Joseph Portelli’s “dream”, the media blitz, the CEO, and the bizarre comparison with 184 pools

The property developer Joseph Portelli and his business associate and Hamrun Spartans CEO Marcel Bonnici were both doing interviews on the day that the Malta Football Association’s executive met urgently to discuss Portelli’s registration as a player with Hamrun Spartans. Portelli had resigned from president of the Hamrun club and registered as a player, hoping to play 10 minutes in Hamrun’s last game this season to fulfill a “dream”, according to him. The registration was rejected by the MFA.

Bonnici’s interview, conducted by Antvin Monseigneur, was broadcast on Hamrun Spartans’ Facebook page. Monseigneur used to report on sports for the Labour Party’s now-defunct online news site, The Journal. He also holds (or used to hold) a couple of State engagements: he is a board member of the Citizen by Merit Board, the chairperson of the education ministry’s Football Facility Fund, and senior manager at the Lands Authority.

On that same day Portelli sat for an interview with Times of Malta journalist Mark Laurence Zammit, who is Bonnici’s nephew. The interview was published on the Times’ online version yesterday.  

In the interview, Portelli expressed his disappointment at being denied the chance to play in the final game for 10 minutes. The team is on course to win the league this year, and Portelli sought to repeat what he did in Gozo last season – he played in the final game with Nadur Youngsters, the team whose president is his son.    

In the separate interview aired on Hamrun's Facebook page, Bonnici compared Portelli’s bid to play for 10 minutes to Alessandro Florenzi’s most memorable moment. The Italian player for Roma had run up the stands and hugged his 82-year-old grandmother after scoring. It earned him a yellow card. Bonnici said that although Florenzi had broken the rules, football was made of such emotions, suggesting that Portelli’s 10-minute slot on the ground would be one such moment.

Screengrab of Antvin Monseigneur interviewing Marcel Bonnici broadcast on Hamrun's Facebook page

Bonnici is a longtime associate of Portelli in property development, and uncle of Mark Zammit, the Times’ journalist who interviewed Portelli.

The Times published eight articles about the events surrounding Portelli’s bid for 10 minutes on the pitch. Four of them were written by Mark Zammit, including the 18-minute interview with Portelli broadcast yesterday after the MFA had rejected his player registration.

Portelli tends to engage with Zammit’s reporting, in contrast to his attitude to other journalists who attempt to ask him questions.

Last June, for example, following reports that Portelli had bought an island set in a lake in Montenegro, a journalist from Newsbook contacted Portelli about it.

Portelli replied mockingly: “Are you another one of those who has the most beautiful job in the world” – then he dropped various emojis – “…listen did I ever ask you where you travelled to and what you went there for?”

The journalist then pointed out that the matter was in the public interest and he had not asked him about private holidays. Portelli replied with yet another mocking message, writing that he was “thinking whether I should get into journalism because it’s very interesting” and that “at least one day the truth is told.”  

Two days later Mark Zammit published an article about the same topic in which Portelli is quoted extensively. He said that he had visited to “explore possibilities” after the Montenegrin government published a planning brief for the island. He also said that he was “interested in it because it is beautiful beyond imagination”, adding that he had “great plans” for it but that he had not bought it at that point.

In comments to this website, Zammit agreed that Portelli engages with him more than with other journalists, but he rejected the notion that this was because Bonnici was his uncle.

Marcel Bonnici and Joseph Portelli are longtime associates, and over the past several years Bonnici has also been CEO of Mercury Towers, the high-rise building in Paceville that was developed by Portelli. Bonnici then became CEO of Hamrun Spartans when Portelli became president.

In the past, Bonnici worked at JobsPlus, and his association or collaboration with Portelli goes back to at least 2009 when Bonnici applied to the Planning Authority to build a block of flats near the University of Malta. Although Joseph Portelli did not appear on the planning application, the land was owned – and developed – by Portelli as well as the Bonnici’s, Marcel and his wife. Marcel’s wife is the sister of Mark Zammit’s father.

This website asked Zammit if felt he could write objectively about Portelli given his uncle’s longtime business association with Portelli. He said he has “always written objectively about Portelli.”

Asked whether he felt he ought to have disclosed to readers his relation to Bonnici, he said he does not talk to Bonnici in the course of preparing articles and he only talks to Joseph Portelli directly.

In the interview broadcast yesterday, Bonnici was present off-camera (at one point Portelli addressed him, who spoke back).

Portelli depicted himself as a victim of sorts in the interview, suggesting that his bid to become player was rejected because he was Joseph Portelli, even dropping allusions of jealousy and, in a wider way, he spoke about people’s ingratitude at his largesse with certain voluntary organizations.  

He adopted a similar tone when he spoke about his controversial property developments, at one point saying that “in the same area in Xaghra, there are 184 similar swimming pools approved. But no, if it’s Joseph Portelli’s, we are going to object.”

Screengrab from Times' interview in which Portelli makes the claim about 184 swimming pools

He was talking about a planning permit, currently being contested in a legal challenge filed by four environmental NGOs, for a pool below the cliff’s edge on the side of the valley. The cliff runs along a stretch of road almost 2km long, and Portelli’s pool approved last April is one of only two pools placed below the cliff and beyond the development zone along the entire stretch.

Pool approved by Planning Authority (in yellow) at back of block of flats is one of only two pools that lies below the cliff and beyond the development line (in red) along entire road - click picture to enlarge

It is set behind a block of flats which, as reported by this website, is also in breach of planning policies. The pool then added the proverbial insult to injury: it was approved despite being at odds with planning policies and the teachings of court judgements, and being thrice recommended for refusal by the Planning Authority’s technical team.

At present, Portelli is involved in various controversial developments in Nadur. This includes a large development in the town’s Urban Conservation Area that has been developed incrementally in a series of four planning applications over three years. The development would have presumably attracted objections and more scrutiny if it had to have been put in as a single planning application. That project is being developed together with Maryanne and Anthony Cauchi, who are separately involved in the development of a seven-storey block of flats on Xlendi’s waterfront together with the Agricultural Minister Anton Refalo and the PN’s foremost MP in Gozo, Alex Borg.

Some parts of the project have been constructed

The fourth planning application in that development may be approved by the Planning Authority in a hearing scheduled for tomorrow.

Featured image: Screengrab of interview published on the Times of Malta website

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