very interesting to take note of some players which really catch the eye, both as individual talent and the captures these athletes can produce during a match.

“I do have a knack of observing the qualities and talents of a player even if I am deeply immersed and focused in getting the best captures during any contest. To just give an example I particularly like the extraordinary physique and talents of Franklin Sasere, a Nigerian born striker who plays for actual champions Hamrun Spartans, and who for the second consecutive season is on loan from Swiss club, Lugano. This guy just makes excellent captures with his powerful build and physique. 

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Franklin Sasere’s (L) powerful build is captured during the local Premier League match betweena Valletta and Hamrun earlier this season – by Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Gzira United’s Jackson Mendoza is always exciting to capture – by Domenic Aquilina

Another interesting foreigner is Colombian, Jackson Mendoza, a hard working midfielder who plays for Gzira United. I am always on the lookout for these players as they create very captivating images. Moreover Mendoza changes his hairstyle on a regular basis which sometimes can add that something extra to the capture.

Another is Nigerian striker, Evo Christ Ememe. Maybe few know that this young 20-year-old talent went down in football history as the first-ever goalscorer in this season’s newly launched UEFA Europa Conference League competition, when he put Mosta a goal up against Spartak Trnava of Slovakia in the First Qualifying Round, 1st leg of this competition this summer!”

“Then of course we have our own local talent in the form of Malta national team goalkeeper Henry Bonello, a big name in Maltese football who this summer joined Hamrun Spartans. Bonello’s intuition of saving penalties is one of his assets, so I make sure I am well focused on him during a penalty shot. Moreover, he is very powerful and commanding in aerial crosses.  

Team mate Joseph Mbong, another Malta international who also plays for champions Hamrun, is a talented and skillful right sided attacking midfielder who can produce awesome captures on the right flank. Joseph is very much monitored by many clubs away from our shores. I look out for these two athletes often during a match as they always produce something amazing”

“Another super athlete is Gzira United captain and Malta international defender Steve Borg.  The power, tenacity and body strength rounded up by his ball-winning ability has made Borg one of the notorious centre backs in the Malta Premier League for quite a good number of years. And to cap it all, the Gzira defender makes awesome “celebration” captures!”

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Christ Ememe of Mosta immersed in pre-match prayers – by Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Malta and Hamrun goalkeeper Henry Bonello – by Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Joseph Mbong of Malta and Hamrun speeds away from his opponents whilst on duty for his country.

What do you look for during Premier League matches?

“Maltese Premier League matches are mainly played at the National Stadium, in Ta’ Qali and the newly refurbished Tony Bezzina Stadium in Corradino, Paola. Malta is quite known as the “sunny island” so when it deals with an early kick off – say 17:00 hours, I position myself to get the most of the brightly lit (not direct!) backdrop serving as a backlight which can often produce amazing results. Results like water droplets sprouting around from headed ball challenges or tackles which can produce exciting captures like pitch surface bits and pieces being catapulted all around the capture during close action challenges. This is what makes a capture look extraordinary – something which surprises and makes the viewer have a closer look at it”

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: An exciting heading duel during the Birkirkara v Floriana match this season – by Domenic Aquilina

Maltese football welcomed back local fans for the first time when Mosta FC hosted Spartak Trnava in the first qualifying round of the UEFA Europa Conference League at the National Stadium on the 6 July of this year. 

Fans had been missing from Maltese football for almost 18 months due to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

A maximum of 200 supporters were allowed into the stadium which gradually increased accordingly for the kick off of the new Malta Premier League later on.

The Malta FA made it quite clear that only persons in possession of a match ticket and a vaccination certificate are allowed to enter the stadium. An identification document will also be requested prior to entry at the stadium. Persons attending such matches have to wear a face mask and will be requested to provide their contact details for contact-tracing purposes.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: A local supporter is temperature checked before a Malta Premier League match this season – by Domenic Aquilina
Domenic Aquilina
Photo: Valletta supporters have always been loyal to their team – by Domenic Aquilina

To you, what is it that the Maltese premier league has to offer that the bigger leagues do? What makes it so special or different to you?

The Maltese Premier League can never be compared with the other top leagues like the English Premier League, just to give an example. Every local league has its own identity and I believe that the Maltese top league has its own uniqueness too. The “derby” matches between local neighbours and rivals Floriana and Valletta – and other top matches – are always a spectacle – in particular when the pandemic was not around with the rivalry showing not only on the pitch of play but also on the stands. It is these special moments that make a league identify itself.

Notable also to mention is the health and safety protocols carried out during the pandemic in Malta. All of this should be attributed to the local Association who work around the clock to make the Malta Premier League and Maltese football in general improve and be as much of an attraction as it can be. Such scenarios often go unnoticed in the football world.

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: An action in the Mosta goalmouth during the league match against Balzan recently – by Domenic Aquilina

How has your own sports photography evolved alongside the evolution of the Malta Premier League?

It sure did! I still remember shooting Malta’s top flight with the first ever Canon DSLR – the Canon 30D – only 8.2 Megapixels – 5 frames per second and ISO only up to 1600! It used to take ages to focus but it did a great job! And before digital was born I also covered Maltese football during the analog era – shooting sports and wondering what type of capture will be eventually printed in the hard copy – it was a different era! I have worked with all the Canon DSLRs model updates and now into the mirrorless era, covering the Malta Premier League year in year out. This also applies to my lenses and other stuff – I started off with budget priced Canon EF 70-300mm f/4-5.6 IS II USM and fixed EF 300mm f/4.0 L USM lenses moving on to my actual Canon EF 300mm f/2.8L IS II USM and EF 400mm f/2.8L II USM super lenses. 

It is without doubt through such equipment that my sports photography has evolved to the way I wanted it to be. When I look back into images captured by such equipment you see the difference, but I also surprise myself at what amazing captures I used to produce in such circumstances. 

But as you yourself stated, you notice the evolution of photography along the way. 

Domenic Aquilina
Photo: A TV camera person at work during a local Premier League match – by Domenic Aquilina

What do you see the future of the League? Is it an aspiration that it will one day be more widely recognised or do you think it should remain an underdog with its ability to be run by its own rules?

A really difficult question to analyse. I do believe that the future of the League will revolve on many issues. Again, the Malta FA is always trying its best to make the local top football league as attractive as it can be, but Malta will always be looked upon as a country, unfortunately, as having its limitations. Still I do believe there are ways and means to make the Malta Premier League more attractive and more widely recognised. Not easy but viable.

Domenic Aquilina is the UEFA Country Correspondent in Malta and  IMAGO partner reporting on the Maltese Premier League and more, thank you to him for taking the time to sit down with us.