Football finds its way back across all categories
Tired faces might have greeted the final teams playing on Sunday night, but there were broad smiles around the Victoria Stadium and many a home in Gibraltar as grassroots football made its competitive return this weekend.
Across the whole of Gibraltar, throughout the weekend, youngsters donning their club colours would be seen dotted around at different hours of the day making their way in the direction of the Victoria Stadium
Just a year ago the same facilities would have seen a buzz around the venues as youngsters, parents and friends gathered to take part in or watch the junior and youth leagues during the weekend. The buzz had disappeared since March with the sport feeling the full impact of the Covid-19 restrictions. Until this weekend only practise sessions, limited to clubs only, had been allowed.
The return of the sport might not have been quite the same as the experiences everyone was used to, yet there was an excitement in the air and a positivity surrounding the sport as it made a giant leap towards its path to a semblance of normality.
Clubs, whose survival is also linked to their continuity of the sport at grassroots level, generating income for many, breathed a sigh of relief as teams were able to return to some form of competitive matches. The return would also salvage hope over the concerns on whether clubs would be able to hold on to their sponsors. With club kits donning sponsors names, there was now a significant return clubs could point to for the sponsors.
Futsal, which is mainly focused on the senior players also returned after a similar absence. This side of the sport also having felt the impact with its delayed return having left many doubting whether it could continue its development into the future.
The stands might have stood empty this weekend as parents, family and friends of those participating ventured away from the facilities once they had dropped off their children.
The lack of spectators was still felt around the stadium. From the near empty coffee places in or next to the stadium to the adjacent roads including the marinas which still continued to see lower passage than generally seen during normal weekends when sports was unrestricted.
There was no access to the stands or surrounding areas which would allow them to stay around. At least for some. Those more adventurous and who could not be kept away would find their way to seeing matches, be it through holes in the wall, climbing walls or from a distance through the fences.
Football had returned,
On Friday, the first day back for competitive matches an exhausted looking Desi Curry, Technical Director at the Gibraltar FA had sat by the wall outside the gates of the Bayside Sports Complex last Friday. ‘It’s been a tiring week, I still need to stop a moment to celebrate,” he admitted as he reacted a congratulatory greeting on Friday evening.
The Gibraltar FA Technical Director’s smile however told its own story. Gibraltar might have won promotion to the Nations League C and he was entitled to celebrate this moment, but his smile was very much due to the fact that he was there having just finished watching the last of the youth players leaving the complex after what was the very first day of competitive football for the juniors and youth teams.
Since the end of February Junior and youth football had literally come to a stop. This days before senior football had come to its stop because of the lockdown in Spring. It had already before that been one of the first sports to feel the effects of the of the Covid-19 virus restrictions when parents and spectators had been stopped attending to their children’s matches.
Even though training had been resumed in summer, and although other sports had been allowed to restart their junior and youth competitions, and leagues. Football had remained static as the authorities and the Gibraltar FA looked at an agreed on the suitable protocols which would manage the large number of participants the sport sees. Football after all was the largest of the sports being played in Gibraltar and could attract in any one weekend well over a couple thousand participants.
Even on the same week competitive matches were given the green light there was still ongoing discussions between Public Health Gibraltar and the Gibraltar FA.
Friday was to become a hectic day as football officials prepared for the first day. Strict sanitising measures were enforced by the Gibraltar FA's team of Match Delegates in conjunction with all clubs in order to allow all the youngsters to return to playing “the beautiful game.”
The weekend was to see co-operation between parents, coaches and Gibraltar FA staff. The consequences of not adhering to the regulations were very much at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Club officials were seen on Saturday ensuring that as parents arrived at the gates of Bayside Sport Complex they dropped off their children and did not proceed any further into the facilities. Waiting to head to their allocated venues the young players were ushered around the stadium car park moving teams away from each other. Until they were on the actual playing field.
There were few moans from the young players who excitedly awaited to for matches to start.
The results were clear to see as the matches finished and the children started to filter out of the stadium heading away. Excited voices, smiles and even some singing could be seen and heard during the weekend. On the field even in defeat teams celebrated together the return of matches. There were also the few complaints, small in number though they were, with some disgruntled comments against changes in the rules, formats and restrictions mainly from adults.
However, the return of grassroots football was in sharp contrast with other European associations which have recently seen their own return of grassroots football halted by the spread of the Covid-19 virus. The delay in a return whilst giving rise to many critics had allowed for the authorities and officials to study which was the best route for the best way to return.
A slow pace which will see competitive friendly matches played between clubs, organised by the Gibraltar FA alongside clubs is expected to lead to the next level which should see league and cup matches return.
The 2020/21 season will ultimately be shortened but with clubs adhering to the protocols and guidelines the hope is that the pathway forward now will be continuous. Something only time will tell.