Richard Micaleff Talks Malta Water Polo, One of Europe’s Most Exotic Destinations

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Malta has some of the most arresting scenery in Europe - and water polo too! Photo Courtesy: R. Micaleff

An archipelago off the southern cost of Italy, Malta is one of Europe’s most desirable locales, with a history as long and complicated as any of its continental neighbors. According to Lonely Planet, it’s home to a “beguiling mix of cultures that has stewed together over generations.” And conspired to create great water polo; Malta has a professional league numbering 12 teams, and with its first-ever entry in the 2016 European Championship, the island’s own Stevie Camilleri led all scorers with 21 goals.

Richard Micaleff, a local tourism executive who arranges elite water polo camps for age group players, stated that water polo is the island’s most popular sport after soccer, and regularly draws crowds of up to 4,000 for playoff matches. That popularity is understandable given the talent level drawn to the Maltese leagues, which includes a summer session that takes place in July and August, after European leagues finish competition. Micaleff estimates that over the last 25 years dozens of Olympians—including many members of the great Hungarian teams that won back-to-back-to-back Golds from 2000 – 2008—have graced the island’s shores.

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Participants in SPR Travel’s polo camp. Photo Courtesy: R. Micaleff

Much of polo’s recent popularity on Malta can be attributed to Micaleff. Originally a player with Sirens of St. Paul’s Bay, for 15 years he was the club’s director, when Sirens won a number of championships by luring the continent’s best to compete each summer with stunning vistas of European and African history as backdrops.

[Swimming World’s Annual Water Polo Camp Guide—2019 Version]

Responding to an email from Swimming World, Micaleff wrote about his connection to Malta’s great polo tradition, the island’s particular appeal to top European players, and his company’s age group summer camp—now a decade old—that has connected young polo athletes from all over the world with some of Europe’s best coaches, all in a landscape unlike any other in the world.

– Malta does not appear to be on the beaten path for European water polo—but there is very strong play on the island.

Water polo started in Malta nearly 100 years ago when we were still a British colony and had thousands of soldiers stationed here who introduced the game to the locals. Since then it has grown into the number two sport after soccer. We are ranked 14th in Europe at the moment, which considering our size is phenomenal.

There are 12 teams who take part and each is allowed to add two non-Maltese players to their roster. Since our main championship is played in summer when the top European leagues are not in action we manage to attract the very top players in the world.

I estimate that in the last 25 years at least 30 Olympic gold medallists have played Waterpolo in Malta. Tamas Molnar, Gergely Kiss, Rajmund Fodor, Zsolt Varga, Petar Muslim, Tamas Marcz, Sandro Campagna, Franco Pozio, Toni Milat, Tibor Benedek, Milan Aleksic and Tamas Varga are just a few of the names who have played in our national competition. Tim Hutton, the USA silver medallist, also played here for a season.

– You have a decades-long history with the sport.

Like most boys who lived in coastal towns I joined one of the local teams ages twelve. I went up through the junior ranks and became a first team player aged 18. I got a nasty shoulder injury when I was 25 and had to give up playing. Ten years later, in 1995, I was appointed as director of water polo at my club and spent the next 15 years living a dream, meeting and befriending many of the world’s the top names in polo.

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Professional polo in Malta. Photo Courtesy: R. Micaleff

In my time my club, Sirens of St. Paul’s Bay, won two national summer championships, three winter championships and five Knock Out Cups (you lose one game and you’re out). Bearing in mind that in the previous 33 years the club had won just one major honor, I am extremely proud of what we achieved in those magical years.

– What makes Malta an ideal destination for young polo players?

In summer Malta becomes the top place to play or watch water polo as we welcome top players from the most important leagues in Europe. As I mentioned earlier our kids get to mix with the superstars of the game and are coached by the top people in the game. The beauty of water polo is that even the top players are very approachable and often join the juniors for practice sessions.

– What’s impressive is the roster of coaches who are involved with your camp. How is it that you’re able to draw some of the best European coaches to Malta?

Our camps started 10 years ago. We collaborate with some of top names in the world. Currently we are running camps hosted by Marco Baldineti, Italy’s number one club coach, who is European champion both as a player and as a coach with Pro Recco. We also partner Matteo Aicardi and Valentino Gallo who are world champions and Olympic silver medallists.

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Everyone in the pool! Photo Courtesy: R. Micaleff

In the past we have hosted camps with Tamas Marcz, who won gold in Sydney 2000, until he was appointed national team coach of Hungary. Their involvement means that ours are probably the top camps around as far as quality is concerned. Our coaches take every minute of every training session for the duration of the camp. They get in the water with the kids and eat and sleep in the same hotel with them.

– It can’t be all about the polo! What else is distinct about your camp? What sorts of adventures do campers take while on the island?

We try to make a complete holiday experience with boat rides, snorkeling adventures and visits to historical places – Malta has a history spanning 7000 years and three UNESCO World Heritage Sites. On the water polo side we organize scrimmages with local teams of similar ability.

– Once people visit Malta, I suspect they want to come back!

From the camp point of view 70% of our kids have been to our camp multiple times. From the senior players point of view all I can say is that every year, I get at least 20 calls from the very top players in Europe asking me to find them a club for the summer. It is a lovely way of life, very family friendly and safe environment. Plus we love our water polo.