Updated 24th February 2014
Last Sunday, the 23rd of February was a very important date for all Irish football fans. It was the day when Martin O’Neill’s Republic of Ireland side began to map out their route to France and Euro 2016 as the draw for the qualifiers took place in Nice. With the expanded 24 team format for the finals in two years time, the nation will expect qualification as a minimum requirement.
However for Gibraltar, just taking part in the qualifiers will be a great achievement in itself. It will represent their chance for the first time to play competitive football. This will be the culmination of over 15 years’ hard work for the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) as they finally take their place among Europe’s elite.
But first let’s rewind back to the 19th of November last. It was international week in the football calendar. Most eyes in this country would have been on Poznan to watch Martin O’Neill’s second match in charge of the Republic of Ireland as they returned to the scene of their Euro 2012 humbling to draw with Poland.
Others might have witnessed Germany visit Wembley in a 1-0 victory over the old-enemy England. The rest would have been glued to the Ronaldo V Ibrahimovic show as a Cristiano inspired Portugal qualified for the World Cup at the expense of Sweden.
However, a historic match took place in Faro in Portugal as Gibraltar played their very first international under the auspices of UEFA as they recorded a very impressive goalless draw with Slovakia.
This British Territory has every resemblance of a classic English town, fish and chip shops and Union Jacks are seen on almost every corner. The only difference is of course the fifteen hundred miles that separate Britain from the peninsula that borders the south of Spain.
However to tell the story of Tuesday’s game, we must go back several years and examine the long and difficult road Gibraltar have taken to finally take their seat at UEFA’s top table.
The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA), one of the oldest in the world was founded in 1895, first sought to join UEFA in 1997. This application objected to by the Spanish Football Association was rejected in 2002 on grounds that Gibraltar is not recognized as a sovereign state by the United Nations. Gibraltar then took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS).
CAS ruled that UEFA’s non-sovereign rule was not in place when Gibraltar launched their original bid back in 1997. This meant that UEFA was forced to allow Gibraltar become a member. This finally became a reality in May of this years and fifteen years of work finally paid off.
Gibraltar became the 54th member of UEFA, giving them the opportunity to play official friendlies and the right to play in the qualifying for the UEFA Euros and rub shoulders with Germany, England and the rest of Europe’s aristocrats.
This led to jubilant scenes in Gibraltar. Workers were given a half day and a parade was organised. Years of hard work had paid off but plenty of hard work is still to do.
One problem that has continued throughout Gibraltar’s existence is Spain’s claim to it. Tensions have flared in recent months as Spain has stepped up border control. Crossing can now take up to a few hours. This has caused problems for Gibraltarians travelling to and from Spain in recent months. UEFA has acknowledged these problems and has ruled that for political reasons, both countries cannot be drawn against each other in the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers.
Gibraltar has accepted this problem for their part, they warned their fans travelling to Portugal on Tuesday to take care in their travel notes.
A statement before the game from the GFA read, “Gibraltar supporters travelling by road to Portugal will no doubt be aware of the existing political and social tensions with Spain…avoid the over exposure of flags, banners etc. whilst transiting Spain, to prevent any unnecessary confrontation.”
Playing pools will also prove difficult to overcome. The Gibraltarian league has only six hundred registered players, all of which are amateur. They also have had players from England declare to play. Barnsley defender Scott Wiseman has declared to play as has ex Sunderland and Stoke player Danny Higginbotham. However it is no doubt that such small numbers will make it hard to field teams, and this is before they even contemplate competing with Europe’s finest.
Gibraltar’s stadium is also proving problematic for the GFA. Currently Victoria Stadium has a capacity of five thousand. UEFA rules state that the stadium does not meet minimum requirements to host competitive games. Therefore, although Gibraltar can host friendly matches, they will be forced to play all competitive game in Estadio Algarve in Faro. Its capacity of 30,000 could host the entire population of Gibraltar, making them UEFA’s smallest nation behind San Marino.
However plans are in place to upgrade Victoria Stadium’s capacity to 10,000. Unfortunately the upgrade will not be completed until 2016 which means that all of Gibraltar’s home games for their Euro 2016 campaign will take place in Portugal.
It was as a result of this that Gibraltar elected to play this friendly in Faro, as a dress rehearsal for the upcoming qualifiers. It will not be until March 5th when Gibraltar hosts its first international when fellow minnows Faroe Islands visit Victoria Stadium.
Despite the problems facing the GFA, manager Allan Bula’s team headed to Faro in hopeful mood to take on Slovakia.
Despite Slovakia hitting the bar and dominating the entire game, Gibraltar defied the odds and claimed a very creditable draw against their world ranked 65 opponents. It was truly a remarkable result on their international bow.
For the players involved it was a very emotional occasion. 34-year-old Danny Higginbotham rolled backed the years to produce a man of the match display. He told the Daily Mail after the game; “It was not something that many people expected at all. It was a very emotional game for a lot of people involved as it was first international as a recognized nation.”
He continued, “It was visible after the game, some players were emotional and tearful. That’s how much it meant to them.”
His manager Allan Bula was equally as proud. He tweeted, “No words to describe how proud I am of the players, technical team and GFA staff, they worked so hard for this.”
For the GFA sixteen years of hard work had finally paid off. They celebrated their successful debut long into the Portuguese night as now they were now officially among Europe’s elite.
Their attention then turned to last Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifier draw in Nice.
As luck would have it Gibraltar have been paired with the Republic of Ireland in the draw for the Euro 2016 qualifiers in what could prove a very competitive group. Germany are the top seeds in the group that will also feature Scotland, Poland and Georgia.
Allan Bula declared himself happy with the draw and has set his sights high. He has set his team the ambitious target of reaching the play-offs by finishing third in the group.
Gibraltar’s historic first competitive match will see them welcome Poland to the Algarve on the 7th of September before they visit the Aviva Stadium for the clash with Martin O’Neill’s Ireland side on the 11th of October.
Gibraltar can now look forward to competitive football after making a bright start to life among the elite of European football. For now though, they can be quite pleased with the start they have made to life in the big time.
Feel free to leave comments, let us know what you think. Can Gibraltar make a statement on the international stage?