In front of a crowd of 1,821 people, history was made. At Victoria Stadium, sitting beneath The Rock, behind the airport and next to Winston Churchill Avenue, you’d be excused to think this was an FA Cup tie in England. Instead, this was a UEFA Champions League first round qualifying match between Lincoln Red Imps FC, from Gibraltar, and Havnar Bóltfelag, from the Faroe Islands.
The match ended 1-1, with Lincoln eventually being eliminated in the second leg, but this was a momentous game. It was the first ever European qualifying game by a Gibraltarian side. College Europa FC would follow suit only eight days later with a 1-0 loss to Liechtensteiner side FC Vaduz in the Europa League.
Since 2013, Gibraltar has been on a rollercoaster ride in footballing terms, and are now rubbing shoulders with the big boys of European football. But do they belong there? This is a question asked by many about the likes of Gibraltar in international football.
A mixture of politics, a growing apathy for international football in some quarters, and patronising the smaller countries to within an inch of their lives, are all among the factors for the resistance for these minnows. Is this criticism justified? Should these trivial sides even have a seat at the elite table of continental and world football?
I. A rocky start
Although only approved as a UEFA member in mid-2013, the Gibraltarian Football Association (GFA) proudly announces itself as being one of the oldest associations in the world, having been established way back in 1895.
The national team was largely consigned to playing British military and merchant teams up until the 1920s. The GFA had, however, already created a domestic league and cup structure by 1910. The first league champions were a team by the name of Prince of Wales FC.
A golden age of Gibraltarian football had been prevalent around the late 1940s and mid 1950s, when European and Spanish sides flocked down past La Línea and took on the national team of this oversees UK territory of less than 30,000 people. Despite this obvious disadvantage, the minnows secured an impressive 2-2 draw with Real Madrid in 1949. Alongside these matches, a Rock Select VI was set up to play against Serbian and Swedish teams, where the best civilian players were paired with a number of British military personnel stationed in Gibraltar.
It would prove to be a short-lived period of prosperity for the sport in Gibraltar. Spain, in 1956, placed an embargo on clubs playing in Gibraltar, requiring them to have written permission to cross the border. In the words of the GFA, “… and so started what many in Gibraltar see as the slow death of football in the colony”.
Tensions had been escalating over the preceding decades, as issues of smuggling had chagrined the Spanish, and Queen Elisabeth’s visit to the area in 1954 was perceived as the final straw by Generalísimo Franco. Spain launched an international campaign for the recovery of Gibraltar, and placed several sanctions on the Gibraltarians, eventually closing the border altogether in 1969. At the same time, British forces had scaled back considerably. Apart from the socio-political effects, it also signalled an end to international competition for Gibraltarian football.
Subsequent decades, although clearly not devoid of football, are clouded in a dispiriting fog. The next mention of football, at least on an international scale, is not until around the turn of the century when things started up again in earnest.
After having been pre-approved by the powers that be at FIFA, Gibraltar submitted their official UEFA membership request in 1999. Things looked bright for the GFA at first, but Spain quickly objected to their admission, arguing that Gibraltar’s sporting facilities were located on disputed land, and was therefore only defending the national interests of Spain in blocking the application. Gibraltar’s successful application could also, many have speculated, give credence to similar actions by either the Basque or Catalan regions.
Further hindrances were to come as UEFA passed a new regulation in 2002 which stipulated that any new member of the organisation would need to be an independent country, as recognised by the United Nations. Teams such as Scotland, Wales and the Faroe Islands would not be affected.
Given FIFA and UEFA’s multiple posturing against political influence in football, the people involved in the Gibraltar bid felt aggrieved by the apparent double standards. Feeling they had a genuine case, the GFA went to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) for justice and were ultimately vindicated by a decision which stated the application should be considered since it had been submitted before the change of the statutes.
Despite this supposed victory, Gibraltar were still far from their ultimate prize, as several more roadblocks lay ahead, with CAS having to play the part of a disgruntled parent on several occasions, urging its children to play nice. Gibraltar’s exclusion from FIFA was originally seen as another hindrance, but an official vote on Gibraltar’s UEFA membership was ordered by CAS. A membership vote took place in 2006, and while Montenegro was unanimously granted a seat at the grown-up table, the Spanish FA openly campaigned against Gibraltar’s inclusion, threatening with seemingly empty threats. England, Scotland and Wales were the only members to vote in favour of the heartbroken candidate – 45 voted against.
While some suggested that Gibraltar were better served to apply to the African federation, the GFA again called on CAS to intervene. In 2011 they ruled that UEFA needed to do everything within their power to let Gibraltar join up. Forced to comply, UEFA granted Gibraltar a provisional membership and set out some guidelines which Gibraltar should follow in order to gain full status; referees and coaches must be coached to the UEFA standard, and governance practices would be aided by UEFA specialists. A vote in May 2013 finally ended the long struggle, with now only Spain and Belarus still opposing the motion.
Gibraltar have now finally begun their UEFA-approved footballing adventure. Their first official national team match took place on 19 November 2013, as Gibraltar welcomed Slovakia. Victoria Stadium, the current home of Gibraltarian football, does not meet the UEFA requirements for international matches, and as such the team must play their games at the Estádio Algarve, some 400 kilometres away. Nothing would mar the occasion for the Gibraltarians, however, and a 0-0 draw sent the team into hysteric celebrations.
“This is a proud result for Gibraltar and the players gave me so much more than 100 percent,” Allen Bula, the then-national team manager, said after the game. “It was a dream to play our first international friendly and now we have another dream come true thanks to this great result.”
II. Do they belong?
A recurring theme when discussing Gibraltarian matches during qualifying has been to focus on their size, as well as sometimes the occupations of the players. Given that the Gibraltarian Premier League is an amateur endeavour, all of the national team players have other jobs.
After their debut in their qualifying group loss against Poland, several media picked up the story that the Gibraltar goalkeeper is a fireman, and their striker Kyle Casciaro – one of three Casciaro brothers on the team – is a shipping agent. Only two professional footballers turned out for the colony that day: Scott Wiseman of Preston North End and Liam Walker of Bnei Yehuda (now playing for Lincoln Red Imps in Gibraltar).
As the team geared up to face newly-crowned World Champions Germany, however, the discourse began to shift. “The greatest mismatch in soccer history?” This was the sentiment by the New York Daily News, and while it may not be a terrible slur, it reflected a growing mood among some in the footballing world.
Indeed, after that match, Thomas Müller, not one to sit on his opinions, declared his frustration of being forced to play “such games”. Bild ran with that quote and ultimately declared that games “like this against the Gibraltar amateurs are completely worthless”, adding that “if Germany were to play a thousand matches against Gibraltar, they would win a thousand times.”
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Read | Jeff Wood: The coach bringing Gibraltar in from the cold
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There are two major perspectives from which to look at this problem from. On the one hand, we must consider the other teams, such as the Germans. As Bild mentioned, players of the elite clubs and nations, like Müller, are often now burdened by an intensive schedule wherein some players play up to, and more than, 60 games a season. Clearly this puts an immense strain on the physical and mental capacity of these players, and as such they might feel miffed about facing a group of firemen and electricians on top of all that.
Furthermore, Europe is only one of two continents who employ pre-qualifying of some sorts for their World Cup entry programme. In the Asian tournament, for example, the first round consists of a playoff between the bottom twelve nations in the continent (based on the FIFA rankings), who battle it out to join the rest in the second round, with the first round in 2015 being contested by nations ranging from India to Bhutan.
Only South America’s qualifying process is not stretched out in such a manner, but the reasoning there seems sound: only ten teams vie for five possible spots in FIFA’s showpiece event (including one playoff spot). Amy Lawrence, a writer for the Guardian and Observer, made this comparison, as Europe now has 54. For the 2018 World Cup qualifying, however, only 52 countries will compete, given Russia’s automatic qualification and Gibraltar not being a FIFA member. Gibraltar have again appealed to CAS, and will be hopeful, given the court’s last ruling.
Lawrence goes further to compare Europe’s national competitions to their club competitions. When on this topic, it is easy to overlook the fact that of course both the UEFA Europa League and Champions League have pre-qualification rounds. As she points out: “If the Champions League was to operate in the same way, without filtering out a number of weaklings before the heavyweights turned up, then the group stage would look very different.” Examples of Chelsea and Barcelona having to play in San Marino and Moldova seem like a preposterous proposition.
Questions such as these are then, clearly, not without merit. When England, Germany, and the like, come up against much smaller teams such as Gibraltar and San Marino, there is little or no interest at home from fans, pundits or players. Another argument is that these teams, with some exceptions, tend to get comprehensively beaten by anyone marginally bigger, as Gibraltar have been showing in their campaign so far. How do you build a winning mentality if the best you can hope for is one win in 10-15 games, and that being a home friendly against Malta. What is the point of the current format?
III. Standing on the shoulders of giants
At this point, I feel it is my duty to inform you of my clear bias. I am from Iceland, a tiny rock, somewhere in the middle of the ocean; many don’t even know where we are located (I had one of my grade school teachers point to Svalbard once when trying to locate my native land). We, much like Gibraltar, San Marino, etc., are minnows. While we are still 10 times the population of Gibraltar, we are easily out-muscled by Malta, Luxembourg and Kosovo, not to mention Georgia and Azerbaijan.
Yet, without wishing to shift the focus of this article to Iceland any further, we are now regularly distanced from any talk of belonging to that theoretical pre-qualification rabble. The truth is, however, that we were, and very likely will be again, belonging to the collection of ‘unwanteds’. Despite our rise recently, we have been thrashed by the big and medium boys on several occasions, also losing to Cyprus and Liechtenstein. Any mention of pre-qualifying, therefore, sends shivers down my spine. Here’s why.
Gibraltar, in their application package, ended their plea to UEFA with not what Gibraltar can do for them, but rather what UEFA can do for Gibraltar. Before considering pre-qualification, it is also important to understand what these countries, or colonies, gain from being part of it all. The two big benefits which the GFA saw from entering UEFA was the sporting and technical development of the game. Firstly, “membership of UEFA will ensure that future players are given the necessary encouragement and exposure to develop and progress the sport on the Rock.”
This is a key argument, which some often gloss over. While the fans and pundits in Europe’s top twenty or thirty countries certainly don’t look forward to having to play in Gibraltar on a Sunday night, it must also be considered how the fans and pundits of the bottom 20 feel about it all. A major problem cited with Gibraltarian football pre-UEFA was that the colony had very little way of attracting larger teams to play against them, and the same would go for players playing for them.
Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that Gibraltar was to now have a top player on their hands; someone so naturally gifted that he would succeed despite the sporting conditions in the country. Then let’s consider that pre-qualification had been implemented. This player would have to consider that, surrounded by amateur players, Gibraltar would likely not even reach the qualification proper, and his international experience would therefore be limited to playing Luxembourg, San Marino and Kazakhstan.
Gibraltar freely admit – even going so far as to say so in their UEFA application – that football on the Rock is caught in a “downward spiral […] for the past few years.” Lack of exposure is key to this problem, and putting yet another blockade between them and full international football would seem to be counter-intuitive. The changing fortunes of countries, arguably made possible by the open format, would also make it difficult to adequately rate countries. The current system of FIFA rankings already is a hindrance to some, but an accomplishable task nonetheless. Some countries relish the challenge and take it on with great success; many others abandon hope and turn their attentions elsewhere.
UEFA membership has additionally been a definite boost to the coffers of Gibraltarian football. An 8,000 capacity stadium is already in the works, where the national team can finally play on home turf. Club sides will also benefit in other ways, with compensation from national team involvement being significant (around €566,000 was shared between Sammarinese clubs from Euro 2012 qualification), and that’s not to mention the increasingly big pay-outs for Champions League and Europa League involvement.
So while Gibraltar might not ever qualify for the World Cup, if accepted into FIFA, or the European Championships, it would seem to be in their rights to try. The money they receive and the benefits of being able to pit their wits against the very best of European football are both instrumental in giving Gibraltar the best possible platform on which to mount that challenge. UEFA’s mission statement clearly says that its goal is to “promote, protect and develop European football at every level of the game”. This would seem to go in favour of Gibraltar’s inclusion, and to be fair to them, they have not officially proposed any form of pre-qualification.
On the matter of the comparison to other continents, it is also important to consider that those federations might not have found the perfect solution either. Not long ago, Bhutan, at the time the lowest ranked country in the FIFA rankings, pulled off a fantastical upset as they progressed from the first round of qualifying in Asia, beating Sri Lanka over two legs. Over 25,000 people turned up for the historic home tie, with many reportedly being turned away at the gate.
The issue, of course, is that this is a complicated one. Would Bhutan have done even worse had they been mixed in with South Korea and Australia from the start of qualifying? Or would the players have been inspired by these giants and have already beaten them in front of adoring fans? It is impossible to tell, and any speculation would only be that. John Duerden, an Asian football expert, does point out that if Bhutan had been eliminated in the first round, they would have no official FIFA matches until the next qualification round for the 2022 World Cup.
As for Gibraltar, Dennis Beiso, the chief executive of the GFA, remarked that the situation now is not even comparable with what it was before, with attendances, youth football and the women’s league all rising exponentially since Gibraltarian football was invited into Europe’s bosom. He adds that “football can give identity a focus”, emphasising that “to see ourselves up against the likes of Germany, Holland, England: it’s hugely significant and symbolic.”
Gibraltar’s inclusion in UEFA and FIFA will surely remain disputed for some time. Given their talent pool of around 600-700, their inclusion in qualification will undoubtedly also be a sticking point for many. Will football in the tiny colony ever get better? Beiso doesn’t know but is ecstatic to see his team be where they are: “Yes, we’ll get beaten. Yes, we’re a small country. But we’re at the same table.”
By Tryggvi Kristjánsson. Follow @DrHahntastic