Tiny island doesn't have grass pitch
24 November ~ The recent suggestions that international football has lost some of its sparkle is likely to fall on stony ground in Gibraltar. For the British territory, this has been an historic week with Gibraltar playing their first official international fixture against Slovakia on Tuesday. On a night when over 85,000 people made their way to Wembley to watch England lose 1-0 to Germany in a friendly, some 500 Gibraltarians made the eight-hour round trip to Faro in southern Portugal to watch their team draw 0-0 with Slovakia.
"Right from the off Gibraltar competed well against their illustrious opponents with a fearless performance," reported the Gibraltar Chronicle. Illustrious may be stretching the point given that this was an experimental Slovakia XI, featuring just one survivor of the team that had won 2-0 in Poland four days earlier, but in this instance some poetic licence seems understandable. After all, in Gibraltar's last international tournament – the 2011 Island Games – they lost to the Isle of Wight.
Coach Allen Bula said afterwards: "Playing our first game as a full UEFA member is a dream for Gibraltar. In our first match we have done the nation proud and come out of the match with a draw." Bula's nephew, Danny Higginbotham – two years ago a Premier League player at Stoke, now playing part-time at Chester – is the best-known player in a group which includes two other England-based players in Barnsley's Scott Wiseman and forward Adam Priestley of non-League Farsley. Only one other squad member for this week's fixture was based outside Gibraltar – Liam Walker from Spanish fourth-tier club San Roque.
"You've got firemen, policemen, your usual jobs, customs officers and things like that," Higginbotham said of his part-time and semi-pro colleagues. Bula once coached the Under-18s at Dover Athletic, then spent seven years working at Kosice in Slovakia before taking the Gibraltar job. He admits it is not easy being manager of a football nation with the same population as Rhyl. "Sometimes I might have a training [session] set up and all of a sudden some players have been called up to work so I lose them," he told me last week. "It tends to be a bit of a nightmare."
It cannot help either that Gibraltar must be UEFA's only football nation without a single grass pitch. The Gibraltar FA has only one full-size artificial turf pitch of its own, at the Victoria Stadium, which hosts every domestic league fixture. The only other full-size pitch on the Rock is owned by the Ministry of Defence. There are plans to build a new stadium but, according to Bula, this will not be ready until 2016.
The Victoria Stadium will host Gibraltar's March friendlies against the Faroe Islands and Estonia but it does not meet UEFA requirements for the Euro 2016 qualifiers and so Bula's team will be back in Faro for that campaign. Given that San Marino, usurped as Europe's tiniest minnows by Gibraltar, ended their ten-match Euro 2012 qualifying programme with a 0-53 goals record, another 0-0 draw or two then really would be cause for celebration. Simon Hart