Overlooked by the A-League, Australian midfielder Justin Micallef has set about chasing his football dreams in Europe.
After a stint in the Spanish fourth division, Micallef linked with Senglea Athletic in the Maltese Premier League last year.
The young Aussie earned himself a one-year deal with Senglea after impressing on trial and went on to break into the first team before the season shut down due to the coronavirus.
Now back in Australia with his family, with the top-flight in hiatus, the 22-year-old is determined to continue his rise up the professional ranks whenever the season resumes.
“A lot of people in Australia don’t know about Malta but the league is very strong,” Micallef told The World Game.
“There’s a lot of foreigners – you can have seven foreigners on the field. So most of the foreigners they do have are fairly strong, so it’s a strong league.
“It’s a fairly even competition. It’s a great country. [But] it was tough at the start of the season. We went through three coaches.
"Learning different styles of play and methods under three coaches was difficult, but also a great experience as well.
“Three different nationalities – a Maltese coach, an Italian and a Serbian – it was a tough season at the start but the back end for me was good. I started to play a lot more games.
“Senglea have only been in the Maltese Premier League for three or four years but the president of the club was good, he looked after the players. The club has a lot of room to grow.”
Micallef grew up on the Central Coast and played in the Northern NSW NPL for the likes of Broadmeadow Magic and Maitland FC, and in Sydney for Parramatta FC.
The attacking midfielder had trials with A-League clubs as a youngster but a contract never materialised and he was forced to look overseas.
“I did have a trial with the National Youth League squad, but there were a few little things that came along with it,” he explained.
“Unfortunately it didn’t work out for me. But [playing for] the Central Coast Mariners would be great, especially being a Central Coast boy.
“But I’ve never had anything come up with them. I’m just trying to put my foot in the door. If I have to spend another season overseas to get myself out there, that’s the way it’s got to be.
“It’s difficult for us if you haven’t come through the system. It’s harder for NPL players to get contracts in the A-League. I guess to play professionally the only option we have is to go overseas.
“You see how many divisions there are and how many leagues. You see small countries like Malta and Iceland, there’s still two or three professional leagues.
“You look at Australia and we’ve only got one league. But we are growing and that’s a good thing. They’re speaking about a second division and it’s something we definitely need.”
Micallef spent a season in Spain two years ago with Lliria CF and the midfielder believes that experience was massively beneficial for him.
“Spain was great. Former Socceroo Gabriel Mendez looked after me, he taught me the ropes,” he said.
“He was a great mentor to have. He helped me realise what it is to be professional. There’s a big difference between Europe and Australia.
“I think it’s just more the mental side of things – I think that’s the biggest thing. There’s a lot of players over there, everyone plays football. Yes, you have to be tactically good, but also mentally and physically is a big thing.
“The fourth division was very strong, there’s a lot of players coming from the second and third division who have retired to come down. So you’re playing alongside some great players.
“To learn from them from the age of 19, 20, it was a great experience for an Australian boy. I really enjoyed my time there.”
With his contract ending in Malta prematurely because of the global pandemic, Micallef has been left in limbo.
He returned home last week and, after developing his game overseas, is out to push on either in Australia or abroad again.
“The ending wasn’t… no one planned it but it is what it is,” Micallef admitted.
“Health comes first at the end of the day I guess. We all love football and it’s our job, but definitely health is the most important thing.
"The A-League would be great [to play in]. It’s kind of hard coming from Malta, it’s not really recognised as much.
“But Europe’s always been something that I’ve looked at, Asia as well. It’s hard to speak to clubs now with what’s going on.
“But to go back to Malta can be an option. I would like to go back home, but I don’t know. I’ll see what happens.
“I’ve just got to weigh up the options and see what’s best for me, my family and my partner.”