Pitchside

Gibraltar FA: Bring on Spain!

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The president of the Gibraltar FA wants to host Spain one day, even though UEFA have kept the two countries apart in the next qualifying session.

Following the shock goalless draw with Slovakia, the tiny British territory’s first official match since being accepted as a UEFA member, Gibraltar FA chief Dennis Beiso told Eurosport-Yahoo! about the possibility of playing England, and extended the invitation to neighbours Spain.

“Playing England is a possibility. There’s every possibility it may happen next year as part of the Euro 2016 qualifiers – we could draw England or any other of the home nations. It’s a very real prospect and I don’t think we’d have to wait very long.

“We’d love to play any British nation in a friendly, next year or sooner. The people would love it and we will explore that – perhaps such a match could also work for the launch of the new Gibraltar national stadium in 2016.”

A match with Spain would have a wider resonance, as the Federation of the world and European champions has repeatedly blocked Gibraltar’s membership of sporting federations, including a UEFA application in 2007.

Indeed, Spain – whose government is in an ongoing territorial dispute with the UK over Gibraltar – voted against allowing them to join this time but, with only Belarus in support, that attempt was unsuccessful.

Their Spanish neighbours are so opposed to the recognition of Gibraltar that UEFA will keep the two nations apart in the next round of European Championship qualifying – but Bieso does not feel this is an immovable barrier.

“We hope we would be able to play Spain – it would be an honour to play against Spain, the world and European champions. UEFA have seen fit to keep us apart – we never asked for that, so I really hope in the interests of football and the spirit of the game that we would play them.

“We would love to welcome them to Gibraltar with open arms, and we would be delighted to do so. We keep out politics and football apart, and we would love to extend our hospitality to our neighbours and the best team in the world.”

Short-term, Gibraltar have friendly matches against the Faroe Island and Estonia in March, and are targeting at least three more matches before the Euro 2016 qualifiers begin next autumn.

Long-term, Beiso and his FA are looking to improve the country’s football infrastructure. For a nation of just 30,000 inhabitants, it is already hugely impressive, boasting a two-division league of 20 teams and a level of participation that is second to none.

“We have begun on a blank canvas – we have a long-standing football culture but not within UEFA. Since acceptance in May we have gone about professionalising on and off the pitch.

“We have a couple of teams in the top flight that will give a good account of themselves in the European qualifiers next season.

“One tenth of the population is involved in the game, whether playing, coaching, administration. I think that makes us the country with the greatest participation for capita.

“We do it all in one stadium, with smaller pitches dotted around it.”

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The development of a new stadium is key to Gibraltar’s future plans. Currently they are only allowed to host friendlies at the Victoria Stadium – capacity 5,000 – and even that is dependent on opposition agreement. UEFA qualifiers must take place abroad, with the Estadio Algarve in Portugal their current home venue.

The proposed Europa Point venue will double the capacity of the existing stadium and fulfil other UEFA criteria. But it will not be finished until around 2016, and by that point Beiso hopes Gibraltar will have improved further.

“First and foremost we plan to begin construction of a new stadium summer next year. It’s a three-year project to move into the stadium for the next round of World Cup qualifiers, provided we have become FIFA members by then.

“UEFA membership has a number of benefits. There’s the financial benefit in funding sources for grassroots and women’s development programmes, so at a technical and infrastructure level we will have development.

“We have a grassroots plan and a grassroots manager to implement a grassroots project in the next few years.”

That grassroots development is key to the future success of a nation that already punches well above its weight in terms of playing personnel. Two of those players – vital defensive pairing Danny Higginbotham and Scott Wiseman – were born and raised in England but have strong roots in the country.

Beiso says the target is to minimise the impact of foreign-born players and to focus on developing local talent.

“Even before the (Slovakia) game we had approaches from UK-based players to join us but we’re not going to go around cap in hand looking for players.

“Danny and Scott have given us vital experience – but it won’t be a case of fielding 11 guys who weren’t born in Gibraltar or don’t have primary links with the country. Both Danny and Scott are well within eligibility criteria (they are part-Gibraltarian).

“We have lots of quality players here so, now we can compete in UEFA competitions at club and national level, we have chance to show that.”

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So how far can the tiny rock nation go? Beiso feels they have already shown the potential to outshine the traditional ‘minnows’ in European football, and is looking further.

“I think we are ambitious but that needs to be tempered with realism: we started with a very clear objective of where we want to be 5-10 years. We want to punch above our weight – we aspire to be stronger than the San Marinos and Lichtensteins, meaning no disrespect.

“We want to be the strongest of the smaller nations, the model for minnows. We have a very ambitious coach (Allen Bula) who will help us achieve this.

“At the moment we are learning with all national associations. We have great relationship with home nations and Ireland, but we’ve also looked beyond the British Isles.

“We had a delegation visit Malta as we are culturally similar to them, so felt there were aspects we could emulate and incorporate into our own system.

“We want to learn from others’ mistakes and include any positive aspects into ours. But it’s not just nations of similar stature and achievable targets – we have looked at Belgium, who operate at a higher level but who have improved hugely in recent years.

“We want to see if we can learn from Belgium in terms of how to improve, and Malta in terms of realistic goals.”

Beiso was speaking to Reda Maher in the aftermath of the 0-0 draw with Slovakia, Gibraltar’s first official match.

Follow Reda Maher on Twitter @Reda_Eurosport

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