Gibraltar take fight to Europe

On the face of it, it didn’t seem that much of an occasion, just a warm-up for the real action. Sure, it may have been Gibraltar’s ever international first match as a recognised nation, but the November 2013 friendly in the Algarve was against an experimental Slovakia side, and ended 0-0. Bigger days surely lay ahead.

Gibraltar take fight to Europe

It was only when those there saw the faces of players, though, that the enormity dawned. Former Manchester United defender Danny Higginbotham (below, right) was making one of his three appearances for Gibraltar that day, and remembers the sheer emotion.

“It only sunk in how special it was, because there were a lot of tears in that dressing room,” Higginbotham tells the Irish Examiner. “It was the culmination of everything coming together, and being able to step out onto that pitch as a recognised nation, and to get the result we got. The emotions that came out after the game were very special. That’s how much it meant, after such a battle.”

An account like that certainly scotches many perceptions of Gibraltar. Ahead of their trip to Dublin today, it would be easy to write them off as a team of part-timers only interested in the glamour associated with international football, with themselves serving as little more than a nuisance. The distinctive political situation of the British Overseas Territory hardly helps, especially given the ongoing dispute with Spain.

All of that would be unfair. You only have to consider the years they spent lobbying Uefa to be recognised. Secondly, many of those amateurs are willing to lose money to play for their country. Some risk their jobs, given the amount of time off they take.

This is no jolly. It’s genuine national pride.

That has been further stoked by the Spanish federation’s objection to recognition of Gibraltar’s team. Spain also refused to play them in qualifying. The Gibraltar team have encountered other difficulties, some of which are felt to be a consequence of that dispute.

When they travelled to Faro for that Slovakia game, it was noted the border crossing had conspicuously slowed to crawl. The squad decided to get off and carry their bags over, before booking another coach, because it was so much quicker.

“It is national pride,” Higginbotham says. “Gibraltarians are a very proud people. If you visit there, you can see how proud they are, proud of what they have, very patriotic. This team is such a big thing.”

Their presence in the Euro 2016 qualifiers, however, has heated up a bigger debate — especially since they were thrashed 7-0 by Poland in their opening game: should teams of such minuscule size actually be allowed to compete? Should they have their own pre-qualifiers first? It’s perhaps a little rich for anyone Irish to dismiss such sides, given that dismissing them on the pitch has been something of a struggle. The home side once drew 0-0 with Liechtenstein in 1995, and could only beat San Marino 2-1 in 2007.

The debate itself does anger those in Gibraltar, particularly Higginbotham. It essentially comes down to elitism against inclusiveness.

“That really annoys me,” Higginbotham says. “Why shouldn’t they be given this opportunity? I think it’s a narrow-minded view. At the end of the day, when the Euros come, the teams that get there will deserve to be there.”

Today, Gibraltar find themselves at Lansdowne Road, which could bring out other emotions in the squad. This is the biggest stadium the majority of Gibraltar’s squad will have ever played in.

“The fear is that they freeze,” Higginbotham says. “If they do, the game will be over within 15 to 20 minutes, maybe earlier.

“You can’t prepare players for that. They train in the stadium beforehand, but it’s empty. Then, when you’re lining up, you see players you’ve only seen on television, you go out, see the thousands of people and this atmosphere, you either sink of swim. The only way you prepare for that is experience.”

It is likely to be a jarring experience for a squad who mostly turn out for three teams in the eight-club Gibraltarian league, and have to play all domestic matches on the country’s single pitch, in the Victoria Stadium. It was also something their manager Allen Bula — who is Higginbotham’s uncle — touched on before the game. The oddity of their league presents other problems.

“A lot of the players are used to winning week in and week out, so it’s a different mentality for them,” Higginbotham says. “That’s one of the things they have to deal with.”

Like many such small sides, they will also have to make the opposition deal with an extremely defensive system — almost backs to the goal-line. At the least, one of the squad’s few professionals plays at the back, and Preston’s Scott Wiseman is expected to take a lead role.

Such an approach worked for a time in the opening game against Poland. It was just 1-0 at half-time. Then Robert Lewandowski woke up.

“I think [Bula, the manager] was disappointed with the Poland game,” Higginbotham says. “First half, they gave a very good account of themselves. Second half, they expected that was the best they were going to get from Poland. They just came to and brushed Gibraltar aside.

“That’s the thing with Gibraltar. What they’ve got to do is frustrate whoever they’re playing against.”

Gibraltar have ended much frustration in getting this far. They’re proudly reaping the benefits.

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