Watching Malta take on Gibraltar at the FIBA European Championships for Small Countries, Emmet Ryan saw the spirit that makes this tournament special
It was Gibraltar’s tournament opener and, whatever else, they weren’t going to go down quietly. From the off their bench was loud and into it, to a point that they clearly rubbed off on their opponents. By the late stages of the first quarter, this felt like an elimination game in the late stages of whatever league you like’s playoffs rather than a round robin game between nations that have a combined population of 535,000, with all but the last 33,000 being Maltese.
Gibraltar have never even tried entering Eurobasket and have never recorded a medal finish at this tournament, their prior best being fourth at the last edition in 2018. Malta won their maiden Small Countries title last time out, but haven’t entered Eurobasket qualifying since playing in Division B in 2005. They lost all six of their games that time.
This is what matters for these sides. There’s nobody in the stands, save for a few officials. There’s little media interest, as they met I was the lone journalist attending aside from the broadcast crew and the FIBA/host team. In the grand scheme of sport, this is a non-entity but that doesn’t matter a damn. Here were two sides just throwing it at each other. It mattered to them, to the 10 on the floor and the 14 more on the sidelines. A bucket on the halftime buzzer had the Gibraltar bench in raptures as they cut the deficit to only 9 points.
There was the big for Gibraltar, Lucas Perez, a centre choosing to wear 00 which is normally the calling card of point guards who insist that everyone under rates them. The brothers Falzon for Malta, Maltese-Americans from Massachusetts balling out for their island nation.
Across this tournament, it’s the energy that gets you. All of these nations dream of being the next Slovenia, the nation of 2 million people that has conquered Europe, came oh so close to an Olympic medal, and is home to one of the sport’s transcendent stars in Luka Doncic.
If you leave out Ireland’s all-island population of just under 7 million, the combined populations of the other teams at this tournament, comes to less than 650,000. Slovenia’s a downright giant compared to that. Malta is to Andorra, San Marino, and Gibraltar combined, while Ireland, well you could throw Slovenia on top of the other nations here and it’s still enormous by comparison.
How a team ends up here varies but it’s worth looking at who was in Dublin the last time the competition graced the National Basketball Arena. Iceland took bronze at that tournament in 1994 yet, with a mostly home based roster, the island nation of just 370,000 people reached consecutive Eurobasket tournaments in 2015 and 2017.
Finland, home to Lauri Markkanen of the Chicago Bulls, were down in Division B with Malta back in 2005 and will play in their fifth straight Eurobasket next year. Neither they nor Iceland have Slovenia’s history in the sport nor its success but they have both shown that climbing from this level is possible for some.
For Ireland, with a total population comparable to global powers Serbia, those are the types of targets to aim for. The start has to come somewhere and the talent is coming through. Malta too can, especially if they win this week, start taking a serious look at entering the formal Eurobasket qualification process with real belief that they can make strides.BallinEurope has a book, a real life actual book called I Like it Loud, and you can buy it on Amazon now. It’s here as a book and here in Kindle form.
For the principality sized countries here, that’s too much to ask but they still matter. Gibraltar were showing that with their heart while falling further behind. Alessandro Renzi of San Marino, who logged 13 minutes of garbage time in a defeat to Malta on Tuesday, ran like a maniac while on the floor. He only had one rebound to show for all his work but if you have eyes you could see the fight in the 17 year old.
This week is the easiest to ignore in the men’s basketball calendar. It’s not a youth tournament, there won’t be prospects to check out bar a few who have already played at much higher levels with clubs and colleges. There’s no threat to the higher order of European basketball in the short term and few, if any, will take the opportunity to move on from this level and compete with the rest of the continent at a higher level.
The road to Eurobasket 2025 wasn’t even on the radar for anyone here, nor is anyone here likely on the radar of the sides that will battle for that crown. Yet, still ,here was where the fight was. As Gibraltar tired, they kept at it. Eventually Malta took the win comfortably as they stayed on course for a second straight gold. A bronze this week is doable for Gibraltar, that would be the greatest achievement in the Rock’s history in the sport. They went down but they don’t care if you watched. They will be back on Thursday to bring the battle again.