Some football matches will forever be shrouded in suspicion. Every so often a result comes along that lends itself to conspiracy theories and accusations. Ask any Dutch football fan about a match that brings into question sporting integrity and they will point you to Spain’s 12-1 victory against Malta on 21 December 1983.
The Netherlands were on the brink of qualifying for Euro 84, having just beaten Malta 5-0 in Rotterdam in their final qualifier. They were top of the group, two points above Spain – in the era of two points for a win – with a whopping 11-goal advantage. Only a victory by 11 goals or more would see Spain qualify.
Malta were not world beaters – they had only won one of their games in the group – but they had never lost by 11 goals. They had suffered significant reverses since their first international match in 1957. West Germany inflicted 8-0 thrashings in 1976 and 1980, with East Germany and Austria both winning 9-0 in 1977. But losing by 11 goals was surely a step too far, especially as Spain had only beaten Malta 3-2 in the away match earlier that year. To slightly misquote Muhammad Ali, Spain seemed to have two hopes: slim and none.
John Bonello, the Malta goalkeeper, was seemingly unworried. “Spain couldn’t score 11 goals against a team of children,” was his bullish assessment before the match, adding that he would not return home if he conceded 11 goals. Bonello, along with his battered teammates, would certainly not be welcome in the Netherlands come the final whistle.
Spain had hardly set the group alight. They had only scored 12 goals in their seven group matches before the Malta fixture, so the task looked beyond them. The Guardian reported that the Dutch were “virtually certain of qualifying” and that Spain faced an “almost impossible task”. But, on a night of rare drama, all logic flew out of the window.
Spain had prepared for the midweek fixture in Seville by postponing all La Liga matches on the Saturday. The weather also played into their hands. Heavy rain soaked the playing surface of the Estadio Benito Villamarín, meaning the visitors were unable to train at the venue. Spain manager Miguel Muñoz opted for an attacking 3-3-4 formation, hoping that early goals would fan the flames in the tight stadium holding 25,000 passionate fans. However, when Juan Antonio Señor struck a post with a third-minute penalty, it looked like the ideal opportunity to build early momentum had been missed.
Santillana broke the deadlock in the 15th minute, but any hopes that the floodgates had been opened were crushed when Silvio Demanuele equalised for Malta nine minutes later. Santillana would complete a hat-trick by half-time but, with Spain only leading 3-1, their hopes of reaching France felt like a distant fantasy.
Spain needed to score nine goals in the second half and not concede. The next 45 minutes shocked every football fan in Europe – especially those in the Netherlands. Malta’s players drowned in waves of Spanish attacks. Hipólito Rincón placed the first crack in the dam, scoring in the first minute of the second half before netting Spain’s fifth in the 55th minute.
The balance of the game – and group – took a huge swing when Spain scored three goals in three minutes to make the impossible seem possible. Centre-back Antonio Maceda scored on the hour, added another two minutes later, before Rincón grabbed his third with a superb effort in the 63rd minute.
Leading 8-1 with just under half an hour to go, Spain still had to find four more goals. But Malta were visibly creaking under the strain. Santillana (75) and Rincón (78) both scored their fourth goals of the evening either side of the Malta defender Michael Degiorgio being sent off for a second yellow card earned for time-wasting. Just a minute later, Manuel Sarabia gave Spain a lead of 11-1.
Spain now had a little over 10 minutes against 10 men to find another goal. The knockout blow arrived in the 86th minute, Señor firing home from 18 yards as the stadium erupted. It was redemption for Señor after his earlier miss from the spot, glory for Spain and despair for the Netherlands. There was still time for Spain to have a goal disallowed. Astonishingly, Spain had reached Euro 84, their 12-1 win edging out the distraught Dutch on goals scored.
“It’s a miracle,” said Muñoz as the home fans spilled on to the pitch. “Now, I’ve seen everything.” The Dutch were dumbfounded. “Dutch players and supporters reacted with disbelief to a Spanish goal avalanche against Malta,” reported Reuters. “The Dutch, who were able to watch the game live on television, had confidently expected to qualify, but in the aftermath they aimed most of the blame for failure at themselves, rather than the pathetic Maltese defence.”
As ever with a result of this nature, there were suspicions. Rumours circulated that Malta’s players had been bribed, with allegations of shady meetings taking place between national officials. The performance of the referee was also questioned – “he was the worst I’d ever seen,” said Malta left-back Emanuel Fabri – but nothing has ever been proven.
The most serious accusations came 35 years after the match. Demanuele – who had scored Malta’s goal on the night – suggested the Spain players took performance-enhancing drugs. “The energy the Spaniards had wasn’t normal,” he said. “Some of them were foaming at the mouth; an acidic liquid was coming out of their mouths and they couldn’t stop drinking water. I have a brother who was a bodybuilder. I know what happens when people take steroids.”
Demanuele also suggested the Malta players had been affected by fruit left in their dressing room at half-time. “When I sucked on those lemons, I felt drunk, as if I had been out partying all night,” he said. Scerri, the Malta manager, said his players felt “unwell” after sucking on the lemons provided by a mysterious man dressed in white.
But, ultimately, he admitted that the accusations would come to nothing. “We have no proof and I hope not because, if there is, football is finished.” The Spanish FA fought back, saying it “had the right to take legal action of any kind against those who try to smear the good image of Spanish football”.
Amid the hints and allegations, one man decided to make the most of the situation – in true Gareth Southgate style. Bonello appeared in a Spanish advert for Amstel in 2008. He was welcomed back to the country with open arms, but reprising his role as the Malta goalkeeper did not endear him to fans at home – or the Netherlands.
Spain went on to reach the Euro 84 final, losing to France in Paris. For the Dutch, true salvation would arrive four years later when they won Euro 88. Ruud Gullit lifted the Henri Delaunay Trophy above his head to complete a journey that began with pain in Spain and ended with ecstasy in Germany.