Fans of Dashiell Hammett's The Maltese Falcon know that, in the end, the prized statuette turns out to be a forgery. After a couple of weeks of hints that a major Maltese international striker was on the way (how many MMISs can there be?), the RailHawks finally have produced a parcel containing said prize.
Meet Etienne Barbara, a 6-foot-1, 27-year-old striker from Pietà, Malta. There are high hopes for him indeed: Martin Rennie, having been tipped to Barbara's availability, traveled to the Mediterranean island specifically to scout him. In a team press release, Rennie says:
'I saw his videos and I was real impressed, and I spoke to some people who also told me, This guy is really, really good. I made the decision to go watch him play, and I was blown away by what he did. I'm hoping that will translate to our league, and I believe it will. He's got pace, power and he can finish and he's just an all-around player. He'll add a lot to our squad.'
Barbara will bring a solid record of accomplishment to Cary, with 70 goals since 1999, a period he mostly spent in the Maltese Premier League. Barbara has 30 caps with Malta's national team, although he is not currently listed on the roster. He also had a short stint with the German fourth-tier semipro side SC Verl, a tenure that apparently ended with his dismissal for disciplinary reasons (the source cited on Barbara's Wiki page is a German news site, where it appears that further browsing in Deutsch is necessary).
Following the Internet trail of Barbara's career is fascinating. We realize just how ubiquitous soccer is elsewhere on the planet—where a country as tiny as Malta can have a multi-tiered league system, and, correspondingly, where there can be excellent prospects toiling away that require diligence, pavement-pounding and international connections to locate.
It appears, too, that last summer Barbara merited a close look by English Championship side Sheffield Wednesday when that club was in preseason training in Malta. According to this report, then-coach Brian Laws (now the coach of Burnley) ultimately determined that Barbara, though "definitely a talented player who has trained very hard with us this week," wasn't quite good enough to aid in Sheffield Wednesday's push for the upper echelon of the Championship. (Wednesday is currently in 21st place, one point above the relegation zone.)
This isn't to suggest that Barbara won't be a key ingredient for the RailHawks—it's unlikely that Rennie would have gone to such lengths merely to add a little squad depth—but that this information gives us an idea of where the RailHawks and American D2 soccer fit into the global soccer matrix (somewhere around England's League One, perhaps).
It's an encouraging signing for the RailHawks, who needed another striker option. Last year's team scored 43 goals, third-best in the league, but 21 percent of those goals came in a single game. Returning forwards Sallieu Bundu and Andriy Budnyy had their moments last season, and Matthew Delicâte, on a late-season loan from USL-2 Richmond, provided spark and creativity, but RailHawk attack has lacked a consistently ruthless presence inside the box. Clearly, Rennie hopes Barbara can bring that finishing touch.
Barbara is currently playing for the Maltese side Hibernians, where he will remain until late March.
Press release below.
RailHawks sign Maltese international Barbara
CARY, N.C. (Feb. 25, 2010) - The Carolina RailHawks have signed forward Etienne Barbara, a 10-year veteran of the Maltese Premier League.
Barbara will provide additional firepower to a Carolina attack that in 2009 scored a club-record 43 goals, was shut out only seven times and was third in the league in shots taken and goals scored.
Barbara, 27, is currently playing for Hibernians, for whom he has appeared in 18 matches this season and scored four goals, in his native Malta. He will remain with the Hibs until late March.
"It never passed through my mind to play in America or that an opportunity could arise there," Barbara said. "I couldn't actually believe it until I met coach Martin [Rennie] when he came to Malta. He immediately had that professional approach and he was serious about it. Then the offer started to look attractive. I had opportunities to go to play in Europe, but America is a place that I've never been to and the professional setup and training facilities as Martin described them kept popping in my mind as a good challenge to look for. There are many teams and places where you can play football, but the right setup and facilities and having a good coach to help you develop your game is most important. So I'm looking forward to it."
Barbara made his professional debut in 1999 with Floriana and remained with that club until 2003. There, he appeared in 74 matches and scored eight goals. During the January 2003 transfer window, he moved to the newly promoted Marsaxlokk, for whom he scored 21 goals in 43 appearances. In 2005, he moved to Birkirkara, where he scored 31 goals in 59 matches over two seasons. Barbara moved on to Sliema Wanderers in 2007, where he scored eight goals in 23 matches.
He then went to Germany's SC Verl, where he made 18 appearances and logged 1,117 minutes but did not score a goal. After a trial with Sheffield Wednesday in England, Barbara returned to Malta and signed with Hibernians, the reigning league champion, last summer.
Barbara also has extensive international experience. He has been capped 30 times by the Malta National Team and has scored three goals in international play. He made his debut during a qualifying match at Israel for Euro 2004, and he scored his first two goals in a Feb. 2004 match against Estonia that ended a 2-2 draw. He scored his third goal in a 1-1 draw against Bulgaria in a 2006 World Cup qualifying match.
"Etienne's played at a high level with the Maltese National Team, played against some of the best players in the world," said RailHawks coach Martin Rennie. "He was a player I didn't know too much about until a few months ago. I saw his videos and I was real impressed, and I spoke to some people who also told me, This guy is really, really good. I made the decision to go watch him play, and I was blown away by what he did. I'm hoping that will translate to our league, and I believe it will. He's got pace, power and he can finish and he's just an all-around player. He'll add a lot to our squad."