GIBRALTAR: The only undefeated national team in all of world football are Gibraltar. To be fair, the team from ‘The Rock’ at the entrance to the Mediterranean have played only one international. That was a goalless draw last night against Slovakia.
Gibraltar are the newest national team in Europe. Their players’ home streets boast union flags, red telephone boxes, fish-and-chips shops and pubs. But they all live 1,500 miles from London and represent a British overseas territory with a 30,000 population smaller even than Andorra, San Marino and Lichtenstein.
The GFA was voted into UEFA at its last congress in London in May despite opposition from Spain. The Spanish government claims Gibraltar as its own and constantly harasses even its own workers travelling across the border. Eventually, after a 14-year battle, even Spain had to surrender to the verdict of the Court of Arbitration for Sport.
Hence Gibraltar made an undefeated international debut in the Estádio Algarve near Faro in Portugal, a four-hour drive north for coach Allen Bula’s team.
His players, drawn mostly from the eight-club premier division, are largely policeman, firemen, customs officers and civil servants. Exceptions are English lower-division defender Scott Wiseman from Barnsley, and non-league players such as striker Adam Priestley and Danny Higginbotham, the former Stoke and Sunderland defender. Higginbotham is Bula’s nephew.
Higginbotham, man of the match in Gibraltar’s defensive defiance of Slovakia, is still amazed at this turn of events.
He said: “I had only been on Twitter for a couple of months and Allen sent me a message asking to get in contact with me and it went from there. I was not good enough to play for England so I never gave international football a second thought. I never for one minute thought I would be playing national team football at my age.”
Gibraltar’s eight clubs take it in turns to play their league matches at the 5,000-capacity Victoria Stadium. This is not up to UEFA senior standards, hence the temporary home in Portugal. By the time Gibraltar are halfway into their competitive debut in Euro 2016 they hope to have a new, 10,000-capacity stadium of their own.
That will be good news for the 500-plus fans who travelled to the unique game against Slovakia.
Chief executive Dennis Beiso said: “This means everything. It’s difficult to put into words. We feel we deserve to be here. Our association was established in 1895, which makes us the seventh oldest national association in Europe. Football is a daily passion for Gibraltarians. This has been a historic day for us. ”
Gibraltar was ceded to Britain by the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 and residents have no wish to swap a British passport for a Spanish version. The only good news for Gibraltar’s giant neighbour is that the two cannot meet in the qualifiers for Euro 2016.
As with squabbling Armenia and Azerbaijan, UEFA will draw them into separate groups.
Against whom? No prizes for guessing the answer. As Bula said: “One day, maybe at Euro 2016, I’d love to have England in the same group as us, but I’d also settle for a friendly against them. To walk out at Wembley for me, the players and Gibraltar – that is the dream.”