Minnows ‘Rock’ have mountain to climb

Sunday’s Euro 2016 qualifying draw may have been the first time most football fans in Ireland realised Gibraltar had an international team which actually played in qualifiers.

Minnows ‘Rock’ have mountain to climb

This was understandable given Gibraltar only became UEFA’s 54th member last May after overcoming years of opposition from Spanish authorities, with over 15 years of struggle culminating in a third and finally successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

Germany, Scotland, Poland and Georgia are also in Group D, for what will be a debut international competition experience for the Mediterraneans. Given the colony (officially a British Overseas Territory) measures 2.3 square miles in area, and has a population of less than 30,000, the feeling is that just taking part in qualifying is a success in itself for the team.

The Gibraltar FA was formed way back in 1895, and a representative side played club team Sevilla as early as 1923. Before being accepted as a UEFA member, they played regularly in non-official tournaments such as the Island Games, against teams from Greenland, Jersey, Shetland and the Isle of Man.

Having now been elevated to the elite stage, Gibraltar’s first official international was a friendly against Slovakia last November.

That game, which finished goalless, was played in the 30,000 seater Estadio Algarve, built when Portugal hosted Euro 2004.

Given the lack of suitable sized stadia inside Gibraltar, it is expected the qualifiers will also be played in Portugal — making the fixture set for Friday, September 4 (2015) likely very attractive for Irish travelling fans.

In the meantime Allen Bula’s side have friendlies against the Faroe Islands and Estonia lined up for the upcoming international break.

The 49-year-old manager, who played his football for local club sides, and has since gained coaching experience at Slovakian side MFK Kosice, said in the build-up to November’s friendly that eventual qualification for tournaments was his goal. He stuck to that line when speaking to the BBC yesterday.

“It is a dream come true,” Bula said. “We’ve been waiting for many years to be here and finally reality is kicking in back in Gibraltar.

“I’ve always said I wasn’t here for the sake of just playing. I’m going to stick with what I said. That’s to get to the play-offs.”

Gibraltar’s highest profile current player is former Manchester United and Stoke defender Danny Higginbotham, who is also Bula’s nephew. But Higginbotham, now 35, plans to have retired by the time Gibraltar visit Dublin on October 11.

The minnows’ next best known players are Preston North End defender Scott Wiseman, 18-year-old Southampton goalkeeper William Britt and 19-year-old Cadiz attacker Anthony Hernandez.

Their team-mates are likely to be drawn from the local amateur league, unless some professionals at English or Spanish clubs discover links to the ‘Rock’ now that the draw has been made.

Meanwhile, reigning champions Spain, kept away from Gibraltar in the draw for ‘political reasons’, face Ukraine, Slovakia, Belarus, Macedonia and Luxembourg in Group C. Vicente Del Bosque’s side should have no problems making the finals in France given two teams from each group are guaranteed to progress, but the veteran coach tried his best to argue qualification was not already a foregone conclusion.

“The cold could be an important factor,” Del Bosque said yesterday. “Being all countries in the East, that could be a factor. Although it will be the same for everyone. It is not an easy group.”

Del Bosque is likely to continue in the job barring a disaster at this summer’s World Cup, and the qualifiers could see the phasing out of veterans of La Roja’s 2008 and 2012 victories such as Xavi Hernandez, Iker Casillas and David Villa, with emerging stars like Thiago Alcantara, David De Gea and Jese Rodriguez coming in.

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