The Northern Irish FA have had UEFA membership since year one, when the continental governing body was founded in 1954. Gibraltar’s FA, on the other hand, were only welcomed into UEFA in 2013 after decades of peeking through the keyhole and following a 14-year push for admittance. They are the second most recent member, yet they’re the ones who will have four teams in European competition next season. They’re already ahead of Northern Ireland in the UEFA coefficient rankings.
To determine how many European spots each association should receive, Aleksander Čeferin’s number-crunchers look at the results of each nation’s clubs in continental competition over the past five years. With the current season being Gibraltar’s fifth as a UEFA member, they’ll now have a positive entry next to each of the five seasons being considered from 2019/20 onwards. Coming into this year, they were 52nd out of 55 countries with a points total of 3.0 and next year they’ll be 51st out of 55, having leapfrogged Northern Ireland with their new points total of 4.0.
Lincoln Red Imps, who have won 15 out of the past 16 championships in the British territory of around 30,000 people, have been the major contributors to Gibraltar’s speedy rise up from the very bottom of the rankings, while Europa FC and St Joseph’s have pitched in too.
In the gladiatorial match dubbed ‘the Shock of Gibraltar’ Lincoln famously defeated Celtic 1-0 in the first leg of their 2016/17 Champions League second qualifying round tie – before losing the second 3-0 in Glasgow – but they have put together many other positive results too. They have quickly built up a European résumé that is very respectable for the level at which they compete. In five seasons the Gibraltarian giants have played 16 matches between Champions League and Europa League qualifiers and have won four, drawn four and lost eight, a very decent showing for a club of their resources.
Lincoln and Gibraltar national team captain Roy Chipolina spoke to Tifo Football and pointed to the improvement in the domestic league as one off the driving forces in the continental success. In his view, the lucrative European spots on offer have rejuvenated the whole division and increased ambition and competitiveness, which is keeping Lincoln on their toes. It’s telling that the only year of the past 16 in which they didn’t lift the Gibraltar Premier Division title was 2016/17, when Europa FC beat them to it.
“It’s not easy to win the league any more, as it used to be for us,” the defender explained. “Now there’s no game which you have coming up on the weekend which you think ‘this is an easy match’, as they’re all really competitive and there’s a lot of financial backing now for other clubs. It’s really competitive and great to see, while there are bigger crowds coming to see the games as well. It’s just brilliant to be part of it.”
Another important factor in the improvement of the Gibraltarian teams, and specifically Lincoln, is the accumulation of experience. Practice makes perfect, they say, and the more official UEFA matches these semi-pro players take part in, the more skilled they will become. “I really feel that every year we’re getting better and better and better,” Chipolina said. “We learn with every game and the more games we play at this level the better we’re going to become.”
Perhaps a slight disadvantage of the rise up the rankings is the fact that the winner of this season’s Gibraltar Premier Division won’t now take part in the four-team Champions League preliminary round tournament, a stage launched in 2018/19 in which the champions of the four lowest-ranked leagues meet in one venue and battle for the one berth which permits progress to the two-legged qualifying ties. The Gibraltarian representative will automatically go into the next qualifying round where they could face the champions of UEFA’s middle class leagues, like Poland, Israel, Sweden, Scotland, Cyprus or Norway, and where they would likely be knocked out after just two fixtures.
Even if that does happen, many of these players will actually be able to keep accumulating experience at an even higher level. In addition to the tight clashes with the champions of San Marino, the Faroe Islands and Andorra, many of Gibraltar’s footballers have also tested themselves over the past five years against superstars with salaries that look like telephone numbers, such as Toni Kroos, Robert Lewandowski and Eden Hazard, while representing the national team.
According to former Gibraltar national team assistant coach David Wilson, who also oversaw three matches himself as caretaker boss, the international experience of the Lincoln players – who always make up a huge percentage of the national team squad, with 10 out of the 20 called up for their most recent match belonging to Lincoln – in what he described as “the toughest section of the France European Championship qualifiers” has been very useful in helping them compete against clubs that are, on paper, stronger than they are.
“I spent two or three years with these guys, as the players who have played for Lincoln had just completed a European adventure by playing Germany, Poland, Republic of Ireland, Scotland, and Georgia,” he told Tifo Football. “So they were no strangers to playing against big teams on big occasions and they still have the nucleus of those players. So Lincoln players, and this is something that those in Northern Ireland won’t have had, from overnight membership into UEFA gained experience that you just can’t buy.”
For Wilson, the importance of the acceptance into the UEFA family cannot be understated. He believes it has improved the overall quality of football in Gibraltar, as well as boosting the enthusiasm for it. “Football has always been a big thing in Gibraltar, but it’s the introduction to UEFA,” he said when asked to explain the current positivity. “I feel that once we got into UEFA we kicked on leaps and bounds. The standard has just gone through the roof. It’s gone from Sunday League football to what I would put as a very good level of UK non-league and sort of Conference in five years. It’s a direct knock-on effect of UEFA membership, which brings with it financial benefits.”
Besides the fact that the one or two rounds the Gibraltarian teams have featured in have brought with them a financial injection, the mere fact that these clubs can offer European football has become a big selling point. “Gibraltar has become the first stepping stone to talent identification in Europe,” Wilson added. “If you’re a player and you get to play in the Europa League and the Champions League and you go and do well against some of these teams that you come up against, then that could be your entry [to the big time].”
The location helps as well, as the unique setting means Gibraltarian clubs can attract both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking footballers and coaches. For example, they’ve had 170 Gibraltarians in the top division over the past two seasons and 187 Spaniards, a balanced mix. The fact they can offer a coastal life with sunshine is significant too, especially at that level of football where players have scores of landing spots to choose from.
Overall, it’s an exciting time for one of the freshest associations in European and world football and the journey has only just begun. Gibraltar will always be UEFA’s smallest member, but their teams are thinking big. Any opponent who draws a Gibraltarian side will know they’ll be travelling to a rock, and to a very hard place.