Three weeks ago the European footballing world officially welcomed its 54th member when Gibraltar were included in the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifying. Their journey for acceptance on the world footballing stage has been a tortuous one, filled with inconsistencies and back-stabbing that has dogged the governing bodies for years. Despite not being “at war” or even military-ready against any other nation, it has taken longer for Gibraltar to be allowed to compete than the former Balkan states, Armenia-Azerbaijan, Russia and Georgia or even Greece and Turkey. And that has been because one nation has disputed their authenticity to be considered an equal member. One against fifty-two other nations – no brainer? Well, it would be in most circumstances but when that nation is the most successful footballing country of the last fifty years then the rules change.
Formed in 1895 by British sailors, The Football Association of Gibraltar first applied to FIFA back in 1997 and despite not actually having a stadium capable of hosting an international game the Swiss big cheeses said a big Yes in 1999 and passed the manilla folder down the road to Nyon to UEFA. Immediately Spain started to throw their castanets out of the pram. Whilst the rest of Europe was moving to closer, forgiving not forgetting the conflicts of the past, Spain were creating a problem over a 2.3 square mile rock that they hadn’t owned for over 300 years ago. It seemed that their lobbying worked as in 2001 UEFA changed its statutes so that only associations in a country “recognised by the United Nations as an independent State” could become members. On such grounds, UEFA denied the Gibraltar’s application. Of course that ruling should have meant the immediate expulsion of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales but that never happened. Whilst the rest of Europe started qualifying for the 2004 European Championships hosted by Portugal, Gibraltar consoled themselves with a trip to Guernsey to take part in the Island Games Tournament.
There was still a hope that FIFA would allow them to take part in qualifying for the 2006 FIFA World Cup in Germany. Other British Overseas Territories such as Bermuda, British Virgin Islands and Anguilla were allowed to line up in the qualifying tournament but the invite to Gibraltar got lost in the post it seemed. Instead of a shot at a trip to Bavaria to enjoy a month of football, Fräuleins and frikadellen, Gibraltar headed to the Shetland Islands for another shot at the Island Games title.
Hopes were raised in 2007 when UEFA agreed that a vote would take place at its annual Congress. Unfortunately 45 members voted against allowing them in, with only England, Scotland and Wales saying yes, although they did allow Montenegro in. It took another six years for opinions to change in UEFA thanks to significant lobbying by Gibraltar, and to an extent by the English FA, the 2013 Congress vote saw Gibraltar finally accepted into the footballing family with just Spain (no surprise there) and Belarus (who thought they were voting whether to have a vegetarian option for dinner) voting against.
When the draw for their first major competition was made, it was with some irony that they were initially put in the same qualifying group as Spain. Oh how we all laughed until someone with a clipboard made a cutting sign across their throats and the Gibraltar ball miraculously popped into a Group headed by Germany and including Scotland, Republic of Ireland, Poland and Georgia. The pub and bar owners on the Rock all let out a huge groan when the draw was made, knowing they will miss out on the Celtic-Nation tourist pounds and Euros as all of Gibraltar’s home games will be played some 250 miles away in Faro, Portugal as the current Victoria Stadium on the Rock is not deemed capable of hosting international games. The good news is that plans are underway to build a new stadium at Europa Point, literally on the end of Europe. However they have to first evict the cricket club who play on the sandy pitch.
Gibraltar has a population of just 30,000, about the same size as Lewes and Peacehaven put together. That makes supporting a football league quite difficult, but that is part of the entry criteria for UEFA. But this year it has stepped up a notch with the winners of the Premier Division getting a place in the Champions League, well at least the extra preliminary forgotten round of qualifying where they will probably play the winner of the Andorran Lliga de Primera. Unfortunately, it does seem that that Gibraltar is suffering from “Scottish Syndrome” whereby one team simply wins almost every game and the league is done and dusted by Easter. That team is Lincoln Red Imps FC, winners of thirteen of the last fourteen Premier Division titles. Oh, and this year’s League Cup where they beat “Manchester United” three weeks ago.
I have no idea what the association is with the Red Imps of Lincoln City, although for a period in the last decade they decided to rename themselves as Newcastle United, as you do. Manchester United, on the other hand, can lay claim to currently be the most successful team of that name in the world. League Cup runners-up, still in the “Rock” Cup and third in the league. The club was given permission by the then United manager Matt Busby back in 1962 and they have kept it ever since.
Six other teams make up the division meaning that qualification for Europe, with a spot in the Champions League and Europa League is possible for all of the sides. All except one it seems. With just over half of the season completed one side sit all alone at the bottom of the league with a 100% loss record. Gibraltar Phoenix were promoted two seasons ago but are almost nailed on certainties to go back to where they have come from at the end of the season. In their last two games they had the displeasure to face Lincoln. The good news is that they did manage to score a goal, increasing their goals for tally this season by an impressive 33%. Unfortunately they managed to ship in a total of thirty-two goals at the other end.
When I left London at 10.45am it was 17 degrees and sunny. When I landed some 150 minutes later in Gibraltar I was met with drizzle. That certainly wasn’t in the plan for the weekend. Of course it would be a beautiful evening I thought as I ditched any type of jumper/coat before leaving the house this morning.
Are the above facts a good enough reason to explain why I was sitting in the Victoria Stadium waiting for the first game of the weekend’s Premier Division to start? Of course it was. It does help I have a good friend who lives and works on the Rock so he was acting as my driver, cook, butler and tour guide for the weekend. He had picked me up from the airport, given me the 30 minute guided tour, including a visit to Europa Point, Gibraltar’s only MOT garage and told me the stories about the Apes visiting Burger King. What more do you need to know?
The co-owner (founder, Chairman and centre-back) for the “home” side (in theory they are all home sides with the stadium hosting 7 domestic games this weekend) Garry Lowe had given me the low-down on his team and domestic football in general. Phoenix were only formed by Lowe two years ago and last season won promotion. But as soon as they reached the top league they saw their better players poached by the bigger sides who could afford to pay players. With such a small pool of commercial opportunities it is a constant fight to attract the funds that will enable them to compete and potentially grab one of those European slots.
Gibraltar Phoenix 0 College Europa 11 – Victoria Stadium – Friday 14th March 2014
A Friday night after work in Gibraltar is no different to that from other cities around the work. Workers head to the bright lights for some well deserved rest and relaxation, the exception being here was that the sun was now shining. We took a few steps from Andy’s office and found a seat in a restaurant with the water of the marina at our feet. It would have been rude to rush our dinner for the sake of football so we took our time which proved to be a wise decision as a floodlight issue (and not the fact that the referee had been detained at the border as we were originally told) had delayed the start until 8.20pm.
We arrived just as the game kicked off, wandering into the almost deserted Victoria Stadium freely (as with many other things on the Rock, if you are a resident, you get in for nothing) and saw College hit the bar with their first attack. Five minutes later they did it again, and were then denied by a fantastic save from Phoenix keeper Tito Podeta. In fact the keeper kept the home side in the game single-handedly with College only scoring once in the opening quarter despite peppering the goal with shots. It couldn’t last and it didn’t. 2-0 (23 mins), 3-0 (24 mins), 4-0 (29 mins), 5-0 (37 mins) and then 6-0 (44 mins). The home side actually took to seeing who could give away the best penalty with two conceded and at least two others that should have been awarded. However, all through the half the home side never gave up trying, especially our new hero Tito who was having a blinder.
Whilst the home team sat in the dressing room wishing away the next 45 minutes, we headed down to the Wanderers bar for a swift pint. We wondered how many of them would want to swap places with us at that moment? Come to think of it, both Andy and I would have fancied a run out in the second half. Perhaps it would be a Liverpool v AC Milan style inspirational team talk or even an Al Pacino speech in Any Given Sunday? Alas it appeared it was neither as number seven was added within a minute of the restart.
Seven became eight and then nine, although there was an element of greed starting to creep in from the College players who frequently elected to take the ball themselves when their five man attack (everyone wanted a slice of the action) broke. An injury to one of the Phoenix players gave them a chance to have a breather (and in one case a quick puff on an inhaler). Alas, our hopes that all Gibraltan football physios came from the same mould as Chelsea’s Eva Carneiro (the territory’s most famous woman apparently) were dashed when a chap with a scouse accent wearing three-quarter length trousers ambled on. Gibraltar brought on a sub, choosing to take off one of the most athletic players in their side and replacing him with someone who was wearing gloves. Within a few minutes he had given the ball away and it was ten.
Somehow, somewhere along the way we appeared to have missed a goal. The final score was recorded as 11-0 with Tostao scoring 5, Toncheff 3, Montovio 2 and Bakkari completing the rout for College Europe. Gibraltar Phoenix will be counting down the weeks until the season ends and they can start the rebuilding process once again.
Saturday dawned with bright sunshine along Main Street, illuminating the tourists from the cruise ships docked in the marina filling up on cheap tobacco, cheap food and marvelling at the fact that there was a Marks & Spencers, BHS and WH Smiths there. But halfway up the tourist drag was a sports shop. In its windows it displayed a Manchester United and a Barcelona shirt. But displayed in-between was a red Gibraltar home shirt. If ever there was a sign that there was hope for football on the Rock then this was it.