Minnows Gibraltar ready for Euro baptism of fire

Andy Scott
1 / 3
Gibraltar's head coach Allen Bula gestures to supporters at the end of the World Cup 2014 friendly football match against Slovakia at Algarve stadium in Faro on November 19, 2013

It was almost inevitable that when the draw for the 2016 European Championship qualifiers took place on Sunday, tiny Gibraltar would find themselves together with Spain.

The British Overseas Territory, little more than a rock jutting out of the bottom of the Iberian peninsula, has long been the source of tension between Spain and Britain.

Spain's political claim to Gibraltar was behind their decision to vote against them being accepted as the newest members of UEFA last year, although that was not enough to block their entry.

It was, however, enough to persuade UEFA to prevent them from playing in the same group in the Euro 2016 campaign, Gibraltar's first with the international big boys, so when they came out alongside Spain in Group C on Sunday in Nice, a quick alteration was made to place them in Group D instead.

Rather than playing the reigning world and European champions, they will come up against Germany, the Republic of Ireland, Poland, Scotland and Georgia.

It is arguably the most daunting of the nine qualifying groups for the 24-team finals in France, but Gibraltar, with its population of around 30,000, are just delighted to be a part of it all.

"We're extremely happy with the draw and we've got Germany there as arguably the biggest name within the group," the Gibraltar Football Association's CEO Dennis Beiso, told AFP.

"But also the fact that we've drawn Scotland and the Republic of Ireland is very symbolic. We have excellent relations with both associations, we have done for a good number of years now, and to be able to welcome them to our home away from home in Portugal, but also to be able to go to Dublin and Glasgow, is just absolutely tremendous for us."

Just as they did in November, when they held Slovakia to a goalless draw in a friendly, Gibraltar will play their games in Faro on Portugal's Algarve while they await construction of an 8,000-capacity venue on the rock itself.

That, Beiso says, will be ready by September 2016, when they hope to have been accepted by FIFA to play a part in qualifying for the 2018 World Cup.

- 'Momentous change' -

He admits the step up to the international big time has led to a "momentous change on and off the pitch" for Gibraltar, but now the preparations will begin in earnest for their opening qualifier, which will be at 'home' in Faro against Poland on Sunday, September 7.

Gibraltar have implemented the same eligibility rules as the home nations, meaning that any player wishing to represent the national team must either have been born there or have direct family links.

The 49-year-old coach Allen Bula admits that his talent pool is probably the smallest of any UEFA member as a result - even San Marino has a population of 33,000. But he has introduced British-based professionals such as veteran former Manchester United defender Danny Higginbotham and Scott Wiseman of Preston North End to help out the team.

"I'm looking at the long-term. I need the right balance and the right players to give us more professionalism on and off the field and help our local players who have been there for quite a lot of years," said Bula.

He was delighted to see Gibraltar drawn with Scotland, acknowledging that it will be a special occasion for his Scottish assistant David Wilson. But understandably the team's aims will be modest during the coming campaign.

"We want to have a dignified run through the qualifiers, to give a good account of ourselves against Germany in particular, and also perhaps try to finish fourth or fifth within the group. That would be a tremendous achievement," said Beiso.

As for their feelings when they saw Gibraltar initially paired with Spain, Bula expressed his wish that one day the two neighbours will be allowed to meet on the pitch.

"We smiled because we had the feeling that could happen (with the draw). I would have liked to have played in that group and I am sure that in the future football will be above politics."