It is perhaps an understatement to say that 2013 was an eventful year for football in Gibraltar. As we started the year, focus was purely on futsal, a sport that had been ignored prior to the turn of the year. From the UEFA futsal qualifiers, to the monumental friendly vs Slovakia, this year has provided a number of important moments in the history of football in Gibraltar.
January: 2013 saw futsal take centre stage in the eyes of the Gibraltarian public. As part of the deal to become provisional members of UEFA, Gibraltar were allowed to enter the qualifiers for the 2014 UEFA Futsal Championships. Drawn in a group containing France, Montenegro and San Marino, a team containing of numerous members of the current eleven-a-side team travelled to Nice, with the hope of getting a maiden win in any form of UEFA competition. Whilst a 10-2 defeat to Montenegro was followed by an improved performance in the 6-2 loss against France, Gibraltar found themselves 5-2 down at half time to San Marino, and the dream of getting a first win seemed to have gone. However, the futsal team found a new lease of life in the second half, and scored five uninterrupted goals to secure a 7-5 win against their fellow UEFA minnows.
Also of note in January was a feature piece on Gibraltar in World Soccer, which also had an interview with national captain Roy Chipolina.
February: The focus for February turned sharply back to the 11-a-side game. A friendly in March against the Republic of Ireland U19’s was announced, whilst Liam Walker, at the time a Portsmouth midfielder, scored the two goals he managed for the then League One outfit that season; a stunning free kick versus Scunthorpe and a penalty versus Carlisle. Unfortunately for Liam and Pompey, the team were relegated to League 2, and Liam was not kept on at the club.
March: The main part of March was the U19 friendly vs the Republic of Ireland U19’s. The result was a narrow 1-0 loss for Gibraltar, who also missed a last minute penalty which would have earned a credible draw. Other pieces of news in the month was the BBC World Service covering the bid to join UEFA, whilst Gibraltar player Tarik Chrayeh was selected for the Army Football Association team.
April: Despite being the month before the official UEFA decision was made in London, April was a quiet month. Lincoln had already wrapped up the league title, and the only notable piece of news was the revealing of the new national kits, made by Admiral. A proposed friendly on May 29th was reported, but nothing came of it.
May: Predictably, May was a massive month for football in Gibraltar. The first public show of support from abroad for the UEFA bid came from the Faroe Islands, who since have confirmed a March 2014 friendly at the Victoria Stadium. The women’s U21 side won their first ever game 3-0, against a visiting team from Spain, and soon after, a friendly between a Gibraltar XI and Championship side Charlton Athletic was announced. A variety of news stations worldwide covered the UEFA bid, whilst a friendly between Gibraltar U19 and Cuba U20 was reported.
Then, the sixteen year battle was over. On May 24 2013, Gibraltar was officially confirmed as UEFA’s 54th full member. With only Spain and Belarus not voting for the GFA’s inclusion, the celebrations finally began across Gibraltar, and in London where the vote was held. After the disappointment of the 2007 vote, where only three nations voted for Gibraltar, this news was a massive boost for the future of the game on the Rock. Suddenly, local players could dream of playing in the Champions League and the European Championships, whilst a financial windfall would hit the game, improving the standard immensely.
June: Being made members of UEFA meant changes had to be made to the game domestically. As a result, the Premier Division was expanded to eight teams, with Lynx and College being promoted, whilst Glacis earned a reprieve from relegation. The Under 16’s went off to a development tournament in Albania, whilst the Spanish press suggested that the Gibraltar U19 vs Cuba U20 match was cancelled in controversial circumstances. A further Gibraltar XI friendly was announced, against SPL side Hibernian, whilst the Gibraltar U13 were drawn in Group D of the popular IberCup youth tournament.
Finally, national manager Allen Bula signalled his intention to take the national team to the Euro 2016 qualifiers, signing a three year contract as manager.
July: As the euphoria from the UEFA decision started wearing off, and the realities of where Gibraltar was, and had to get to now they are part of the European footballing family started to kick in, July saw a Gibraltar XI consisting of both established national players, those hoping to make the team for the big games, and the stars of the future on the Rock play two pre-season friendlies against strong, professional opposition. Whilst the Gib XI lost 2-0 to Charlton and 3-1 to Hibernian, valuable lessons were learnt by those involved, and it allowed manager Allen Bula to experiment with players in a low pressure environment; something that won’t be available too often.
Apart from this, the first news about the two friendlies against Estonia were reported in the Estonian press, whilst a futsal friendly versus Malta in September was announced. Whilst the futsal friendly never happened, the two nations have since confirmed friendlies in Gibraltar in January, after Wales pulled out of the three nations tournament. The Gibraltar Maccabiah futsal team also made a good showing in the Maccabiah Games. Finally, the Gibraltar U13’s went to the IberCup and came second in their group, qualifying for the main knockout round. They were knocked out by the Aspire Academy of Qatar, but their performances all round, including against the likes of Olympique Marseille were very promising for the future.
August: The big news in August was that Desmond Reoch was chosen to replace Gareth Latin as the President of the GFA. Additionally, there were new jobs for Dennis Beiso, Richard Manning, and outgoing president Latin. As domestic teams went about preparing for the upcoming season, Lions were off to Spain to participate in the Alcala Trophy.
September: In September, former Stoke and Sunderland defender Danny Higginbotham confirmed his eligibility to represent the Gibraltar national team. Chester defender Higginbotham, who qualifies through his grandmother, was approached on Twitter by national manager Allen Bula, in one of the more unique approaches for a player in recent memory. Additionally, UEFA decided in Dubrovnik that Gibraltar would be allocated one Champions League and one Europa League spot from the 2014/15 season. This meant that the league winners, alongside either the Rock Cup winner or the second place league team for this season can look forward to a campaign in Europe, providing they reach the required licensing demands from UEFA.
In other news, the Estadio do Algarve being suggested as a stadium for Gibraltar’s Euro 2016 campaign started making the news, whilst the groups for the futsal league were set, seeing an impressive 24 teams taking part.
October: In October,the youth teams took centre stage, as the Under 19’s and Under 17’s headed off to Croatia and Armenia respectively for UEFA qualifying campaigns. Whilst the Under 19’s struggled at times, losing 7-0 to both Croatia and Cyprus, alongside a 3-0 defeat against the Czech Republic, the Under 17’s impressed, taking the lead against both the Republic of Ireland and Armenia through goals from striker George Wink. Unfortunately those two games ended in 4-1 and 2-1 defeats respectively, whilst an England team consisting of many Premier League youth players ran out 8-0 winners.
The big news in the senior national team was that Barnsley defender Scott Wiseman would also be eligible to represent Gibraltar. The one time England U20 international qualified through his Gibraltarian mother, and would provide essential strength for the game against Slovakia, which was announced in late October (alongside the Faroe Islands friendly). The domestic leagues also started, as Lincoln beat St Joseph’s 11-10 on penalties after a 2-2 draw. The first game of the season saw Lions Pilots beat Hound Dogs 2-1 in the second division on October 1.
November: November saw the focus turn back to the national side, as they geared up for a friendly against Slovakia. Whilst the team who were in the 2010 World Cup rested key players such as Martin Skrtel and Marek Hamsik, they still picked a strong team consisting fully of professional footballers. The odds for Gibraltar to win the game were as high as 25/1, whilst the chances of a draw were ranked at 10/1. The Slovaks, at 1/20 on to win, would have expected to walk all over Gibraltar and spoil the party on their debut as UEFA senior members. However, Gibraltar put in an incredible performance, and earned a 0-0 draw against the team ranked 27th in the continent at the time. The result gained respect and notice worldwide, with some surprised at how well Gibraltar managed themselves on such a stage. For those locally though, the result was proof that Gibraltar did belong on the international stage, if any was needed.
The Under 17’s and Under 19’s once again saw themselves drawn in UEFA qualifiers, and this time they are both going to the Republic of Ireland. The domestic leagues started to pick up steam, as College and Lynx, the two newly promoted teams, used their new financial backing to power up to the top of the league. Issues over player ‘poaching’ started to arise, as teething issues started to appear now that the game is becoming more professional locally.
December: The year ended slowly in Gibraltar, with the only notable pieces of news being the Rock Cup being scheduled, and more details about the Euro 2016 qualifiers being released in stages. Domestically, Lincoln started to regain points on the leaders, after an iffy start to the season and missing games due to postponement. Their reserves also notched up the first double figure score of the season, beating FC Magpies Reserves 11-0.
2013 has proved to be a massive, filled year for football in Gibraltar. With 2014 promising even bigger things, the new year could not come sooner. For the time being though, I hope 2013 has been kind, and that 2014 brings great things both on and off the field.