Wednesday, 11 January 2017

FOOTBALL WEEKENDS Gibraltar football feature

Issue 12 April 2016 - by Roy Delaney. Pics by Catherine McCarthy

Football on the rock

Now that Gibraltar have finally been allowed into the UEFA fold after years of trying, and with EasyJet offering dirt cheap flights down that way from a handful of regional British airports, we thought it would almost be considered rude not to head down south and take a look for ourselves. Getting there, however, is a little hairier than you think.

You can see the rock coming from a long way off as you peek out of the plane window. The big chunk of rock stands out like a sore thumb at the end of a long flat isthmus, with a permanent big fluffy cloud sat on top looking every bit like Donald Trump’s comb over. But just as you start to focus on it, the pilot banks around a wicked 270º angle, looping the looming rock, and you start to come perilously close to the water, before touching down on the world’s shortest commercial runway in what feels like the nick of time. Nervous flyers be warned! But when you thankfully hit dry land, practically the first thing you see, aside from that looming lump of limestone that dominates the surroundings, is the territory’s one serviceable football stadium nestled in between the runway and the marina. It’s then that you first get the impression that this island/colony/country thing is pretty damn small and cosy.

Even leaving the airport is a curious adventure. You have to totter across the runway between landings, as it’s the only road into the town centre - the airstrip acting as a kind of broad border between Gibraltar proper and the Spanish frontier. Our digs were on a boat in the harbour less than ten minutes trot from the airport, and just behind the 5000 capacity Victoria Stadium, so we were perfectly situated for plenty of footballing fun. Now as you’d imagine, this isn’t the biggest of places. Indeed, the entire population of Gibraltar could fit inside Leicester City’s King Power Stadium with a little bit of room to spare. But for a place so small it’s got a massive thirst for football. Every bar and restaurant you’ll pass has a match on at top volume at most times of the day, and there’ll be a match on almost any time you pass the Victoria, from late morning until around 10:30 at night - not only from the three principal senior divisions, but from the surprising wealth of women’s and junior leagues this outpost has to offer as well.

So there were any amount of games we could have gone to, but we elected to keep our powder dry and save ourselves for the top-of-the-table clash between The Rock's two most illustrious clubs - Lincoln Red Imps and Europa FC. The Imps have taken the title a total of 21 times in their history - including their present unbroken 13 year run at the top. Together with their opponents tonight they are the only two clubs ever to represent Gibraltar in Europe, and the only one to have won a Champion's League match - albeit against the even more minnowy Santa Coloma of Andorra, but you can only play who's put in front of you. Europa, on the other hand, have spent massively (for this league) in the closed season and brought in a lot of talent from across the border. Both teams were toed and unbeaten at the top of the table, and the only points either had dropped all term had been in a 1-1 draw the previous time they had played. So this was fixing up to be a cracking match.

The El Murga Sports Bar at the stadium is pretty much the only decent watering hole in Gib, unless you have a liking for shiny but soulless waterfront haunts, jolly old English fish and chip pubs, or brightly lit Maltese pool bars. So you’d be best advised to have your pre-match bevvies here, especially as it’s usually filled with the players and coaches from the day’s previous matches all arguing over the finer points of their earlier battles in loud Llanito - the kind of mutant hybrid mix of Spanish, English and I-don’t-know-what that most of the locals seem to speak. Or rather, shout. We ended up going in there a lot on our stay, even if we weren’t planning on going to a match, as it was always a lot of fun. The games are also, as far as we could work out, quite free to attend. Now I may be mistaken here, so apologies if I’m leading you astray, but we just followed the mass exodus of fans from the bar before kick off and nobody bothered to stop us or check for tickets. Another bonus, and a surprise one at that, considering we were about to witness what was to all intents and purposes the title decider.

We settled into our seats in what was nominally the Lincoln end of the big main stand and our eyes were immediately filled with what must be one of the best views in top flight world football. Behind one goal loomed the rock - that massive chunk of strategic limestone we’ve been battling the Spanish over for so many years. At the other end was the airstrip, which apparently offers an impressive sight when the planes are landing, and beyond that the twinkling lights of the neighbouring town of La Linea winking at us through the twilight. And behind the stand at the opposite side of the halfway land you could just make out some ships bobbing out in the windy harbour. It didn’t really matter what the match was like, because if it all got a little boring you could take in the view.

As it turned out, this was fortunate, as despite their recent European adventures, the standard of football was at about the level of fourth tier English non-league. But having said that, it wasn’t without it’s merits. This was clearly a grudge match, and the two highly combative sides soon began to rain in ever-more agricultural kung fu tackles - the most brutal of which left Europa’s number nine with a set of stud marks on his chest that looked every bit like he’d grown a set of gills. This evoked a 30-man skirmish that resulted in one of Europa’s coaching staff to be sent to the stands. The first half finished with honours even, so we decided to spend the second with the much noisier Europa fans at the other end of the ground.

Now, this was better. While the Imps crew sat imperiously but quietly with a sense of winning entitlement, Europa’s Green Machine were an altogether more lively bunch, all drums and cymbals and scarves and singing. Much better fun. However, their mood faltered a little when the Imps scored against the run of play, and it got even worse when, at the death, Lincoln bagged a dodgy penalty, which resulted in another spell of handbags and a Europa defender getting escorted off the pitch. The game finished a flattering 2-0 to the champions, which effectively gave them the title halfway through the season, as there’s not another side within shouting distance of this pair - although they do still have to play each other one more time, as the Gibraltar season is unusually based on a three game cycle - although we suspect that’s easier to get away with when every team is effectively playing at home. That third game is set to be a right old tussle, mind.

So even though the level of football on offer isn’t the best you’ll ever see, it was still thoroughly entertaining, and there’ll always be a game on whatever day of the week you visit - although we dread to think what the standard is like down in the third tier. If you are planning a trip down these parts we’d advise that you keep your eye on the Spanish fixtures too, as just across the border you’ll find the smashing little stadium of the Spanish third tier club Real Balompédica Linense. This good old-fashioned South European bowl of a ground situated pleasingly on the edge of the beach hosts a decent level of football, and has a noisy bunch of supporters too. Sadly we discovered that they were playing Athletic Bilbao in the Copa Del Rey just too late to get tickets, but you could clearly hear the roars from the other side of the border. And if you’re feeling especially adventurous, take the short boat ride over to Morocco (It’s so close that on a clear day you can see it, even from sea level). The nearest decent settlement with a ground is Tetouan, a smashing little souk city about 25 miles into the country where you can see the top flight side Moghreb Atlético Tetuán in action. Unfortunately there wasn’t a game when we visited, but the locals tell us that they can get pretty lively - as you might imagine.

However, if you go to Gibraltar especially to see one of their international matches you’ll be out of luck. The Victoria is relatively tiddly in the international scheme of things, and most nations have more travelling supporters that could comfortably cram into its cosy confines. For the time being the national side is playing their games at Faro in Portugal’s Algarve region. They have to ship out that far as their immediate neighbours in Spain still aren’t terribly keen on helping them out, and were putting up resistance to Gibraltar’s bid to be a UEFA member for decades before they were finally successful. But plans are afoot to knock up a smart new stadium at the desolate Europa Point area at the territory’s southern-most nubbin, so hopefully they good people of Gib will soon be able to see their boys being hammered by the great and good of European football on their own turf in walking distance from their own homes. Because in Gibraltar, everything is within walking distance.

It has to be said that this is one of the stranger corners of Europe. Despite its palm trees and sunny climes they still use British money, there are Marks & Spencers and red post boxes everywhere, and the police wear the same silly hats as they do at home. And there’s not that much to do after dark, unless you can stomach the endless run of mediocre covers bands in the ubiquitous English pubs that you’ll find on every square and back alley. But The Rock itself is well worth the trip, not only for the stunning views and the famous monkeys, but also the miles of old military tunnels and caves burrowed within it. We’d advise getting the £10 tourist ticket to the Upper Rock Nature Reserve which will get you into a whole heap of subterranean attractions and crumbly castles. Just be sure to keep anything shiny or edible away from those pesky apes, because they’ve got fingers like fish hooks!

So while Gibraltar offers plenty of history, some decent beaches, and no end of reasonable eats, the nightlife does leave a little to be desired. But a football fan will never be stuck for something to do of a night, as the astroturf of the Victoria Stadium can offer you up a competitive - if perhaps a little rough and ready - match or two every single night of the season. And if all that wasn’t enough, the Duty Free is eye-burstingly cheap. We legally shipped home four litres of spirits for well under twenty quid, and if you’re one of the few people left who still smokes old school fags, the tobacco is almost obscenely cheap. This trip will practically pay for itself! So go on, you’ve always wondered what the place was like - give it a look!

From the April 2016 edition of Football Weekends. For more info, click here.

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