NOTHING BUT NET – Women’s basketball gears up for youth championship

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It is very easy to be on the receiving end of a brutal beating in basketball. With technique, stamina and teamwork at its core, tactical awareness and cohesion are a must. But without the discipline to work these components into perfection, there is always the danger of a team being torn to pieces by strong opposition within minutes. Mountains become too high to climb and heads tend to drop down to shoulder level. The game is full of emotion and standards with Gibraltarian circles can skyrocket when facing larger nations, which naturally includes most.

Celine King

John Gonçalves, President of the Gibraltar Amateur Basketball Association, considers himself a staunch disciplinarian and believes that the players wholeheartedly subscribe to his methodology. It is only with this work-rate that the Rock can achieve great things within its stature and is ingrained in local basketball culture. John has been around the sport since its embryonic stages and now enters his last season as a FIBA commissioner after serving 26 consecutive years. As full members of the international governing body since 1985, it is important that Gibraltar lives up to expectations, so conversations turn very serious when it comes to international competition.

The Rock competes in the FIBA European Championship for Small Countries and the Island Games, but FIBA tournaments are the ones that take precedence, “Although there are some strong teams at the games, there can be a big disparity between the teams. The reality is that FIBA tournaments represent more of a challenge for our players and is crucial to their progression,” said John. A higher level of competition is decisive in the development of the sport locally and, although professional in attitude, Gibraltar’s leagues remain amateur. We are not talking about millions of pounds flying around GABA’s bank account, they require a more modest approach when it comes to investment in facilities, coaching courses and competition abroad. Having said that, being members of governing body has allowed Gibraltar to take part in prestigious international tournaments and considerable access to professional coaches and courses. Indeed, some local coaches have already achieved entry level certificates that combine well with their experience, considering many are former players themselves.

Joelle Gilbert representing Gibraltar

Gibraltar has gained a glorious reputation over the years as a top quality host nation for tournaments where all are welcome and are surrounded by a professional atmosphere. While the senior teams gear up for the Island Games in Gotland this summer, youth competitions will not take a backbench. Big things are in store with under 18s and under 16s tournaments on the horizon and Gibraltar will take centre stage from July 23rd to the 30th when it hosts the FIBA U16s Women’s Championship Division C. Last year, the tournament was held in Andorra with Gibraltar finishing above Wales in the 5th/6th placed playoff with a 41-24 win. “The bidding process began in September last year, one month before the basketball season in October and there were plenty to choose from,” said John. “Throughout the years, we have gained a reputation of approaching things professionally both on and off the court. FIBA always gives us superlative marks in their reports on any tournament that we host and they go as far as encouraging us to bid for them. I received a call from a FIBA executive when the bidding process was concluded saying that there were no entries for the U16s Division C Girls tournament. He was cheerful on the phone and said that Gibraltar was the first place to come to mind as the ideal hosts, due to our reputation.” A similar outlook was taken by the powers within the Island Games Committee who quickly requested the Rock to take the reins from Menorca that had pulled out as hosts for 2019.

One of Gibraltar’s top players, Anabella De La Chica

In July 2015, I witnessed a team spirit within the senior women’s camp that led them to a bronze medal at the Island Games in Jersey. But the achievement played second fiddle to the feverish elation overwhelming the squad that that dramatically overturned a fierce Guernsey side in the 3rd/4th place playoff. The thrilling 52-48 victory sent a healthy contingent of visiting Gibraltar fans cavalcading down onto the court from the stands. The bulk of the support came from the men’s team that replicated the feat by defeating the same island 66-57 later that day, also claiming bronze. Together, both teams turned the tides of war in a wave of Gibraltarian glory that would give further inspiration to future generations.

One of the key players in the women’s match was team captain Joelle Moreno, whose flawless game led the team to triumph. Now, she will spearhead a new crop of youngsters and nurture them into another force to be reckoned with on the court, “Joelle is a fantastic example for any youngster who wants to make a big impact in the game, despite coming from the humble origins of a small place like Gibraltar. She has played abroad and honed her skills to a much higher level and we are all proud of her for doing so. She is a role model to all youngsters eyeing a spot in the national side in the future.”

Instilling a professional attitude within the camp is paramount so, in keeping with its reputation, the team will stay at the Caleta Hotel and remain in close quarters within Gibraltar colours. It is a tried and tested winning formula going back 20 years that creates a tight bond between players and the technical team that is consequently reflected on court, “It is a perfect way to expose the youngsters, some of whom would be competing in their first international competition, to a truly professional tournament atmosphere. Of course, it would be cheaper to allow them to stay at home and turn up for the games, but they would be deprived of an important learning experience that would eventually help them grow as a player. We are the only small nation that follows this procedure.”

Gibraltar will take on youth teams from Georgia, Kosovo, Armenia, Malta, Wales and Monaco in a challenging group. John says the team is prepared to fight to the last as they welcome the other nations to the Rock and stands a good chance of improving the previous year’s efforts and take the tournament by storm, “They are ready for it. Joelle has them well prepared. We will also be at home and it will surely make a difference out there with capacity crowds a certainty for our matches. This is also a relatively new team, which can happen at youth level due to players being ineligible to compete the following year because of age. We are not too concerned about the results just so long as the players gain the valuable experience from competing at this level. They are like sponges at this stage, so it is important that they soak up as much as possible before they enter the senior arena.”

words | Mark Viales