Britain abroad: Rocky road for Gibraltar in Euro 2016 qualifiers
The British oversees territory’s first opponents will be Robert Lewandowski-led Poland (1/16), number 61 in the FIFA world rankings, in a designated home match. However, due to their national Victoria stadium’s capacity being under UEFA regulations, they will have to travel west to Portugal, in Faro, where they are to play all their qualifying games.
GFA, as Gibraltar are nicknamed, plan to build a new ground on their own territory at Europa point (which currently has the territory’s only cricket pitch), to hold up to 10k fans, which is expected to be ready by 2016.
Whether playing on home soil or not means nothing to Gibraltarian natives, though, who are happy to just see their national side playing, after their neighbours Spain have campaigned heavily against them being a UEFA nation. Eventually, they plan to become FIFA member, preferably in time for the 2018 World Cup qualifiers.
With a population of around 30k, not many would have fancied Gibraltar to test any opponents, comparing them to whipping boys San Marino or Andorra. One man who has always been quietly confident about his side’s chances is manager Allen Bula, who was born and bred on the territory that is on Spain’s southern tip.
The 49-year-old former MFK Kosice (Slovakia) academy boss and Robert De Niro look-a-like, who famously helped to develop Chelsea’s star Serbian midfielder Nemanja Matic, has started with so much promise.
Bula took over as national manager in 2010 when Gibraltar were still an unrecognised nation, and playing in competitions such as the Island Games, but has lost just twice from his opening five friendlies under the UEFA banner.
Gibraltar’s first official match was against the very nation that helped Bula’s coaching career, Slovakia, against the very man who was manager at Kosice while the duo were there, Jan Kozak.
Despite Slovakia, currently ranked 45th by FIFA, fielding a slightly weakened side, that did not feature Martin Skrtel or Marek Hamsik, they had a number of experienced internationals. Gibraltar even managed to gain a creditable 0-0 draw in Portugal, that featured former Manchester United defender and Bula’s nephew Danny Higginbotham as a sweeper in a back five.
Higginbotham played in the next two friendlies, which unfortunately were losses to Faroe Islands and Estonia, but, after the veteran retired, GFA have managed a draw away to the former and a home win over fellow minnows Malta.
The man who was charged with scoring the sole goal in that ground-breaking victory was forward Kyle Cascario, who turns out for domestic side Lincoln Red Imps, winner of the Gibraltarian top-flight (now named Premier Division) for the last 12 seasons.
Lincoln are also the first side from the Rock to have taken part in the Champions League, but were knocked out of the first qualifying round this season to Faroe Islands outfit HB Torshavn 6-3 on aggregate.
Cascario’s club currently have nine players in the 23-man squad to face Poland, including national captain Roy Chipolina, who is also joint-record scorer for Gibraltar – with one.
The highest profile name in the side, since Higginbotham retired, is undoubtedly former Hull City and Barnsley right back Scott Wiseman, who currently plays for League One team Preston North End. Wiseman, 28, was a key part of Gibraltar’s first game with Slovakia, surging down the wing, and is set to earn his third cap.
Former Portsmouth player and Gibraltar-born Liam Walker, though, is the star of the team. The 26-year-old playmaker had trials with both Manchester United and Everton as a youth, but currently turns out for Israeli side Bnei Yehuda.
British-based players in the squad are David Artell (Bala Town), Jake Gosling (Bristol Rovers) and former Leeds United youth player Adam Priestley (Farsley).
Other players to look out for are teenager and former Middlesbrough midfielder trialist Anthony Hernandez (currently without a club) and fellow 19-year-old Jack Sergeant (a defender who was in Sevilla’s youth academy).
Southampton youth keeper Will Britt and another former Man Utd trialist George Wink have missed out on the squad again, though. Call-up George Cabrera has been ruled out of the game.
Gibraltar have also been pooled in a tough-looking Group D alongside Germany, Republic of Ireland, Scotland and Georgia. Bula, contracted until the finals, is 500/1 to somehow lead his men to qualify for France 2016. Poland, meanwhile, are odds-on at 4/6, and 9/1 to finish top.