Malta international referee Nello Calleja took a trip down memory lane with Maltasport editor Joe Cardona and also laments that volleyball in Malta is not given the kind of exposure one expects from the media.

How did you first get interested in volleyball?

My first experience in Volleyball was in July 1992 when I was approached by Joe Casha, a key figure in the organization of the Kerygma Volleyball Marathon and in the Kerygma Volleyball Association, to take part in the Marathon. I had done a lot of other sports in the past, but Volleyball was completely new. I was chosen to do the 1992 marathon and from then onwards never left the sport. Today I don’t play or coach, so my involvement is purely refereeing and in the organisation of the refereeing sector in Malta.

Why do you want to be a referee?

After starting to play and then later coach, I started refereeing because it seemed the natural thing to do. I had always liked refereeing even at school, so it came quite naturally. Today I know that the referees are one of the pillars of the game, together with players, coaches, organizers and spectators. When one of these things is missing then the competition finds difficulty to improve. However I want to say that referees who aim to be in the limelight most probably would not be doing a very good job.

Luckily this has always been one of my physical strengths. As one can imagine, a referee without good eyesight is not very useful, although in volleyball spectacles and contact lenses are allowed for referees.

Tell me about your refereeing experience?

I started refereeing in 1993, first in the local junior leagues and then in the local national leagues. At first this was done together with playing and coaching, with the latter being more important until around 2000, besides also being an administrator for local clubs and the association. In 2000, together with some other local referees, we were encouraged to look into the possibility of becoming international referees, and as such we started being registered with the F.I.V.B. (International Volleyball Federation).

In 2003 this made us eligible to attend for an International Referee Candidate Course, which was held in Cecina, Italy, and for which I attended together with Frankie Tanti, one of the other two international referees here in Malta. Our first tournament was during the GSSEs held in Malta in June 2003. After collecting the necessary signatures from technical delegates, we officially became International Referees in 2007. In these last 9 years I have refereed 46 volleyball matches in 15 different countries.

In 2010 I got interested in Sitting Volleyball through a foreign referee who was refereeing both Volleyball and Sitting Volleyball. I did the course in Sarajevo in May 2011, and since then I have refereed around 10 matches in international competitions.

What excites you about the game?

Volleyball is a sport based on four main columns – technical ability, tactical organization, physical strength and mental aptitude. The mixture of these four elements gives rise to a sport full of fast, explosive actions. The fact that each rally carries a point makes every point worth fighting for, with teams having to be able to attack and defend equally well, and it is this continuous change from defence to attack and back to defence which makes volleyball so exciting. Moreover, the concept of rotation, where everyone has to play both in front and in the back, although with some variations due to the introduction of the Libero player at the back, makes sure that no player is good only at the front or at the back but most players have to be equally good in both zones of the court.

How much time do you spend practicing?

Unfortunately here in Malta we don’t have many opportunities to officiate matches besides the actual league matches. However I try to take my physical preparation seriously by running long distance runs – this helps when you have matches that last over 2 hours and you have to be as concentrated on the match during the last minute as much as during the first, if not more. The European volleyball confederation keeps us on our toes in this aspect since in the last years they have been asking referees who were overweight to cut down or else they are not given any appointments. It’s not always easy but this makes sure that health wise and image wise we are in line with the other protagonists of the sport. After all ‘mens sana in corpore sano’ is not only for athletes but for all those participating in a sport, including referees.

How do you assess your referring to date? Has it gone as you expected it to?

I feel that since 2003 when I started refereeing internationally and now, there has bee a big improvement. Not only in the technical aspects of the game (the whistling, the signals, etc) but mainly in the focusing needed every time there is an action. It’s useless following the ball all the time it’s in the air; most faults are committed when the players actually touch the ball. So the referee has to be able to zoom in and out according to the situation, removing those things from your mind which are not needed to take a decision at that moment in time. You have to imagine as if your eyes and mind are an SLR camera connected to a computer – first you see, and then you decide according to what you see and feel. This feeling is very important because it makes the difference between having a referee and having a computer officiating a match.

Obviously there are certain aspects that I need to work upon, mainly in the aspects of ball handling and sanctioning. I try to use every match to improve these aspects.

Besides being a referee you were also a player and a coach. How do you assess the development and prospects of this sport in Malta?

As with every other sport Volleyball has its highs and lows. When I started in 1993 there were innumerable clubs in Malta, but few of them invested in the junior sectors. When clubs were forced to have junior teams to be able to take part in senior competitions, some clubs either called it a day or joined another club with juniors. This had led to a serious decrease in the number of volleyball clubs and teams in Malta. In these last years there has been an increase of the teams taking part in our competitions, especially in the ladies’ sector. In the males’ sector, we still don’t have regular junior competitions and this will eventually lead to a decrease, if not the actual demise of men’s volleyball in Malta.

What do you think is needed to make this sport more popular?

Although in terms of numbers volleyball should be one of the top three in Ladies’ sports, very little importance is given to this sport in our media. Every weekend there are between six and ten volleyball matches played in Cottonera and at the University Sports complex, and yet we rarely see an article or a photo related to these matches. It’s true that from the Association’s side more needs to be done in terms of Public Relations and Media, but local media needs to give more space to local sports.

What game do you remember most from your playing, coaching and refereeing career?

Until now my best experience has been refereeing in a Junior Girls qualification tournament held in Dabrowa Gornicza, Poland, in January 2005. In every match the gym was full of children and people who know the match very, very well. I obviously remember officiating the match between local Poland and the Czech Republic with around 4000 people watching the match. This summer I had another wonderful experience when together with my family I attended for the last four days of the Parlympic Games in London, watching a number of sitting volleyball matches including the final. Besides the atmosphere, it was great seeing so many people supporting the disabled athletes participating in their favourite sport at such a high level.

Besides refereeing do you practice any other sports?

As I said before, I do long distance runs. I take part in 10km races, always trying to improve my time, since this motivates me to train more and better. Now I am going to try and do the Half Marathon next February, hopefully I’ll finish it.

Do you find any support from your family?

I find 110% support from my family, both from my wife and children, as well as from the closest relatives. Without their support it would not be possible to be an international referee, since every time I go abroad our family life gets somewhat disturbed. Moreover, knowing that my wife supports my refereeing activity gives me the necessary support to ref in a calmer way.

Do you have any tips for any upcoming volleyball referees?

Yes I have. 1) Know the sport well – you cannot be a good ref if you don’t know the rules and the game well. 2) Prepare yourself well in the most professional way you can – technically, physically and mentally. 3) Never try to be the protagonist of the match – if people remember you very well after a match, most probably it was not your best match.


Some people are afraid of refereeing because they think that players and coaches are there to make their life difficult. This is unfounded – players and coaches know that without a referee the match cannot be played. This gives the referee the responsibility to make sure that he conducts his job in the best way possible, and in many occasions the referees and the coaches respect referees for this thing.


Coaching Qualifications
- FIVB Level 1 Coaching Course
Malta, July 2000 (Theory:39, Practical: 56)

- Diploma in Coaching: Volleyball
Institute of Continuing Education, H.U.P.E.,
Budapest, Hungary - March-June 1997 – Excellent (4.9/5)

- Mental Training and Visualisation Techniques in Modern Sport, Claudia Heitmann, Malta, 1998

Refereeing Qualifications
- FIVB International Referee
Cecina, Italy – April 2003 (Theory: Very Good, Practical: Good)

- WOVD Sitting Volleyball International Referee
Sarajevo, Bosnia & Herzegovina – May 2011 (Theory: Very Good; Practical: Very Good)

- Refereeing Course – Malta Volleyball Ass. – 1999 (Distinction)

- Refereeing Course – Malta Volleyball Ass. – 1994 (Distinction)

Experience Coaching:
- Volleyball School, U/14, U/16, U/19 Level –
Kerygma Volley (1993 – 1997)
- Ladies Senior Team – Kerygma Volley – (1995-1997)
- Ladies Senior Team – Gozo Volley – (1997-1998)
- U/14, U/16, U/19, Men Senior Level – San Anton Sports Club
(1997 – 2003, 2006 - 2007)
- Male Junior (U/17) National Team – Head Coach –
February – July 1997 (including FISEC Games 1997)
- Male Junior (U/18) National Team – Head Coach –
February – December 1999
- Senior Male National Team – Assistant Coach –
January – May 2001 (including European Group C Championships)
- Male Junior National Team – Head Coach – (Feb - July 2004)
- Malta Volleyball Marathon - Technical Director (1996, 2001, 2009)
- Malta Volleyball Marathon – Coach (1993 – 2001)

- Kerygma Volleyball Club (1992 – 1996)
- San Anton Sports Club (1996 – 2003)

- Local Volleyball Referee (1993 - )
- National Volleyball Referee (1998 - )
- International Volleyball Candidate Referee (2003 - 2007)
- International Volleyball Referee (2007 - )
- International Sitting Volleyball Candidate Referee (2011 - )

- Secretary: Kerygma Sports, Rabat, Malta (1993-1996)
- Secretary: San Anton Sports Club, Imselliet, Malta (1996 - 2003)
- Chairperson: Match Officials’ Commission, Malta Volleyball Association (2000 - 2004)
- Member: Presidents’ Council, Malta Volleyball Association
(2001 - 2004)
- General Secretary, Malta Volleyball Association (2004 - 2006)
- Vice President, Malta Volleyball Association (2006 - 2007)
- Secretary/Organiser: Girls’ Schools Sports Association, Malta, (1998 - 2006)
- Secretary: Malta Students Sports Federation, Malta (2005 - 2006)
- Member: Match Officials’ Commission, Malta Volleyball Association (2009 - )

- 2nd Division Ladies Champions (Coach – Kerygma – 1996-1997)
- U/14 Boys’ Runners’ Up (Coach – San Anton – 1997-1998)
- U/19 Boys’ Runners’ Up (Coach – San Anton – 1997-1998)
- 2nd Division Males Runners’ Up (Coach – San Anton – 2000-2001)
- 2nd Division Males Runners’ Up (Coach – San Anton – 2002-2003)

- 2nd Division Male Championship (Player – Kerygma 1994-1995)
- 2nd Division Male Runners’ Up (Player – San Anton 2000-2001)
- 2nd Division Male Runners’ Up (Player – San Anton 2002-2003)

- Award for Best Referee – M.V.A. (2001-2002)
- Award for Best Referee – M.V.A. (2002-2003)
- Andrea Onori Award for Best Referee – M.V.A. (2003-2004)
- Andrea Onori Award for Best Referee – M.V.A. (2006-2007)
- Award for Official of the Year – M. V. A. (2003-2004)
- Award for Official of the Year – M. V. A. (2004-2005)


DATE OF BIRTH: 25th August 1972
BORN: Pieta’, Malta
MARITAL STATUS: Married with two children
FAVOURITE DRINK: A cup of tea either before the children wake up or after they go to sleep.
FAVOURITE MUSIC: Depends on the mood, but normally 80/90s music
FAVOURITE FILM/ACTOR: Ben Hur as a film, Julia Roberts as an actress
HOBBIES: Some gardening and composting, as well as watching any sport
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Monday, June 18, 2018
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