Pride, passion, humility.
These were the buzzwords for Gibraltar manager Julio Cesar Ribas yesterday as he looked forward to the county’s first ever European Championship game to be played on home soil. Well, on an artificial version of same, at any rate, though the Uruguayan was at pains to insist the Victoria Stadium’s plastic pitch would not make for more of a level playing field against today’s visitors. Speaking in Spanish, the Uruguayan said: “No, no. It’s not a leveller in that sense.
“The level the Irish players are playing at, they should be able to deal with any surface whether it’s artificial or grass.”
Having rightly lobbied hard to have their Euro qualifiers played here, it emerged yesterday that Gibraltar barely made the deadline for today’s game to go ahead as scheduled. The additional floodlighting stacked on top of scaffolding is but the most visible sign of the hard work which has gone into making the Victoria Ground fit for Uefa purpose, with the final green light only given last Thursday when inspectors declared it would be ready for use today. Up until then, the Gibraltar players had to train at another facility, as maintenance work continued on the tiny national stadium.
Ribas, who has been managing on the Rock since 2016 — with Lincoln Red Imps he famously inflicted a humiliating Champions League defeat on Celtic in this very ground — made it clear that it means everything to him and his players to be playing Ireland in their own place.
“It’s absolutely amazing,” he said. “This is where we live and play, it’s where the players grew up and this is the air that we breathe. It’s very important that we play here, not only to develop as an international team, but also to connect emotionally with the people.”
Gibraltar had the youngest squad in last year’s Nations League, a campaign during which they managed back to back wins against Lichtenstein and, improbably, Armenia. Ribas said yesterday that he trusts his young players “implicitly”.
One of them, 19-year-old Tjay de Barr — who was the youngest scorer in the Nations League and is on his way to Real Oviedo — said he was confident that Gibraltar would give a much better account of themselves this time than they did when shipping 11 goals across two games the last time they met Ireland, during the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign.
“One hundred per cent,” he said. “Looking back four years ago and looking now, we have bettered ourselves massively and I believe we have got a chance. You’ve got to believe that in any game, you can win.
“We’ve got a fresh team, a blend of youth and experienced players, which is a good mix to have. You can really tell that the experienced players are looking out for the younger players coming through. At the end of the day, only good can come from that. Playing at home gives us an advantage. Four years ago, things were different — different managers, different players.”
Of course, Ireland have a new manager too — though that doesn’t tell the full story, as Julio Ribas was quick to point out.
“Ireland are one of the best 30 teams (actually 34) in the world. Their players are playing together a long time and we know what to expect. Their manager is new but theoretically not new, as he took them to a World Cup. Ireland know what it takes to qualify for major tournaments. They’ve great players who play in the Premier League but when our players step on to the pitch they will give everything for the country, the shirt, the badge, and the flag.
“It’s for us to write our history now and continue what we started in the Nations League. We have to keep growing as a team, but always working hard with passion and humility.”