They celebrated in the streets of Gibraltar when the national team was finally admitted to UEFA. There may be only 30,000 people living on the Rock, but it felt like every one of them had descended into the narrow streets and the main square as young and old, player and fan stood side by side, almost all bedecked in the team’s red and white strip as the music blared and the confetti fell.
For all involved it marked a happy end to a prolonged, tiresome struggle for international recognition that began in 1999 when the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) made its initial application to UEFA. 13 years of Gibraltarian frustration, UEFA backtracking, referrals to the Court of Arbitration for Sport and Spanish stubbornness followed, with Gibraltar’s neighbours threatening to pull out of international competition if UEFA welcomed the territory into Europe’s footballing fold.
There’s a huge irony in the fact that it took Gibraltar – with a football association formed in 1895, easily predating those of Spain, France and Germany, amongst others – so long to be officially recognised when they have one of Europe’s longest football histories. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Rock welcomed several Spanish clubs, the pinnacle being a famous 2-2 draw with Real Madrid in 1949.
The battle at times seemed so hopeless that some could have been forgiven for believing they would never see the day when UEFA finally relented and admitted Gibraltar. Indeed, as recently as 2007, Steve Menary, after chronicling Gibraltar’s lengthy application process in his book Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot, concluded: “Spain, it seems, has won again and Gibraltar will not be allowed in.”
Yet, in May 2013, after the Court of Arbitration for Sport had twice ruled in the GFA’s favour, Gibraltar’s provisional UEFA membership was ratified and they became Europe’s governing body’s 54th member. There is still understandable frustration at the ridiculous length of time it took for admission to be granted and the petty politics that complicated the process, but the overriding feeling in Gibraltar is one of elation at the chance to compete against the continent’s finest in the coming years.
Bursting onto the international scene in 2001, current captain Roy Chipolina has seen it all from up close. Announcing his arrival in the Gibraltar side with a brace on debut against the Orkney Islands at the Island Games aged 17, the defender soon established himself as a vital cog in the Rock’s team. In 2007, he was part of the side that took gold at the 2007 Island Games, and four years later he scored in the impressive 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands, themselves members of FIFA since 1988, which proved to the world that Gibraltar was capable of competing on a bigger stage. In January 2013, he even represented his homeland in the Futsal Euro qualifiers, scoring in a dramatic 7-5 defeat of San Marino. There are, therefore, few people better qualified to comment on the territory’s bitter struggle for international recognition.
Indeed, it was Chipolina who led the team out for their first UEFA-sanctioned friendly against Slovakia in November, when 500 Gibraltarians made the 250 mile trek to Faro, Portugal (Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium deemed unfit by UEFA) to witness a superb 0-0 draw. Chipolina, partnering Danny Higginbotham in the heart of defence, was reported by Eurosport to have delivered a rousing speech after hearing Gibraltar’s national anthem played “for the first time at the highest level.”
Coach Allen Bula has wasted little time in supplementing a mainly local-based squad with talent from abroad. Gibraltar have already enlisted the help of several current or ex-professionals, including Danny Higginbotham (now retired from club football but formerly of Manchester United, Southampton and Stoke City), Preston North End full-back Scott Wiseman, Wrexham defender David Artell, and midfielder Liam Walker, who recently joined Israeli outfit Bnei Yehuda after leaving Portsmouth. Bula has left no stone unturned in his search for eligible players, with forwards Adam Priestley and Reece Styche plucked from Farsley AFC (of the Northern Premier League Division One North) and Forest Green Rovers’ reserves respectively.
Yet Chipolina maintains that some of the national team’s home-based players are equally gifted: he has previously said veteran striker Lee Casciaro and midfielders Joseph Chipolina (a distant relative) and Brian Perez are capable of playing at a professional level. For Joseph Chipolina, comfortable either at left-back or as a winger, this seems particularly plausible: last year the 26-year-old impressed in a week-long trial at Leyton Orient, as well as attracting interest from Livingston.
Roy also believes Anthony Hernandez, who scored on his international debut against the Faroes aged just 16, and has already spent time on trial at Middlesbrough, is one to watch in the future. There are parallels to be drawn with Gibraltar’s last wonderkid, defender Jason Pusey, who signed a 3-year contract with Atlético Madrid after finishing his GCSEs in 2006, yet faded into obscurity and has now returned to local football on the Rock.
The hopes are that Hernandez, unlike Pusey, will now have a chance to develop on an international stage with regular, competitive games; Menary’s depressing footnote in 2007 that “any idea that Jason Pusey may have of pursuing an international career with the place that he grew up in are dead” is thankfully no longer applicable to Hernandez.
Despite being drawn in a tough group for Euro 2016, including Germany, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, you get the impression that Chipolina and his team-mates fear no-one. The defender, a customs officer for the government for over a decade, will be looking to make sure Gibraltar give their opponents a thorough interrogation no matter how many star names are in their team.
I was recently fortunate enough to have the chance to put some questions to Roy, and the captain proved very accommodating – as his answers demonstrate.
How important was it to finally be admitted to UEFA after decades of trying and how elated were the players?
For Gibraltar being admitted into UEFA was nothing more than making a dream a reality! It was a very emotional and jubilant day. After such a long battle which began way back in the mid-1990s Gibraltar has become the well deserved 54th member in UEFA. For us, the players, the opportunities that come with being in UEFA are huge and we are just glad to be part of it.
How special was it to be the first man to captain Gibraltar in an official UEFA game?
It was a great honour and the proudest moment of my football career to lead my country out into our first international match. It was a very emotional day and one that I will cherish forever.
Is it true that you gave a rousing speech in the dressing room before the Slovakia game and if so, what did you say?
No, not really. We are a very close bunch and with Gibraltar being so small, most of us have played alongside each other from a very young age. We are like a family. The senior players, most notably Al Greene, Daniel Duarte and myself, are usually going around motivating the rest of the team before a match but as you can imagine the team didn’t need much motivation for this match. We had been waiting many years for this moment. The whole squad knew how much this match meant not just to us but to the whole of Gibraltar! We usually rally together just before kick off and this is what we shared before kick off.
What was the atmosphere like in the dressing room after the draw with Slovakia? The players must have been delighted with the result.
The atmosphere was electric and the team was buzzing. It was very emotional not only for the players but the backroom staff too. Just being able to represent your country in an official international friendly was a dream for all of us but to get a draw against such a respected footballing nation like Slovakia in our first match was surreal. Well, let’s just say, it felt like a victory!
Which language is used in team talks and in the dressing room? Do most players speak both English and Spanish?
Our main language is English but most of us can speak English and Spanish fluently. Our team talks are always done in English but we tend to speak our own dialect which is actually a mixture of English and Spanish (Llanito). People are usually amazed when hearing us talk as we jump from English to Spanish within the same sentence at the blink of an eyelid. It’s unique.
What is the team’s relationship with the community like? Do you think the bond with the public of Gibraltar is stronger because of the small population and your underdog status?
Being that our population is just 30,000 the team’s relationship with the community is a special one, and I think one which isn’t matched by any other nation. It’s as if they are part of the team. We are such a small community that you literally know everyone. Add in that football is followed religiously here in Gibraltar and you get some tremendous support. Though we are considered underdogs I can assure you that the expectations of the people in Gibraltar are very high.
You may not have drawn them for Euro 2016, but how special would it be to play against England?
Being that England is the nation I have supported and the league I have followed since I was a young boy it would be a dream to step out at Wembley and face the mighty England. It’s every boy’s dream to play at Wembley and I am no different.
Did you agree with UEFA’s decision to keep Spain and Gibraltar apart for the Euro 2016 draw?
I will leave any political issues to the politicians. I am just extremely happy that UEFA has finally given me the same opportunity as all the other 53 members, and that is, to be able to represent my country on the international stage.
Does having to play ‘home’ games in Portugal somewhat negate home advantage? What are the chances of being able to play home games in Gibraltar in the future?
I suppose it does. The following we get in Portugal won’t be as much as if games were to be held here in Gibraltar but after our great experience in Portugal and the warm welcome we received by its people I am sure it won’t be long before we make Portugal our home from home.
There are plans to begin the construction of a new stadium at Europa Point. It’s a three-year project and I envisage that if everything goes according to plan, we should be able to use the facilities of the new stadium for the next round of World Cup qualifiers, provided we are given the awesome privilege of becoming FIFA members by then. This indeed would be the icing on the cake! You can watch a video on YouTube called ‘Europa Point Stadium’ which gives a good insight.
How long do you plan to continue playing? Do you have any plans for post-retirement?
At the moment I would like to concentrate on playing for the Gibraltar national team for as long as possible. I have no plans of hanging up my boots any time soon but I do hope that in the future I am able to attain my coaching badges so that I am able to carry on being a part of the building and improving football on the Rock.