BY CRAIG STEPHEN
Perhaps it was the Lincoln Red Imps’ surprise victory over Celtic in the first leg of a Champions League tie in 2016 that should have sent a message to the doubters about Gibraltar’s inclusion with the big boys world of international football.
Forget that the Rock’s most successful club would, inevitably, be turned over in the return in Glasgow, the Scottish champions’ cheeks were a rosy red for some time after the humiliation at Victoria Stadium.
Against all the odds last month Gibraltar won two matches within a week in the Nations’ League; first seeing off Armenia in Yerevan – which had Arsenal midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan in its line-up – through defender Joseph Chipolina’s second half penalty.
They followed this remarkable victory up with a 2-1 home win over Liechtenstein.
With those wins, the Gibraltarians ended a miserable run of 22 successive defeats in international competition since their inclusion in the UEFA family in 2013. These defeats included thumpings from Belgium (9-0), Poland (8-1 and 7-0) Germany, the Republic of Ireland (both 7-0) and even Estonia and Scotland have both put six past the hapless Gibraltarians. Such losses might be expected but the rap sheet also includes humiliating reverses to the Faroe Islands and Liechtenstein, and in September this year they were ranked 198 (between Djibouti and Pakistan).
There was little to even suggest a turnaround in form as early as this year, with a pair of 2-0 Nations League defeats to Macedonia and Liechstenstein.
Since their first foray in international football, all home games entailed a 500-mile round trip to southern Portugal, with the astroturf pitch at Victoria Stadium not meeting UEFA regulations and neighbouring Spain refusing to host them due to ongoing political tensions with the UK. But with Victoria Stadium revamped they are now able to play all home games in the territory.
A simple formula
George Cabrera, who scored the first goal against Liechtenstein, put that win down to a simple case of hard work and unity.
“The team have worked hard over the last few weeks and the hard work has paid off. It’s a great big family we have here and we are all fighting for the same thing; for our country and to make every Gibraltarian proud.
“It is incredible – two wins in a row and to be part of this. It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to me in football. It’s just amazing everything that has been happening at the moment in Gibraltar football. We will keep working hard and dreaming to bring more joys to Gibraltar. In football anything is possible if you really want it and believe you can.”
Perhaps it is the family spirit Cabrera hails that’s rubbing off. Not only do all players and fans of a ‘nation’ of a mere 34,000 people live within a small radius, the 21-man squad for the Armenia match contained two sets of brothers and a few cousins.
The coach, Julio Cesar Ribas, who guided the Imps to that famous win over Celtic two years ago, is known for getting the best out of his players.
The Uruguayan, who took over the job in July, coached Penarol to the national championship in his native Uruguay 2003, and has had stints with Nacional in Paraguay, Venezia in Italy and the Oman national team.
Ribas’ famously impassioned pre-match speeches may have worked a treat but he attributes the turnaround in fortunes to strengthening those family ties.
“We’re not all of the same blood, but we’ve got the same dream, passion and will to win. With that you can strengthen those feelings of family. I want the players to know that when they enter our temple, the Victoria Stadium, their entire history is there, so when they play European giants they know where they come from."
One set of brothers in the squad are the Casciaros – Lee, Kyle and Ryan – with the eldest, Lee, scoring the Imps’ goal against Celtic in 2016 and having 30 caps under his belt.
The policeman puts the pair of wins down to a more professional attitude since the former Uruguayan international took over as coach.
“Julio Ribas has been really important in that aspect, bringing his knowledge from abroad. We have been training twice a week for six months in the build-up to the Nations League – not just in the week of a game, like before. It has helped us bond and grow as a team.”
The Chipolinas – Joseph and Roy – and players such as Andrew and Anthony Hernandez, Jayce Mascarenhas-Olivero, George Cabrera and Jean-Carlos Garcia reflect the cultural diversity of the Rock, that blends Spanish, Portuguese, Italian and Maltese populations. But the bulk of the squad reflects the imperialist origins of the territory and the continuing ties with Great Britain.
Among those are Adam Priestley, who plays in the unlikely setting of Ossett United in the Northern Premier League Division One East. Priestley qualifies having been born in Gibraltar while his father was serving in the RAF.
Jake Gosling has an even more tenuous connection as his father was born in Gibraltar. Likewise, Gosling has never actually played on the Rock, but with a pedigree that has seen him turn out for Exeter City, Bristol Rovers and Torquay United, he has invaluable experience in England.
Liam Walker is, however, born and bred in Gibraltar, and while having played mostly in the southern Spanish region of Andalucia, he has been spotted in Portsmouth and Notts County colours. Two more Gibraltar-born poms, Jamie Coombes and John Sergeant, both of West Disbury & Chorlton of the North West Counties League Premier Division, are also a part of the side.
This is the rag-bag bunch of part-timers and semi-professionals that somehow managed to upset the apple cart in the Nations League.
123 years of football
Surprisingly, the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) is one of the oldest national associations in the world, having formed in 1895.
The game was introduced by British military personnel serving there in the 19th century, leading to the formation of the Merchants Cup, which was donated each year by the local merchant community.
This would be the sole footballing competition on the territory until the establishment of a league in 1907. It initially featured eight clubs, with a club known as Prince of Wales lifting the inaugural trophy.
Between 1949 and 1955 the territory was exposed to the delights of Spanish and international football with several clubs, such as Real Madrid, playing a national select.
Thereafter, there were fewer opportunities for exposure to international matches and it wasn’t till 2007 that the national team achieved some form of success when winning the football tournament at the Island Games in Rhodes, Greece (yes, we know Gibraltar isn’t actually an island).
The GFA became provisional members of UEFA in October 2012, and full members the following year. It was admitted to FIFA at the world body's congress in May 2016.
The Gibraltarians now face Armenia at home before travelling to Macedonia.
In a snowball effect, more of the continent’s island territories are eying up Gibraltar’s inclusion with Jersey reputedly knocking on UEFA’s door. Where will it all end: the Isle of Man? Greenland? The Shetlands?