In May 2013, after a 14 year struggle and fierce opposition from the Spanish FA, Gibraltar was awarded membership of UEFA. Beyond the Gibraltarians, for that is how they’re known, and the Spanish, “who cares?” I hear you cry. Well, as a lifelong lover of the beautiful game who’s become more and more disillusioned by the greed and corruption surrounding it, I do actually.
I love an underdog and I also love to see national pride; in the Gibraltar story, these elements are present in bucket loads. They’ve had to fight the Spanish resistance that began in 1999 and peaked during the 2007 membership vote. Flexing both their football and political muscles, Spain ensured that Gibraltar’s application was met was a resounding “no” with only 3 nations, England, Scotland and Wales, supporting their bid as Spain threatened to withdraw Spanish Teams from all UEFA competitions.
In the big money world of the Champions League, it would have been interesting had their bluff been called on this but, it was not to be. They won the vote and also put pressure on UEFA to change their eligibility rules by restricting membership to sovereign states recognized by the United Nations. UEFA, of course, duly obliged.
Politics and sport are rarely good bedfellows though and this was clearly a case of politics, in the guise of the Spanish claim for Sovereignty of Gibraltar, superceding any tangible sporting arguments. As football’s revenue increases, so does the interest, and influence, of non-footballing figures as acutely demonstrated by FIFA’s decision to grant Qatar the 2022 World Cup Finals.
A country whose extreme temperatures may lead to an unprecendented transfer to a winter tournament and who doesn’t even have their own domestic league gets the biggest tournament in football. How can that happen we all cried! In contrast, although short of funds, Gibraltar has 2 leagues in place which is all them more impressive when reading some of the splendid team names; Lynx FC, Boca Juniors and FC Hound Dogs all sound like teams I’d like to see at some point in the future if only to see the Hound Dogs strip.
Thankfully, the Court of Arbitration for Sport eventually disagreed with these new rules being an adequate reason for exclusion from UEFA and, following 2 years as a provisional member, they were finally given full membership in May 2013 after a vote in London. Only Spain and Belarus opposed them.
And so, after many years of debates and disappointments, on 19th November 2013, UEFA’s 54th and smallest member lined up for its first full international against Slovakia. This took place at the Estadio Algarve in Portugal as Gibraltar’s own national ground, the Victoria Stadium, doesn’t meet the UEFA requirements to host competitive games.
For their debut, manager Allen Bula called upon his nephew, and Stoke City Legend (maybe a strong descriptor), Danny Higginbottom to add experience to his international newlings. And at 34, Higginbottom inspired Gibraltar, with his Man of the Match performance, to a highly credible 0-0 draw.
Following defeats on Gibraltan soil against the Faroe Islands and Estonia, they have since drawn in Estonia and, on 4th June 2014, won their first international at only the 5th attempt against might of Malta, courtesy of a fantastic finish by Kyle Casciaro.
The politics surrounding Gibraltar never stray far from the headlines and, they again came to light when they were drawn in the same European Championship Qualifying group as Spain. UEFA’s Executive Committee acted swiftly and moved our heroes into the same group as Scotland, Republic of Ireland and current World Champions, Germany. As a fan wanting to see them play in the flesh, this couldn’t have worked out any better and for Gibraltar well, it got them out of a group containing Spain and Belarus (who both voted against them remember) as well as a trip to the Ukraine!
So, with a better recent run of form than the England team, it’s onto the 2016 qualifiers. Will Gibraltar win a match? Get a point? Score a goal? Who knows?
The important thing is that they’re in the game and will develop both as a football team and as a footballing nation. Plans are already in place to build a massive 10,000 seater capacity stadium in Gibraltar which, I’m sure, will match the grandiosity of Wembley, the Maracana or at least a top Rymans League ground.
However this story pans out, I view it as a throwback to the days when football was played for love and the underdog was the team you rooted for. Distant memories come flooding back of Match of the Day on a Saturday evening as we sat around the TV cheering home the unlikely victors; Hartlepool v Crystal Palace. Sutton Utd v Coventry. Wycombe v Leicester. Gibraltar v Germany? Maybe not this year, although Scotland had better watch out!