THE captain of Gibraltar’s football team laughs as he contemplates the task facing his team of amateurs against world champions Germany on Friday.
“To put things in perspective, we have gone from Sunday league football to playing the world champions in 18 months,” Roy Chipolina said, shaking his head in bewilderment. “Sometimes I have to pinch myself.”
Win, lose or draw – and some locals here will be happy if Germany are kept to single figures in the Euro 2016 qualifier in Nuremberg – it’s a victory for Gibraltar just to be sharing a field with a team that beat Brazil 7-1 en route to winning the World Cup four months ago.
After a 16-year fight, the tiny British colony – a rocky outcropping on the southern tip of Spain inhabited by about 30,000 people – became a fully recognised international team when it was accepted as the 54th and smallest member of Uefa in 2013. The move had previously been resisted by the Spanish, who dispute the sovereignty of the territory.
The acceptance sparked wild celebrations in the narrow streets of Gibraltar, some of the biggest parties since one native won Miss World in 2009.
A completely amateur set-up, from the players to the country’s football association, suddenly had to become a whole lot more professional. Within months, they had been drawn in a European qualifying group containing Germany, Poland, Ireland, Georgia and Gordon Strachan’s Scotland.
“We have gone from ten people watching us play to 35,000 people watching us play,” Chipolina said in an interview just off the bustling main street that runs through Gibraltar, which has an area of just seven square kilometres.
The past 12 months has been a year of firsts for the Gibraltarians: A first official game – a creditable, unexpected 0-0 against Slovakia in November; a first (and so far only) win – 1-0 over Malta in June; a first Euro qualifier – a 7-0 loss to Poland in September.
In their two other Group D qualifiers, they’ve lost 7-0 to Ireland and 3-0 to Georgia. No points, no goals.
It’s been a culture shock for the players. Only three Gibraltar internationals play professionally – two of those in the English lower leagues – with the rest having to balance playing the game they love with holding down a full-time job.
Take the team’s main striker, Kyle Casciaro. He is an operations manager for a shipping firm in Gibraltar and works 9-6 Monday to Friday, as well as being on call every other weekend. In his spare time, he plays for Lincoln Red Imps – one of eight teams in the amateur Gibraltar Premier Division. They train three, sometimes four, nights a week before a weekend match. Then there is fitness work at the gym. “Yesterday, I finished work, went home quickly, changed into my kit, had a banana, then went to get the coach to training in Spain,” Casciaro said in an interview during a break from work.
Going on international duty with Gibraltar involves taking a week off work for the likes of Casciaro and Lincoln team-mate Chipolina, who is a customs officer. Representing Gibraltar in ten European qualifiers per year requires 50 days off work and they have only 25 days of annual leave. So, they rely on the goodwill of their employers to accept a request from the Gibraltar FA to take “special leave” for international matches.
“It’s hard enough balancing football, work and family, with your wife nagging at you when you go training every night,” Chipolina said with a smile. “Then you’ve got to use your annual leave for football, so you have to tell your wife we aren’t going on holiday this year.”
Firemen, a policeman, a store manager, a student, a teacher, a researcher – they come from all walks of life to play for Gibraltar.
Admittance to Uefa means Gibraltar’s players are, however, getting a glimpse of what life would be like as a professional footballer. But back at their clubs, life can still be amateurish. Gibraltar midfielder Jeremy Lopez plays in the domestic league for Manchester 62 FC, which holds one of its three training sessions each week on a concrete parking lot behind a hotel. “Can you imagine Bastian Schweinsteiger doing that?” Lopez said, referring to the Germany midfielder he is about to confront.
Because Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium only has a capacity of about 2,000 and doesn’t meet Uefa requirements, Gibraltar have to play their “home” matches in Faro in Portugal – a five-hour drive for the team and their fans, who usually number around 500. A daunting trip to Germany awaits but it’s not the first huge obstacle to have faced Gibraltar’s footballers. It won’t be the last. “It’s going to be a different level, a different planet,” said Casciaro. “I think, to be quite honest, they are going to score as many goals as they want.”