Gibraltar national teams face daunting task of playing under dark shadow of biggest defeat in European qualifiers
Opinion and Analisis by Stephen Ignacio
Gibraltar national teams at U17, U21 and seniors walk onto the field this Tuesday in their respective qualifier group campaigns for the first time under the dark clouds of knowing that Gibraltar has this weekend gained itself the label of having the worst European record following a 14-0 defeat at the hands of France.
The record previously held by San Marino casts a shadow over Gibraltar football which could take years, even decades, if ever to cast away.
For anyone who doubts on whether players agonised over the result they can be assured that more than a tear was shed behind the closed doors of the changing rooms in France. “It was like a morgue” recalled a senior source. “Players were crying, quiet, sunken heads and not a word spoken, they felt devastated.”
Gibraltar faces a similar daunting tasking at senior level this Tuesday. Heading to play against the Netherlands without key players such as Bernardo Lope, Julian Valarino, Kian Ronan, Graeme Torilla and Ethan Britto (the latter however, could return after his sanction). Even Annesley is among the players doubtful.
And they will enter the field knowing that it will still be fresh in the memory of football fans worldwide, with the news of the record having been broadcast across the globe’s news networks this weekend.
From across the whole spectrum veterans of the game, former players and senior players have send their private messages to players providing them with support in the hope that they can overcome, in the short period available, the nightmare scenario they faced.
Nevertheless, the reality is that, the excellent work done from both the under 17s and under 21s last week in providing performances against tough opposition such as Belgium and Netherlands, respectively, to cast away last month’s heavy defeats as a bad memory, was undone overnight by what was possibly Gibraltar football’s biggest nightmare scenario on the field. Undone by the same team these young players will aspire to play for.
Players looking towards wearing with pride the Gibraltar shirt in the future will, like their counterparts in San Marino, and Malta before that, look into the future knowing that they will now have a steep incline to climb to prove that Gibraltar can hit well above its weight. Just looking back at the many years it took Malta to cast away the shadows left by the 12-1 mauling from Spain is enough to know what Gibraltar can now expect.
The 14-0 result underlined for many international observers the belief that the label of “minnows” might not have been as incorrect as Gibraltar had attempted to demonstrate in past matches.
A decade of progress in which Gibraltar produced wins, unlike teams like San Marino who have yet to win, where they gained promotion from the Nations league D to League C, the astonishing four match run in which they faced solely 3-0 defeats against Greece, Netherlands, France and the Republic of Ireland came undone in a night Gibraltar fans will want to forget but will inevitably haunt them for many years to come. A night when everything, from a depleted squad, to ineffective mindset, to facing World Cup finalists intent on causing maximum damage, came together to produce devastating results. The reality of what Gibraltar faced became apparent early on before the match when officials became aware that France had no intention to just claim a victory but wanted to beat a record.
In football where bragging rights are a huge part of the game the mere presence of such a record will be seen as an excuse to use to label and target Gibraltar football. In contrast for France it was about getting the honours it provided.
This weekend saw how Gibraltar fans reacted to the record. From longtime fans to retired players and coaches the daggers were out to lay the blame on both the head coach and the Gibraltar Football Association and inexplicably targeting also older players.
Fans and former players called for changes at the helm of the Gibraltar national team. Many pointing the finger of blame towards the continued use of a defensive tactic which has seen Gibraltar yet to score in this latest European qualifier group matches. A dismal attacking record with minimal attempts at goal throughout the competition is further aggravated by the fact Gibraltar also had the weakest showing in terms of physicality. France who had scored 14 goals had just as many fouls to their name, whilst Gibraltar who had needed to show some physical aspect to their game had only committed five fouls. A statistic which has been repeated in other matches and has left many questioning the player’s mental approach to matches.
Others called on the more veteran players to step down and give way for younger players to gain experience so that changes could take place. These, however, received with many defending players and highlighting the roles these same veteran players have played in producing historic moments for Gibraltar football which have been celebrated in recent years by even those who have never been involved in the game.
Tuesday will be a day of reckoning for Gibraltar where all three categories going onto the field will feel the need to bring some positive back into the game. Where not only will Gibraltar teams be looking to not be the victims of further heavy defeats, but where they will be looking to change their record offensively and physically. Officials already pointing to how some of this aspects have been raised this weekend.
The biggest test will come at senior level where Julio Ribas, whose days now seem to be counted following the latest result, faces a Netherlands team who will want to prove that the 3-0 result earlier this year was a “fluke”. Ribas will not only need to lift the morale of his squad so that a repeat performance is not seen, but will also have to lift morale to ensure that Gibraltar enters its positively towards its preparations for March’s play-off matches against Cyprus in the Nations League relegation battle.
Having already qualified for the next stage of the competition the Netherlands have nothing more to play for other than pride. Having seen France scoring 14 goals against Gibraltar anything below what could be considered a heavy defeat will be seen as a failure for the Netherlands. The target of scoring 15 something many observers believe could well be in the minds of the Dutch now they have seen France scoring 14.
For the first time in a decade since joining UEFA Gibraltar faces the prospect of heading into the second match of a double header knowing that they could set another record and face having conceded over 20 goals in two matches. The Netherlands needing just six goals to ensure Gibraltar reaches the twenty, a result which for many would not be much of a surprise considering recent performances since the start of the new season.
The backs to goal, ‘leave your skin behind on the field” mentality Julio Ribas tried to enforce across his squad will become more than a mere focal point. Gibraltar will not only have to try and repeat their past performance against the Netherlands but will also have to try and find a way to score. Leaving the field without a single goal will leave Gibraltar with another negative record to look back on, now being the only team across all the European qualifier groups not to have scored.
The pressure on Gibraltar players, who will play their home match against the Netherlands in Faro will be intense at a time when they will be looking to put behind them what will be one of their worst memories in football. Nothing but giving their all will be in their minds, knowing that anything less will be adding to their already tainted reputations before their own fans.
Julio Ribas, who faced making changes to his selection on Saturday due to injuries and absences through sanctions, will also now have to make crucial decisions on a selection which could determine his fate in the coming days.
Play with his trusted players? Or opt for changes which could start the path into a new era?
The Gibraltar coach will face important decisions in which either way he will face critics no matter which he chooses. Playing with the experienced players many have called to now consider stepping down would show his trust in these players who have provided important positive moments for Gibraltar football. Allowing them to have the opportunity to do something to try and cast to one side the memories left by Saturday’s heavy defeat is another option. Any type of heavy defeat would however, add fuel to critics.
His other option, of playing fresh players and bringing in the youth, especially those who did not play on Saturday, would send a new signal that changes can happen. However, the message to the veteran players left out would signal a clear message that their days in international football are now coming to an end. Either a good or bad result would set critics targeting Julio Ribas as the calls for his departure has seen the volume raised this weekend.
As teams walk out onto the field in their respective tournaments what will be certain is that Gibraltar enters into a moment in its football history in which it will need to look deep to find where things have gone wrong and how to put them right. Something which was already scheduled to happen even before Saturday’s results as the organisation reviews all of the campaigns Gibraltar has been involved in and sets plans for the next competitions.
Having gone from ranked 206 to rise up to 190 in the FIFA rankings during the past ten years, to now dropping to the 200s before finishing now at 198, few will feel that Gibraltar has seen any permanent progress in the last years.
Whilst Gibraltar momentarily shook away its image as a minnow or whipping boy in football, and gained the respect from many an international player and coach, its recent results hang heavily on their shoulders. Not only the results at senior level, but also the recent heavy defeats faced last month by the youth teams. Gibraltar football, across all levels will need to look deep at its policies, it’s structures, it’s development plans, it’s resources and it’s future prospect to rebuild and provide solutions which will provide a permanent progression which can be sustained. Even if this were to define Gibraltar at a certain level in football which it has tried hard to come away from.
Whilst one result does not define Gibraltar, the historic result has set the warning bells ringing this weekend at an intensity which the Gibraltar FA cannot ignore and will need to react to if it hopes to keep the faith in football as an important factor in Gibraltar’s community intact. Especially at a time when it has set out to build a new national stadium.
One thing, however, will be certain this Tuesday. Gibraltar’s football national sides will need to know that they have the support of their fans and followers if they are to overcome putting behind them the dark cloud which will linger long over Gibraltar football’s future. The twelfth player which has for so long during the last years dropped from sight, mainly due to the increased volume from detractors and the very defensive game plans that have been displayed will need to once again make its presence known as football will need to know it is not doing it alone. Recent successes have not been forgotten and whilst a 14-0 will haunt us, Gibraltar will still look to celebrate the successes it can achieve.
The big question remains as to why UEFA insists on continuing with the European qualifiers instead of adopting a nations league format.