Small and slender with a pair of spindly legs that would not last the postman one morning – this is how one may well describe the physique of Joe Brimba Zarb. Yet, he was one of the greatest goal-scorers. His 140 goals in 281 league matches is a record few Maltese players could equal.
Joe Zarb was league top scorers four times, three of them in succession. He also won 24 major honours in a career spanning over 21 seasons, which make him one of the most honoured players in a candidate for the greatest Maltese goal-scorer of all time.
Although born and bred in Zabbar, Joe never played for his hometown club. It seems he had a lot of friends from Cospicua and these encouraged hin to join Cospicua St Joseph’s. This amateur team did not play in any league but restricted its activities to playing friendly Sunday morning football.
It was while playing in one of these matches that Peppi Delceppo spotted Joe. The St George’s mentor did not lose the opportunity of adding Zarb to his brood of youngsters.
Joe Zarb joined St George’s FC in 1980-81 and he made his first-team debut late in the season as a substitute for Charlie Cassar. His advance was slow and in the following two seasons he only played once more for the first team and that was as a substitute.
In 1983-84, he was given an extended run in the first team that produced the first four goals of his career. Peppi Delceppo never stopped believing in Zarb’s talent. Despite Joe’s slender frame, Peppi saw in the lad an extraordinary ability to score goals. Peppi was not the only one to recognise Joe’s potential and at the start of the 1984-85 season Hamrun Spartans made a successful bid for his transfer.
The move to Hamrun was the turning point in Zarb’s career. Before long he was hitting the goals with a regular rhythm. Yet, despite winning two championship medals with Hamrun, the Spartans surprisingly let him slip through their fingers. Perhaps they did not fully realise his potential or, maybe, the reason might have been the fact that they had another prolific goal-scorer in Stefan Sultana in their ranks. Whatever the reason, midway through the 1987-88 season, they accepted Valletta’s offer for his signature.
That season Zarb was involved in a curious and unique record. In a campaign consisting of 14 games, he played 15 times! Joe played in the Spartans’ first seven games of the season before he was transferred to Valletta with whom he played in the last eight games. Hamrun went on to win the championship; therefore, he qualified for a championship medal when he was playing for Valletta!
Joe stayed with Valletta up to the end of the 1998-99 season forming part of the all-conquering City edition that dominated Maltese football in the 1990s. Then a serious eye injury cost him his place in the first team. Over time, he recovered from the injury but the following season he was transferred to Gozo FC who had just been promoted for the first time to the Premier Division.
Joe passed an uneventful season with Gozo. It was the only season in his career in which he did not score a single goal. At the end of the season, he joined Zurrieq FC in the First Division. For Zarb it was another mediocre season and when Zurrieq were relegated he decided to retire.
He had only two regrets in his career. The first was his failure to win the Footballer of the Year award and the other was the way he was continually passed over by the national team selectors. Just 10 full caps are a meagre reward for a goal-scorer of his calibre, especially when one compares his record with that of other international strikers whose number of international appearances are three or four times that number.
Joe ‘Brimba’ Zarb left behind him memories of an honest and dedicated footballer. Above all, he was a prolific goal-scorer – a lesson to those who think that to succeed in football one must be big and brawny.