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Gibraltar looks at its next decade in football

Opinion and analysis by Stephen Ignacio

Two clean sheets and two victories closed the chapter of the present Victoria Stadium as a Gibraltar squad with eighteen youth players within its ranks. Now setting their own pathway towards a future with a modern state of the art stadium in the offing and within a professional sports scene which Gibraltar football now offers, if at least partially.
The pathway into the next ten years of football, as Gibraltar arrives at the doors of its first tenth anniversary since entry into the international scene, will still bear many obstacles and hurdles to jump over. Professional football arrived but has yet to settle down and take firm roots.
Whilst some of those who played this past week could claim to be professional footballers, all getting paid to perform, there were just a handful who were solely footballers. A large number of the players still juggling a primary job elsewhere with their football careers.
The expectations of the team were, nevertheless, the same as if they had been fulltime professionals with fans still asking for the same level of performance and commitment from them as professionals they see on the screens every weekend in the premier and La Liga. This will, however, be a far distance from arriving in Gibraltar, requiring many young players to take the plunge and move away from Gibraltar before a squad of fulltime professionals will be fielded. Gibraltar’s domestic league, although still working to develop itself into a fully professional league, still far from achieving these aims, too. Not only because of the size of the league itself, but importantly because Gibraltar cannot tap the marketplace it would require to generate the income required to create a fully professional industry across all the top teams in the domestic league, let alone the whole league.
However, even with these limitations, Saturday’s victory was one which settled Gibraltar’s claim as one of the top teams in what is the low tier of European football. A stepping stone which many would have found difficult to believe possible just ten years ago.
Having now beaten Liechtenstein more than once, drawn and beaten Andorra, beaten Latvia, Armenia, Malta and San Marino and also grabbed draws against Grenada, Faroe Islands, Estonia, Slovakia and Bulgaria, during its nine years of football within UEFA/FIFA membership, Gibraltar’s credentials can no longer be seen as that of “the worst team in the world” as one pundit once described Gibraltar, or just a minnow. Gibraltar, will still have its critics even at home, yet even the most critical of Gibraltar’s football cannot deny the facts spelt out by Gibraltar’s achievements.
Against teams who have had decades to develop their football to compete in the international scene, Gibraltar has shown a resilience and determination, which although much criticised locally, has already set the scene for teams to arrive on the Rock with loaded guns and no longer taking it as a picnic where they can grab better goal differences.
The next step to the next level, which would be to establish itself as a team capable of maintaining itself within a Nations League C status could take another ten years in building.
Still a fair distance from competing against teams such as those present in League C of the Nations League, Gibraltar can be proud that in a short space of time it has battled well above its weight and is now a competitor at that mid-level between a League D side and a League C side. Something which just a decade ago no footballer had believed would have been possible.
The development and progress seen within the youth levels, if maintained, could ensure this status is not lost with ease. With more young players now playing outside Gibraltar, including the over 150 players playing in Spanish regional youth leagues, the prospects look brighter for Gibraltar than nine years ago when some of this weekend’s players foresaw for themselves. Clubs will also need to look to develop their youth programmes if they are to retain these players as a source of income into clubs. For this clubs would need to also up their game to provide the standards of youth development programmes where players become assets to clubs and not mere participating numbers.
Gibraltar now looks towards the next decade of football with the prospect of playing in a state-of-the-art stadia, which although accommodating just the 8,000 spectators should be the envy of many in the vicinity.
The facilities itself, once they come to fruition, could itself be a launchpad for Gibraltar’s football into its next stage of development. A stadia that should inspire players to aim for more, as well as provide the facilities from which a domestic league can take off and its national team can be uplifted with should provide for an additional positivity towards the future.
With proper management and organisation across the ranks of all football, and not just the governing body, Gibraltar’s football could see the proposed new stadium as the beginning of a new chapter into upping the game in its bid to become fully professional.
Whilst 8,000 spectators looks as a prospect too far to fill, especially when the latest trends have seen lower than 3,000 fans turning up for international matches, and even less for domestic matches. The possibility of a Brexit agreement which could see a fluidity across its border with Spain opens up new opportunities to see a bigger number of away fans arrive on the Rock in the future.
It also opens up the possibility of Gibraltar’s domestic league reaching a wider audience, opening an extended marketplace if it can find a way of attracting it.
At present Gibraltar football has seen few away fans arrive. The cost of travelling to Gibraltar, the problems crossing into Gibraltar, and the limited transport options to Gibraltar has meant that the biggest crowds were seen during matches such as those in club football competition against the likes of Celic and Rangers. Many of those fans arriving from the Costa.
On the domestic front, Gibraltar’s domestic league has continued to only attract a limited, small football community with limited fan base. A transformation of this, which would require clubs to develop their own marketing strategies to start attracting new spectators and new crowds to the local game and start building a new fan base, could see the number of seats filled on a weekly basis rise, although this will be a slow process which could take decades to build upon. Importantly it would require a new mentality and a new impetus towards building into the future by clubs and relying less on the Gibraltar Football Association whose main role is to govern Gibraltar football and its development as a sport rather than build what are essentially individual business entities, as clubs are now.
The road to the next level in football will be long. It will not be an overnight change once the stadium is built as some believe.
However, a look back at how football in Gibraltar has grown and how it has helped develop the community it resides within can be seen just by looking back.
Once a derelict area, with an unused cinema, sheds and shipbuilding site with a stadium housing a sandy pitch where a sliding tackle will have you cleaning the scrape marks across your leg for weeks, Gibraltar now has a site which houses sports facilities used by some four thousands users every week. These in just three short decades, the latter decade providing the biggest shift in development of the same area.
With a marina close by, a World Trade Centre, (a facility which would not opt to be located next to a non-developing area due to its prestige), a proposed luxury residential development where once a comprehensive and middle school resided and with a luxury state of the art stadium proposed to be built, with shopping mall and residential development within its walls, football will sit at what should be one of the centres of growth in Gibraltar’s development.
As a multi-million pound industry which sees Champions League football, even though at its preliminary stages at the moment, Europa League and Europa Conference League football (the latter of which at least one club has reached the group stage) and where nations such as Germany, France, even England can be hosted, Gibraltar football is no longer merely a sport catering as a pastime for the amateurs as it once was just ten years ago. Football is a growing sector which can tap into the billions generated worldwide from the sport and where even the smallest fraction of these arriving on our shores could become a further pillar in Gibraltar’s economy and the creator of wealth and employment.

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