It’s been a long time coming. One day way back in 1997 the British overseas territory of Gibraltar applied for membership of the world’s governing body, which within the rules at the time they were quite right to do so. What happened between now and then is a long story that contains Spanish petulance, court hearings, FIFA meddling and lots and lots of politics.
The Gibraltar/Spain/UEFA case has been well documented over the years, notably by Steve Menary in Outcasts!, but also by numerous mainstream media outlets. The story was dug up again the past autumn as the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruled definitively that ‘Gib’ must be accepted by UEFA, some 16 years on from their bid. So much has been made of the political side of Gibraltar’s efforts to play internationally; indeed there may still be some twists to come, but what of the actual football there? Are the team ready to enter the lion’s den of Europe’s top international teams? Will, as some have suggested, they be ‘just another San Marino’?
With a population of little over 29,000, less than Southampton’s average home attendance, Gibraltar would be UEFA’s smallest member in terms of population and size. In fact the number of people living in the Rock could fit into that minnow of Europe Andorra 3 times, with room to spare.
Going from a non-FIFA setup with no outlet to a UEFA member is a big transformation, but national team captain Roy Chipolina tells me ‘football has already begun to change since we were given provisional membership…the Victoria Stadium has been resurfaced and the ground is now FIFA compliant’.
Currently with his long-term club Lincoln (Gibraltar) Roy has been part of the national team for over a decade now, with their main source of competition having been the biannual Island Games. Gib’s high point in the finals came in 2007 when they won their only gold medal, thrashing hosts Rhodes 4-0 in the final. Chipolina appeared at an impressive 5 tournaments having burst onto the scene as a 17-year old in 2001, scoring twice in his 1st game against Orkney.
‘I gained a lot of experience from playing at the Island Games and have many fond memories’ the versatile midfielder tells me, notably in past tense.
The Faroe Islands used to compete in the games before they joined UEFA and it seems certain Gibraltar will no longer feature. Other obscure, one-off tournaments such as the FIFI Wild Cup were all Gib could muster in the years between their application and the decision, as well as the odd friendly against non-FIFA sides such as Monaco. It would seem that a team who couldn’t dominate a competition such as the Island Games will struggle greatly in qualification campaigns such as the World Cup, but the Gibraltarians do not agree with this theory, a theory put into practice in March 2011.
The Faroe Islands travelled down for a friendly against the Rock which some observers feared would be cancelled by FIFA. Not generally considered in the same bracket as San Marino and Andorra anyway the Faroese had drawn with Northern Ireland just months earlier, and they brought their full team to Gibraltar. The hosts however ran out 3-0 winners, Chipolina grabbing the 3rd in a game he describes as ‘his proudest moment’ in a Gib shirt.
The win gave the whole football setup huge confidence that if they were to one day join UEFA they could compete, and Chipolina explained ‘[the win] gave us belief that we could hold our own vs. the minnows in UEFA’.
Despite this he still expresses the need for a lot of work to rise above that level, and with almost the entire squad home-based Chipolina states ‘you cannot compare our domestic league standard to the international stage’. One player who plies his trade outside the territory is Liam Walker who, coming from a family of Portsmouth supporters, was snapped up by the cash-strapped club in the summer. Walker impressed Pompey when the League One strugglers were thrashed 4-0 by Gibraltar in the summer and he has featured in the 1st-team often this campaign.
Chipolina believes there are others who could cut it at a higher standard ‘In my opinion players like Lee Casciaro, Joseph Chipolina and Brian Perez could play at a professional level’. Chipolina also cites Anthony Hernandez, a teenager who has already trialled with Middlesbrough and scored against the Faroese. Having watched the Gibraltarians at last summer’s Island Games I would agree with the captain, in particular with the case of Casciaro who scored 4 goals in the 2 games I saw him play.
With the national team arguably at their strongest point there were plans for an away friendly against either Andorra or the Faroe Islands, but FIFA and UEFA refused to take responsibility for the game which will no longer happen. However huge strides were made when, for the 1st time, the territory was included in UEFA’s under-19, under-17 and futsal draws. Intriguingly they will meet England in the under-17 draw. It seems likely that the senior team will make their long awaited debut in Euro 2016 qualification, and manager Alan Bula was more than optimistic in his thoughts on that potential campaign telling the media ‘we will not disappoint…we will gain points in our group, and will shock Europe with some good results’.
He went on to state how Gibraltar would become the ‘1st of the smallest nations to qualify’ but his captain is more down to earth offering ‘realistically we know we face an uphill…task and no-one will be expecting anything but heavy defeats from us.’
However he also shares his manager’s belief that they will not be complete whipping boys, telling me ‘I like to think we might pull off a surprise or two’.
For Roy having spent over a decade with the national team being able to play an official international is really the main thing he is looking forward to, although he insists he will not be celebrating until May 2013 when UEFA will announce what is surely an inevitable decision.
So, after an almost laughable wait it seems that Gibraltar will finally be able to do something you’d think wasn’t too demanding, play football. FIFA have already made clear that it is not a precedent, with Kosovo being told to simmer down in light of the decision from CAS.
The endearing, close-fought rivalries with sides like Guernsey and Jersey may well become a thing of the past, but Gibraltar are more than excited for their brave new world. Chipolina can’t wait, with the prospect of leading his nation out for an international something I’m sure he felt at times would never happen. He turns 30 in a couple of weeks and feels he still has a good number of years left in him, citing the goal of representing Gibraltar in UEFA as motivation. And with Liam Walker playing in England, a couple of the squad in Spain’s lower tiers one feels this talented young squad could well provide an upset or 2 as forecast.
Non-FIFA football will lose one of its main, perhaps its most famous flag-bearers, as they move their opposition from the likes of Alderney and Greenland to France and Germany. For Chipolina the chance to play at full international level is the result of hard work paying off, and in his words quite simply ‘it would be the proudest moment of my football career’.
By Ed Stubbs