The Islanders’ passion for water sport. A Photo essay from Malta.

The Islanders’ passion for water sport. A Photo essay from Malta.

“The Messi-s and the Ronaldo-s of water polo as you know, used to come here because we have a passion for the sport.” – Karl Izzo.

Words and Photos by Domenic Aquilina.

The island of Malta is very much associated with the stunning blue Mediterranean sea and idyllic beaches. No wonder, because the geography of Malta is dominated by water.  An archipelago of coralline limestone, the small island is situated in the heart of the Mediterranean Sea, 81 kilometers south of Sicily, Italy and nearly 3200 km north of Libya and northeast of Tunisia of Africa.  

The country, approximately 316 km squared (122 square miles) adorned by numerous bays along the indented coastline of the islands (Malta, and the islets of Gozo and Comino are the three inhabited islands) provide visitors with harbors.

Stunning beaches also frame the majority of the island, so it comes as no surprise that aquatic Maltese athletes perform so well in the water, in particular water polo.

During the month of February, the Aquatic Swimming Association of Malta (ASA) host the LEN European Water Polo Championships Qualifying Tournament Group C 2022, with the teams of Ireland, Lithuania, Malta and Romania fighting it out to become the top two ranking sides to qualify for the final phase of the LEN European Water Polo Championships, played at the Spaladium Arena from 27 August to 10 September forthcoming in Split, Croatia.

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, The match venue ahead of the LEN European Water Polo Championships Qualifying Tournament
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. The LEN European Water Polo Championships Qualifying Tournament Group C 2022 was held at the National Pool, Tal-Qroqq in Malta. Here the two teams of Romania and Lithuania take the stand to the national anthems ahead of their match on Day 1 on 18 February 2022.
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta water polo national team players
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Malta water polo national team players stand up to their country's national anthem ahead of their match against Ireland on Day 1.

With all matches being played at the National Pool, at Tal-Qroqq, Malta, group favourites Romania made no mistake on day 1, beating Lithuania 14-1 in the first match of the tournament.  Hosts Malta, looking for their fourth consecutive qualification to the elite finals, and coming face to face with Ireland in their first competitive commitment since the pandemic struck, made no mistake. Winning by a clear cut 28-4 win and augured well, basically setting up a deciding contest with Lithuania, who will notch the second qualifying berth alongside Romania, in a class of their own.

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Romania water polo players group together
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Tournament Group C toppers Romania won all three matches in Malta, qualifying for the final championships in Split, Croatia in August forthcoming as Group winners.
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, LEN European Water Polo Championships Qualifying Tournament Group C match between Romania and Lithuania
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. The ball runs loose as two players of Romania and Lithuania challenge for possession underwater.
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, LEN European Water Polo Championships Qualifying Tournament Group C match between Romania and Lithuania
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Most of the physical action in water polo happens underwater. Here a Romanian player still clings to the ball despite the underwater challenge coming from his Lithuanian counterpart on day 1.

Day 2, played the day after, opened with Romania thumping Ireland to the tune of 41-5 and therefore ranking up their qualification after the first two commitments. 

On the same day, the long awaited and crucial match between Malta and Lithuania followed. Both teams started off on an even keel in the opening two sessions but Malta managed to lead the Lithuanians 9-5.  Malta again went into top gear in the final two sessions, and with Malta’s captain, Matthew Zammit and young talent Jake Muscat, the latter of who plies his trade in PVK Jadran in Montenegro’s top water polo league, were both on fire with 5 goals each. Malta cruised to a comfortable final 19-5 triumph and a fourth final championship qualifying berth in succession.  

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta's Jake Muscat (L) towers above Barry Murphy (R) of Ireland to score
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Still 19 years of age, Jake Muscat (L) performed like a veteran during the tournament excelling for his country Malta. Here he is seen towering out of the water to shoot at goal against Lithuania.
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta national team water polo goalkeeper Jake Tanti dives to his right to parry the ball
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Malta national team water polo goalkeeper Jake Tanti (L) dives to his right to parry the ball during his country's decisive encounter against Lithuania on 19 February 2022. Malta beat Lithuania 19-5 to qualify for the fourth consecutive time for the LEN European Water Polo Championships, this year to be held in Split, Croatia

True to the tune of the locals that greeted the final buzzer of the match, “Take me home to the place where I belong!” (referring to the LEN final championships), Malta made the European Championship finals after clinching a place amongst the top echelons of the continental water polo for the fourth consecutive time.

Sunday, 20th February saw the conclusion of this very exciting qualifying tournament.  Lithuania comfortably beat Ireland, who finished without a point in the group, 17-5.  The match that was the decider of the eventual winner between Malta and Romania, went very much in the Romanians’ favor, as they beat the hosts 18-4, taking top spot with Malta as runners-up.

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Karl Izzo, Malta water polo national team head coach talks to his players
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Malta national team head coach Karl Izzo (C) speaks to his players during the final match of the qualifying tournament against Romania on day 3

After the euphoria emanating from their 19-5 victory over Lithuania, Malta unfortunately found Romania well beyond their reach in the final match.

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, A fan-like optical illusion is created as it lands opposite a Romanian player
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Water Polo can produce some compelling photographic captures. Here the ball water splash created a fan like pattern illusion during the match between Malta and Romania

IMAGO met up with Malta head coach himself, Karl Izzo to talk about the task he and his team have ahead, saying: “This tournament was our first competitive commitment since the pandemic struck in 2020, so you can imagine that I was a bit edgy about the performance of my squad in the first place.  Since our previous qualification of two years ago, I have five new players in the squad, bringing a good element of young and experienced players.  Moreover, we had captain Steve Camilleri absent due to unforeseen circumstances. In February we underwent a thorough training camp in Recco, Italy and having all my players who played onboard with me in this training camp, helped immensely.”

The Malta head coach was also asked what makes the Malta national team superior to other big nations in this sport.  

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta water polo national team player Jake Muscat
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. A Romanian player (front) still clings to the ball despite the challenge coming from Malta's Jake Muscat (back)
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta's Jake Muscat (L) shoots at goal
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina. Jake Muscat (L) of Malta catapults himself out of the water to try a shot at the Romanian goal during the teams' meeting on day 3

“As you know water polo is the second best followed sport on the island. Malta boasts of having quite a big tradition in water polo. Remember that recently the Malta Under-17 finished in 12th place and now I am promoting these youngsters slowly into my senior team.  We should also remember that at the moment our team is ranked 19th in the FINA world water polo ranking so this placing basically speaks for itself. With around 500,000 inhabitants this is quite big.  

We are the only nation that the top league is held in summer. During pre-Covid we used to entice the best players from abroad to come and play here during our league. The Messi-s and the Ronaldo-s of water polo as you know, used to come here because we have a passion for the sport. We get the best coaches from abroad, pay them well in order to promote talent and to bolster progress of our young water polo players. What I can boast is that since I have been at the helm of the national team since 2013, I have worked hard and done my best to see that match practice is our main objective in order to get better results. I also arrived at making the team play 55 matches in a year. Nowadays I am seeing that due to this success coming from our national senior team in this sport, I am “stealing” away youngsters who today opt for the game of water polo instead of football because they see success as their main objective.”

IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta women’s water polo national team player and captain Francesca Paolella
IMAGO / Domenic Aquilina, Malta women’s water polo national team player and captain Francesca Paolella

Barely less than a fortnight after the men’s event, another LEN European Water Polo Championships Qualifying Tournament took place at the same venue in Malta – this time the women’s event. Despite three very promising performances, this time round, the Malta women’s water polo team did not make it to book a qualification place in Split.  

The Israel women’s team prevailed with three impeccable matches, winning all three, with France clinching the second qualifying berth available ahead of Portugal, who finished third and Malta in fourth.

Words and photography by Domenic Aquilina. Specializing in photo reportage, the Maltese photographer has covered fourteen UEFA Champions League finals, plus numerous UEFA Champions League matches and other UEFA official matches. See his work with IMAGO here.

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