FOOTBALL FEVER – The football world turns its gaze towards The Rock

football fever

Who would have thought that football fans from The Rock would have such moments of glory on home soil, and before the construction of a new stadium? Most are familiar with the five-hour-long trips to the isolated white elephant Estadio do Algarve in Faro, Portugal, built during Euro 2004 and Gibraltar’s adopted home for national games. Despite an historic 1-0 victory against Malta and steadily improving performance levels, ‘Los Llanitos’ have been on the receiving end of some brutal hammerings in Faro. However, it was the bouncy plastic artificial pitch with rubber balls and a touch of blistering heat, that set the scene for the biggest ‘shock’ in European football history last month. Former European Champions Celtic were humbled by, as the UK press like to put it, ‘a bunch of part-timers’, but I prefer to call them ‘local heroes’. That’s what they are, aren’t they? Lincoln Red Imps was trending on twitter that day and made the international headlines. How did this happen to the mighty ‘Hoops’, the side that not so long ago beat Barcelona in a Champions League Group Stages?

Dodgy Pitch

The pre-match press conference was dominated by the ‘dodgy pitch’ and I was eager to find out what Celtic Captain Scott Brown thought of my question on whether it could ‘upset their rhythm’. He hadn’t seen it yet but he said it would be ‘different’ and laughed off that it could harbour a surprise for them. Efe Ambrose will have nightmares of the unconventional bounce of the ball, mistiming his jump and the talismanic Lee Casciaro just over his shoulder ready to pounce and make European football history. I’m sure there would have been little laughter in the dressing room after the game, but Manager Brendan Rodgers said there were ‘no red faces’.

Lincoln fans and football lovers around the world were rooting for the underdog and you could cut the tension with a knife as the clocked clicked down towards the final minutes. With Lincoln on the cusp of a monumental victory, the red and black colours of the 14-time Gibraltarian league champions swayed in the stands with patriotic pride. It would not be long now, but there was still time for Celtic to hit the bar in added time, making the 1-0 victory ever sweeter and leaving the Scots bloodied and bruised with their tails between their legs.

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Probably the fastest foul in Champions League history went Celtic’s way after approximately three seconds and you could see Lincoln were up for this and willing to fight for every blade of plastic grass. They would take advantage of every slip, loose ball and lack of match fitness as the game wore on. Lincoln Captain Roy Chipolina also said that he and his teammates trained every day ahead of this fixture while maintaining their fulltime jobs. The drag on the ball on the surface may have slowed the ‘Hoops’ passing game, but Lincoln battled at every corner and forced them into making errors. All the Gibraltarian national players turned out big performances, no less than Liam Walker who showed composure on the ball and used his box of tricks to surprise and ghost past the opposition. His left foot was always a danger and a few strikes that tested Craig Gordon worried the Green and White army on a number of occasions. In a 5-4-1 formation fullbacks are crucial both in defence and attack, becoming compact when under pressure and spreading to the flanks to create width. Joseph Chipolina and JC Garcia did exactly that for 90 minutes against seasoned professionals that were intent on bombarding the Imps backline. This was an off game for Celtic with some big name players underperforming and, despite having a goal chalked off for infringement on Lincoln keeper Raul Navas, the illustrious summer signing, Moussa Dembele, was subbed in the second half after a below-par performance. ‘The Imps’ looked comfortable at whatever ‘The Hoops’ could throw at them, snuffing out every dangerous ball and displaying a combined workhorse-like attitude. There was more than one Scottish journalist whispering, “has this guy played pro?” to me as Lincoln began to get the ball down and play their natural game.

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Needless to say, Rodgers was crucified by the UK press after the game who asked him if he thought if this defeat was an embarrassment. His serious glare preceded a sharp, “no, I have been around in the game long enough to have seen results like this.” Rodgers was quick to blame the pitch and ‘a lucky bounce’ that led to the goal as well as accusing ‘The Imps’ of having 11 men behind the ball (was I watching the same game? I’m pretty sure there was more than one chance for the Gibraltarian champions). A side plot from this historic affair is that Sky Sports could be facing legal action from Lincoln Red Imps (at the time of writing) for using misleading facts about the Gibraltarian Premier League club. Believe it or not, the leading UK sports broadcaster was duped into using quotes from a twitter account, @WeahsCousin that published misleading facts about ‘The Imps’ that quickly went viral.

With #LincolnRedImps trending on twitter and another media frenzy swirling, Gibraltar has once again been scooped into the limelight which will surely give a further boost to tourism and marketing/business prospects. I for one am extremely excited at the incremental rise that stands before the Gibraltar brand in the world of football and the respect that it will generate. The local league can expect continued development but there are pitfalls to be weary of that come with success in the world of football when transitioning from amateur to semi-professional. Whereas Lincoln and Europa FC have had a vast amount of funds pumped into their clubs, others will look at dismay at the distancing of Gibraltar’s ‘Top Two’ from the financially inferior sides. However, with this success in European competition, Gibraltar could be awarded another spot in the Europe after leapfrogging Andorra and San Marino in the UEFA rankings for club competitions. A meeting at some point before the 2017/18 season by UEFA will confirm the spot, or not, should other factors come into play that would ‘justify’ not awarding an extra place in European competition. Technically Gibraltar has the required coefficient points to mirror Andorra’s and San Marino’s three spots compared to Gibraltar’s two, so we can all have our fingers crossed.

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This was meant to be a David versus Goliath match, the Imps without a hope in hell of qualifying, but they achieved the biggest upset in Celtic’s history. The Rock always exceeds expectations despite its size and history has shown a siege mentality and stood as a pillar of strength. This regularly seems to transmit itself in local sport with countless athletes across wide platform of sport gaining glory and placing Gibraltar on the map. It is still, however, surreal that when you look at Lincoln’s amateur history and their transition in the last three years into a semi-professional outfit, that this result has been achieved. It’s every boy’s dream to play against one of the big clubs or nations and a bulk of the Lincoln squad would have swapped shirts with some of the biggest international footballers in the world.

The Imps were welcomed to a cauldron at Celtic Park a week later in the return leg as the Hoops rallied to put Gibraltar’s 14-time League Champions to the sword with three goals in six minutes. However, the Imps battled hard and had chances of their own to keep the Green and White army on the sharp foot. The almost 50,000 singing Scots gave it that big game atmosphere that it deserved with Lincoln meriting the full respect of the Scottish champions who will face Astana in the third qualifying round. Every one of those players that participated in the two legs will automatically inherit hero status on the Rock for their monumental achievement. A 3-1 aggregate defeat to a European giant with a 1-0 victory at home is no mean feat. In front of a packed stadium in full voice, it symbolises a true European adventure in modern-day football, an achievement that will ring throughout the ages in Gibraltar’s football history. It’s only going to get better folks. With FIFA admission and the World Cup Qualifiers coming next month, Gibraltar will have countless European and international ties to come, some bigger than others but it’s all good. They will face anyone and on home soil, the Pillar of Hercules and the mighty fortress that continues to hold strong.