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Gibraltar: the minnow bites back?

The Gibraltar football team has a long tradition of punching above its weight. This weekend it suffered a 4-0 defeat to Ireland but heads should be held high.

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People used to talk about “plucky little Britain” (that would be people mostly from Britain), but in terms of sporting prowess and punching above its weight is there any country more plucky than Gibraltar? Granted it lost to Ireland in the weekend’s match, going down 4-0, but this is hardly a terrible result from a country whose total population is 30,000 and which doesn’t have a full-sized stadium in which to practice. There are plans afoot, according to the Gibraltar Chronicle, but there are also objections if it goes ahead at Europa Point; and in an election year you can expect any objections to be loud and proud.

Football in Gibraltar has a long history, with the national team dating back to the 19th century, although it really comes to life when UEFA enters the picture. As with so much else on the peninsula, football came to Gib with the military and the Gibraltar Football Association was founded in 1805. This makes it one of the ten oldest football associations in the world, according to Wikipedia.

Gibraltar F. C. was actually set up in 1893 and from 1895 to 1907 took part in the Merchants Cup. In 1902 the military made its football ground over to the civilian population and in 1907 the Gibraltar Football League was established. The first league had eight teams playing and Prince of Wales FC won.

If we skip to the post-war years we get to 1949. Between then and 1955 there was a sort of golden era for Gibraltarian football, with teams as illustrious as Real Madrid coming to the Rock and getting a serious challenge. Then as now the Gibraltarian team weren’t full timers but they gave out an excellent challenge to the people who were. Their draw with Real Madrid in 1949 was something of a high spot for the team.

Readers will have noticed this was some time ago. A rather more clouded episode happened recently surrounding the Gibraltar Football Association’s bid to get into FIFA. In March 1999 FIFA put it forward for UEFA membership but Spain objected because of the constitutional position of the Rock. It took a court appeal to finally get Gib into UEFA under provisional membership in 2006, only to be pushed out after further Spanish objections; in 2012 it regained provisional membership and it succeeded in joining in 2013. It’s been competing at international level ever since, not yet winning a match but saving penalties and scoring the odd goal – and on a national rather than international level, the eight Gibraltarian teams have between them scored 243 goals across 56 fixtures in the past so entertainment value is never lacking.

So when the team gets written off as “minnows, when vitriol like the piece in the Irish Independent comes out and describes the team as a waste of UEFA’s time, it’s difficult not to bridle a little if you have any feeling at all for the Rock. No, they’re not all full-time footballers so any sign of the UEFA Cup, World Cup or any other major tournament is probably some way away. Yes, the team has scored only one goal in the UEFA qualifiers and by all means the penalty-saving goalie is a fireman by day.

But part time footballers, stadiums that don’t have the big bucks thrown at them – isn’t that where British football all started? No, Gibraltar footie isn’t going to be massive business for the foreseeable future and it won’t be paying its players millions; however, for people who hanker for the early days of the game it’s a reminder of where we came from. And if England came from there and ended up where it is, so can others.

P. S. For completists, there’s another country in the tournament almost as small as Gibraltar – San Marino, population 33,000, which gets a mention purely because England beat them 6-0 over the weekend. Which isn’t strictly pertinent but we don’t get to write the phrase “England beat them” very often.

Guy Clapperton is the freelance journalist who edits the New Statesman’s Gibraltar hub. You can also find him in the Guardian, Computer Business Review and Professional Outsourcing which he edits.