Gibraltar: A tiny territory that refuses to be patronised

Picture: INPHO/Ryan Byrne

Gibraltar have already won their hardest fight. In 2013, 80 years after the national side was created, The Gibraltarian FA was finally accepted as a full Uefa member.

With a population of just 30,000, Gibraltar became Uefa’s smallest member. They were immediately admitted to take part in Euro 2016 qualifying.

In November of that same year, Gibraltar played their first ever officially recognised international against Slovakia.

Their opponents were ranked 65 in the world and had beaten Poland in their previous match.

Despite their starting XI containing just one professional player (former Premier League player Danny Higginbotham, who was by then 35 and playing for Chester in the Conference Premier), Gibraltar held Slovakia to a 0-0 draw.

But celebrations soon die down and novelties soon wear off. Between September 2014 and October 2017, Gibraltar played 24 internationals. They drew one 0-0 and lost the other 23.

More worryingly, Gibraltar scored five goals in those 24 matches and conceded 117.

In two World Cup qualifying matches against Belgium, they conceded goals at a rate of one every 12 minutes.

In 2014, I spoke to Gibraltar’s then-manager Allen Bula, who had been appointed in 2010 with the express remit to prepare for Uefa acceptance.

Bula had the smallest pool of players in Europe — around 150 — but was insistent that he and his side never wanted to be patronised, but judged the same as any other country.

“I have always said publicly that I don’t want a pat on the shoulder if I lose matches, just because it is accepted that small nations have to lose,” Bula said.

If we lose a match it’s because I have done something wrong. No one should accept that it’s acceptable for minnows to lose matches, as all this will do is create a safety barrier for many managers, and never push themselves to the limit.

Bula left his post in 2015, and replacement Jeff Wood drew one and lost 16 of his 17 games in charge before also departing.

Wood’s replacement was Julio Ribas, a Uruguayan who had most famously managed Penarol to the Uruguayan league title in 2003.

After several years of wallowing at the very bottom of the international ladder, Ribas’ vision was to remind Gibraltar’s players of their status as standard bearers for their country.

Never must they lose sight of their responsibilities. Generations before them never got the chance to play official international matches.

The current crop owe it to their forefathers to make the most of their opportunity. His pre-match team talks have occasionally reduced him to tears, such is his passion for the project.

Dream big, he tells his players, and you can achieve more than anyone would ever expect.

With Ribas came dramatic, astonishing improvement. In their inaugural Uefa Nations League campaign, Gibraltar won twice including victory away in Armenia against a starting XI that contained players contracted to Arsenal, Chavez in Portugal, and Chicago Fire in MLS.

Picture: INPHO

They finished above Liechtenstein in their group and had a chance of winning it with two rounds of matches remaining.

Under Ribas, Gibraltar have moved up to 194 in Fifa’s world rankings, well ahead of San Marino and closing in on both Malta and Liechtenstein.

Some would suggest that the likes of Gibraltar should be forced to take part in pre-qualifying for World Cup and European Championship qualifying.

Matches against the best (and some of the rest) are so emphatically one-sided that they become meaningless. But Gibraltar have always rejected that notion.

Pre-qualifying makes a hierarchical judgement within the context of something that should be entirely democratic. If club football is ruled by power and money, international football must act as the antidote.

It doesn’t matter what your size, your facilities or your spending power.

Gibraltar really can play

Germany for no better reason than they have exactly the same right as any other country. This team of butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers (actual examples include policeman and customs officer) is international football.

Forcing minnows to play only against their own peers, and you threaten to suffocate their path to improvement.

It wasn’t so long since Iceland were in a similar position to Gibraltar.

Iceland won four competitive games between 2003 and 2011, one competitive game between 1993 and 1997, and two competitive games between 1973 and 1980.

Iceland a population 10 times larger than Gibraltar, but their extraordinary overachievement shows the way.

Even so, the Nations League provides a wonderful halfway house. Gibraltar are included in the competition proper, but grouped in similar company and thus given realistic opportunities to win matches and score goals freely.

They still get the opportunity to pitch themselves against the best in World Cup and European Championship qualifying, and do not overlook the inspirational impact of doing so, but adding the Nations League to their schedule creates the perfect blend.

The next stage of Gibraltar’s process may lie in an outreach programme to source players with Gibraltan heritage, and blend in those recruits without losing the close-knit identity of the team.

Nine of the 21-man squad selected for the Armenia victory were related through either blood or marriage.

Everyone knows everyone in Gibraltar. Change will take time.

For now, Gibraltar are fighting a battle that is skewed towards impossibility. Their latest squad contains players from the Gibraltar Premier Division and the lower reaches of English non-league football, including representatives from West Didsbury and Chorlton, Alfreton Town, Ossett United and Abingdon Town. In a qualifying group with Ireland, Switzerland, Denmark and Georgia, only the latter offers realistic hope of any points and even Georgia are ranked over 100 places higher in the world. They will lose in threes, fours, fives, sixes. They will be patronised and they will be dismissed.

But then time is one thing Gibraltar have. They may not harbour realistic hopes of major international tournaments or glorious victories against the world’s best, but their dreams are no less valid: experience, improvement, progress.

And, above all else, pride. Having battled for so long to belong on this stage, no defeat can be without merit. This is a tiny territory determined to make the most of what they have, and one that refuses to focus on what they haven’t.

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