MADRID: With a population of just 33,000 and barely any professional players, Gibraltar would need a miracle to qualify for the World Cup in Russia, but FIFA’s newest member is still dreaming big.
Gibraltar finally won a long battle with FIFA in June when they were accepted alongside Kosovo to join the European qualification stages for the World Cup, starting with Tuesday’s home clash with Euro 2004 winners Greece.
Despite fierce opposition from neighbouring Spain due to the political standoff over Gibraltar’s status as an overseas British territory, it has been a member of UEFA since 2013.
However, it was only after a successful appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport over FIFA’s refusal to accept Gibraltar’s bid for membership in 2014 that football’s governing body finally backed down.
“FIFA membership was hugely important for the development of the national team,” Dennis Beiso, the general secretary of the Gibraltar Football Association told AFP.
“Had we not acquired FIFA membership earlier this year, it would have meant the national team would have had to wait until 2018 for competitive international football.
“This would have been a sporting nonsense — the national team would be eligible to participate in UEFA competitions, but excluded from FIFA competitions resulting in alternating two-year cycles with and without international football.
“Thankfully, common sense has prevailed and our national team is able to benefit from a normal programme of international competition.”
Whilst the battle has been won off the field, there is plenty of work to be done to make Gibraltar competitive on the pitch. Ten defeats and 56 goals conceded from their 10 Euro 2016 qualifiers proved a baptism of fire.
However, there were brief flurries of hope. Lee Casciaro netted the nation’s first ever competitive goal at Hampden Park against Scotland, whilst many more experienced and established sides have suffered heavier defeats than the 4-0 loss away to world champions Germany.
World Cup romance
A more gentle draw alongside Euro quarter-finalists Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Greece, Estonia and Cyprus leaves Beiso hopeful of steady progress, although ambitions remain limited to securing a first ever competitive point.
“At a practical level there is little difference between the European and World Cup Qualifiers, but the romance of participating in our first World Cup cannot be ignored,” he added.
“Conceding less goals, scoring more, and obtaining our first point in competitive internationals are all realistic ambitions for this campaign.”
One Gibraltan side has already struck a major surprise this season. Policeman Casciaro struck the winner as Lincoln Red Imps shocked former European Cup winners Celtic 1-0 in Champions League qualifying back in July.
“There is no doubt that Lincoln’s historic win over Celtic will serve as inspiration every time our players take to the field during the World Cup campaign,” Beiso continued.
“There is no doubt that, somewhere, at some time, Gibraltar will cause an upset. We are confident it will come during these qualifiers.”
For now, though, Gibraltan fans will have to watch their side from afar with home games for the upcoming campaign continuing to be played in Faro, Portugal, nearly 400 kilometres away.
Plans for a new 8,000 seater stadium have been shelved, whilst the Victoria Stadium — where Lincoln beat Celtic — is at the moment not deemed suitable by UEFA to host international matches.
“The project at Europa Point has, regrettably, been abandoned. There was a substantial sector of the population in Gibraltar opposed to the project and the GFA felt we did not want to push ahead with an unpopular project,” said Beiso.