After decades of struggle to be accepted as a football nation, Gibraltarian football celebrates in style.
The Victoria Stadium held its breath. Finally in their proud home, Gibraltar’s homecoming in international football was deadlocked against Latvia.
With the game heading into the final minutes destined for a draw, the home side were awarded a free kick on the edge of the box. Step forward Liam Walker. With a wicked deflection the ball trickled into the Latvian net sparking scenes of pure jubilation.
The Reds held on to record a deserved, historic win. Their first as a FIFA nation, their second as a UEFA nation and, more importantly to the proud Gibraltarians, their first victory on home soil.
The Victoria Stadium, with the Rock as its stunning backdrop, opened in 1926 and was rebuilt in 1971 by the Royal Engineers. When Gibraltar were finally accepted by UEFA in May 2013, the stadium was not deemed to be of sufficient standard for competition. On 13th May 2016, the Rock could finally boast a FIFA affiliated team after endless attempts, intervention from the Court of Arbitration for Sport and intense Spanish opposition.
Forced to play 247 miles away in Faro, Portugal, Team 54 (the nickname given after becoming UEFA’s 54th member) faced Slovakia in their first official international match, managing a superb goalless draw.
A Kyle Casciaro volley gave the side their first official victory as his effort was enough to see off Malta in June 2014, again in Portugal.
Gibraltarian side Lincoln Red Imps ensured they went down in football history by beating Scottish giants Celtic in the first leg of the 2016/2017 Champions League second qualifying round. Gibraltarian football was put on the map to an extent. The Daily Record (1) ran with: “Take a look back as Hoops lose to minnows in Champions League qualifier” before going on to call the result “incredible”.
The 1713 Treaty of Utrecht resulted in Britain securing Gibraltar. Captured by an Anglo-Dutch fleet nine years prior, control of the Rock was finally ceded to Britain to ensure they withdrew from the War of Spanish Succession.
Ever since, Spain has highly contested the sovereignty of the Rock. The Siege of 1727 and the French backed Great Siege of Gibraltar (1779 – 1783) failed and Gibraltar remained under British command. Located at the gateway to the Mediterranean and at a naval choke-point, Operation Felix was a Nazi plan to capture the strategic Rock, but the invasion never materialised.
In the Gibraltarian sovereignty referendums of 1967 and 2002, 99% and 98% of Gibraltarians opted to remain British respectively. Throughout endless conflict and claims of sovereignty, the Rock of Gibraltar has stood tall and proud; and more importantly, proud to be British.
With plans to build a UEFA demanded Category 4 stadium at either two sites on the peninsula (Europa Point or Lathbury Barracks) coming under severe scrutiny and opposition from Gibraltarians, the GFA purchased Victoria Stadium from the Government of Gibraltar in April 2017 and began to develop the venue.
This meant that the scene was set for Gibraltar to come home. With a festival of international football lined up and a commemorative kit being launched, the 32,000 strong population were elated.
With Gib’s Under 21 side losing 6-0 to an experienced Serbian side and then 5-0 to Russia, all pressure and expectancy lay on the first team; and in particular on the shoulders of Notts County’s Liam Walker. Gibraltar’s number 10 and joint top scorer signed for County after having previous spells with Portsmouth and Lincoln Red Imps after teenage trials with Manchester United, Aston Villa and Everton. One of only two professional players used against Latvia, Walker found himself lining up alongside policemen and customs agents.
With a population of 1.9 million compared with Gibraltar’s 32,000 and a world ranking of 131, 75 places above Gibraltar down in 206th, Latvia offered fierce competition. When experienced defender Joseph Chipolina pulled up during the warm up and with goalkeeper Kyle Goldwin making his international debut, punters could have been forgiven for backing the Latvians.
Lee Casciaro, brother of the previously mentioned Kyle, curled a shot just wide of the despairing Andris Vanins’ post which ended In the Gibraltar number 7 tweaking a hamstring and being unable to continue. Walker’s freekick finally gave the home side their much deserved goal in the 88th minute.
Walker was delighted with the victory in an interview with GBC (2) following the game: “Obviously we were going on the counter attack. I wanted to bring the ball inside and change the orientation on the ball. We won the foul. It was at a good distance and as soon as the free kick was given I knew I was going to go for goal and yeah, buzzing it had gone in.”
Being back home at Victoria Stadium is something Gibraltar and Walker were delighted with: “It’s absolutely amazing! It’s just what we wanted, to be on our home ground in front of our people because apart from us being on the pitch they are the ones who deserve this. The whole game they were supporting us and you can see when they are here it’s a plus for us as well so yeah, really happy with it.”
It has been quite the rollercoaster for FIFA’s newest nation. Sepp Blatter denied Gib’s membership claim because they weren’t an independent nation, despite the four home nations and the Faroe Islands having membership. UEFA accepted Team 54 despite strong opposition from the Spanish. In 2007 Spain threatened to withdraw all of its teams from UEFA competitions should Gibraltar be given membership.
When the sovereign territory were finally, and rightfully, accepted into world football they were subsequently forced to play at the Estádio Algarve in Portugal. So to be playing football back on home soil shows that the light at the end of the tunnel has been reached.
Whilst they will most likely never reach a major tournament, friendlies like the Latvia fixture will give the side good competition and reasonable fixtures. Gibraltar will face Macedonia, Armenia and Liechtenstein in the UEFA Nations League which starts later this year.
So let’s all hope that for a territory famous for a rock and monkeys, the national football team can start making its people even prouder to be Gibraltarian.
Daily Record: Lincoln Red Imps v Celtic RECAP: Take a look back as Hoops lose to minnows in Champions League qualifier. 12th July 2016.
Gibraltar Broadcasting Corporation: Gibraltar v Latvia – Post Match Interview with Liam Walker. 25th March 2018.