By Howard Green.
Gibraltar, a British Overseas Territory located on the South of the Iberian Peninsula, is rarely spoken about in the footballing world. With a population of 34,000 contained within 6.7km2, you might not have expected the Rock to have a formal competitive football league.
But with the qualifying stages of the Champions League and Europa League becoming home to many Gibraltarian clubs, and also with plenty of exciting young players representing Gibraltar, it might time we paid more attention to football in Gibraltar.
The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) was started in 1895 as football began to popularise across the globe during the 19th Century. In 1907, the GFA started the Gibraltar Football League, with the only competition existing before that being the Merchant’s Cup. The league began with eight teams, later expanding to two divisions.
Much of the format stayed the same until very recently. The most successful domestic club on the Rock had been Prince of Wales FC, which dissolved in the 1950s.
Car le football est bien le sport historique des 30 000 habitants du “Rocher”.
Introduit par les militaires britanniques au XIXe siècle, le 1er club de Gibraltar, Prince of Wales FC, est créé en 1892 et le 1er championnat en 1895. pic.twitter.com/DE7EhJa9dI
— Football Club Geopolitics (@FCGeopolitics) March 3, 2020
The 1950s was the golden era for Gibraltarian football. High profile teams such as Real Madrid, Red Star, and Atlético Madrid visited to play games against the amateur national team, who managed a 2-2 draw against Real.
For much of its history, the GFA had been denied membership of both UEFA and FIFA. That was until May 2013 when Gibraltar became a full member of UEFA, before gaining full membership to FIFA in 2016.
The national team attempted to qualify for both European Championships in 2016 and 2020 and the World Cup 2018, but unfortunately lost all of their matches. They would later taste some success in the Nations League after beating both Armenia and Liechtenstein, but that still wasn’t enough to be promoted to Division C.
Format & Competitions
There are currently three domestic senior men’s tournaments in Gibraltar. Since being reformed at the start of the 2019/20 season, there has only been one senior tier in Gibraltar, known as The Gibraltar National League.
Although the reforming of the league came at the unfortunate expense of dissolving a number of clubs, it now makes sense that all football Gibraltar is united in one league. 12 teams competed in the 2019/20 season, with each team facing each other once before the league splitting in half.
The top half, the Championship Group, compete for the title and a place in the qualifying stages of the Champions League or Europa League, with each of them playing each other twice. The bottom half, the Challenge Group, compete for the Challenge trophy which gives them a bye into the next round of the Rock Cup.
The Rock Cup is Gibraltar’s domestic cup, similar to many other association cup knock-out competitions but with only four rounds.
The final tournament is the Pepe Reyes Cup, contested between the winner of the National League and the Rock Cup.
Gibraltar also run a league for the reserve teams of all the sides in the National League. There is also a Women’s league and cup, from which teams can qualify for the Women’s Champions League.
Unfortunately, all 2019/20 competitions were cancelled due to COVID-19 and were all considered null and void.
So What’s So Exciting About Gibraltarian Football?
Despite all playing in the same stadium, domestic league football in Gibraltar is competitive. This season, only five points separated first and second before the league was cancelled. But it’s hard not to notice that there are two very commanding teams in the region.
The first team in the top two is Lincoln Red Imps FC, named after the club in England. Having held a five-year unbeaten streak from 2009 to 2014, the Imps are arguably the most successful club in modern Gibraltarian football.
They’ve also appeared in more Champions League qualifying rounds than any club in the league, and are home to the largest number of Gibraltar National Team players. They are the titans of the league, but before the cancellation of the 2019/20 season, were only in 3rd place.
The second top team in Gibraltar are Europa FC. Europa are a recently reformed team and originally found success after finishing runners-up in the Rock Cup in 2014, becoming the first Gibraltarian club to play in the qualifying stages of the Europa League. Since then they have won eight domestic trophies, and even won the league in 2017, ending years of Red Imps domination. They were also top of the 2019/20 league before its cancellation.
Recently the domination of these two teams has come under threat. St Joseph’s FC finished above Lincoln in 2019/20 and also qualified for Europa League. Lynx FC also had an impressive season leaving them in 4th place.
Many times in the past, games have appeared to be one-sided, with Europa recently beating College 1975 12-0, but improvement is being made by all the clubs, and the progress of a handful of other teams in the league this season has shown that the National League is a competitive league.
Fortunately for a handful of Gibraltar clubs, the league is blessed with the opportunity to compete in the qualifying rounds of the Champions League and Europa League. Although these qualifying rounds may seem unimportant to many larger sides, they offer the opportunity for non-professional players from smaller football leagues to compete against big names from other countries.
From a financial perspective, qualifying for Europe will bring a huge financial boost to a Gibraltar side. This is likely what has propelled Europa into becoming one of the dominating teams in Gibraltar.
There have already been two European matches in the 2020/21 season for Gibraltarian clubs. Europa FC took on Red Star Belgrade away in a single-legged matched in the Champions League but lost 5-0 to the Serbians.
⭐Danas igra Zvezda⭐
— FK Crvena zvezda (@crvenazvezdafk) August 18, 2020
Europa will now drop into the Europa League second qualifying round, where they will face Steven Gerrard’s Rangers.
St Joseph took on B36 Tórshavn of the Faroe Islands at home in the Europa League, and only just missed out on the next round with a 2-1 loss.
Lincoln Red Imps did not take on Kosovan club FC Prishtina at home after the match was postponed due to positive COVID tests from the Prishtina squad, but received a bye to the next round where they defeated Union Titus Pétange, of Luxembourg, 2-0. They will face Djurgårdens IF in the second qualifying round.
“European qualification is one of our long-term aims,” Europa FC’s Online Communication director Lawrence Stagnetto tells WFi. “I am sure eventually it will happen as local clubs keep progressing.
“It was always very encouraging to see clubs from small nations such as Cyprus getting into group-stage European competition and with the right ingredients I am sure this will become a reality for Gibraltarian clubs in the not too distant future.”
The Shock of Gibraltar
12th of July 2016. Brendan Rodgers is approaching his first competitive match with Celtic against Lincoln Red Imps in the second round of Champions League qualifying. Celtic had already received a bye to the second round, whilst Lincoln had already battled against FC Flora to get to this point.
Playing at the Victoria Stadium, Gibraltar, the Bhoys were expected to brush off the Imps as Celtic routinely do with many of the smaller sides in qualifying.
Celtic dominate possession and a goal from Moussa Dembélé was disallowed, but the Red Imps went in at half-time with a very respectable 0-0 scoreline. In the second half, Lee Casciaro, the man who scored the Gibraltar national team’s first competitive goal, against Scotland, managed to score the only goal of the game. Casciaro, a policeman in his full-time job, outsmarted the Celtic defenders and fired a shot past Craig Gordon. The Victoria Stadium erupted.
Although Rodgers and his men smartened up in the second leg with a 3-0 win at home, the 1-0 victory by Lincoln remains a huge shock on the European stage. This match did wonders for Gibraltarian teams’ belief that they can progress in European competitions.
The National Team
As with the European qualifying at club level, playing time with a national side offers opportunities for players and will inevitably boost the overall quality of those involved.
An important factor of the National League is that it is relatively diverse. The majority of players are Gibraltarian natives or of descent, however, due to its geographical location, the league is appealing to many Spanish players. It also has plenty of players from mainland Britain. This is a good thing, but having national team game time puts domestic players at a good advantage against their foreign team-mates.
It may appear a bit of a redundant competition to many large footballing countries in Europe, but the UEFA Nations League could prove important for nations such as Gibraltar.
As a bottom-seeded team when qualifying tournaments such as the World Cup and European Championships, the Nations League offers a chance for competitive international success. Their next opponents in the tournament are Liechtenstein and San Marino, so it could be likely that the team achieve promotion to Division C at some point where they will face tougher tests.
Despite the small population of Gibraltar, and its geographical location, it is still a site full of great young players.
The factors previously mentioned, and the recognition of Gibraltar by UEFA and FIFA, has enabled the league to develop some great prospects. There are many young talents within the league, but many have also moved abroad.
A 20-year-old defender, Annesley was born in London and currently playing for Blackburn Rovers reserves. Although not being born on the Rock, he played a year and a half at Lincoln Red Imps and has already made nine appearances for Gibraltar. He is not far off of professional level and could be Gibraltar’s best player.
The 23-year-old goalkeeper was born in Gibraltar and recently made a move from Europa to Glentoran in Northern Ireland. He played for numerous clubs and for the national team before moving to Belfast.
Tjay De Barr
The attacking midfielder was also born in Gibraltar, and is now playing B team football for Real Oviedo. De Barr has an international goal to his name and had an explosive 2018/19 season with Europa.
Although Gibraltarian football is not yet professional, these candidates and a handful of others could be playing professional football in some top leagues, and that’s all thanks to the quality of football many young players are able to experience at the Victoria stadium.
“What we are seeing is the gradual professionalise of players and clubs in Gibraltar, where players are taking the plunge and seeking out opportunities in the pro game,” added Stagnetto.
“Previous to this, the model was our most talented players combining their jobs with playing football in a semi-pro setting, but now many are considering a career in football a real option. This can only be a good thing for Gibraltar Football in the long term.”
One intriguing side of the youth development in Gibraltar is Europa Point FC.
, the chairman and founder of Europa Point and he explained his club’s philosophy.
The club was founded by John Gontier in 2014 amidst the hype of the recognition of football in Gibraltar. The club are seen as a stepping stone club.
Gontier was formerly a youth player for Watford and was unfortunately released in 1978. Always wanting to play professionally, John believed his career was abruptly ended because of what he describe as a “very thin line between playing professionally and being released” as a youth player.
Despite having a career in the civil service and staying involved in grassroots football, he highlighted the issues that the modern professional game has.
“The release of a player does not mean that the player was bad,” Gontier told WFi. “It just coincides with other factors — such as younger players potential and too many players in one position — but young players sacrifice many things, including their studies, for football.”
Gontier has tried to address the issue of young players being left out of a career in the founding of his club. Europa Point aims to sign young players from England, Spain and other places where players have been released by their clubs at a young age.
With numerous accounts of success, Gontier spoke with pride about their first player to go professional — Sebastian Osei-Obengo — who joined Dumbarton in 2016.
“All we can do is coach them the best we can and showcase them in a top tier UEFA league,” he adds.
Europa Point also benefit from having Ian Hendon as their manager. Hendon previously played for many football league clubs in England and also has managerial experience at Leyton Orient and the West Ham development side.
Gibraltarian football can provide some of the most exciting football in the lower leagues of Europe, and it’s important to highlight why fans find football exciting in the first place.
Whether you know any professional or semi-professional footballers, sometimes it’s hard to separate the player and the person. As we are spectators to players, it’s good to remind us that some players are just as human as we are.
This is what the football in Gibraltar shows, in particular in their journeys through European qualifying. Players among a population of around 34,000 are trying to shine, and sometimes succeeding. It’s what is most exciting and reminds us of why we all started enjoying football in the first place.