Sports

From Sunday league to playing the world champions: Gibraltar's amateurs set for game of lives

  • FILE - This is a Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014 file photo of Gibraltar supporters prior to the Euro 2016 Group D qualifying round soccer match between Gibraltar and Poland at the Algarve stadium in Faro, southern Portugal. Poland defeated Gibraltar 7-0. Days before one of world football's biggest ever mismatches, the captain of Gibraltar laughs as he contemplates the task facing his team of amateurs against Germany."To put things in perspective, we have gone from Sunday league football to playing the world champions in 18 months," Roy Chipolina said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself." (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

    FILE - This is a Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014 file photo of Gibraltar supporters prior to the Euro 2016 Group D qualifying round soccer match between Gibraltar and Poland at the Algarve stadium in Faro, southern Portugal. Poland defeated Gibraltar 7-0. Days before one of world football's biggest ever mismatches, the captain of Gibraltar laughs as he contemplates the task facing his team of amateurs against Germany."To put things in perspective, we have gone from Sunday league football to playing the world champions in 18 months," Roy Chipolina said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself." (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)  (The Associated Press)

  • FILE - This is a Sunday Sept. 7, 2014 file photo of Gibraltar's Joseph Chipolina, left, as he  tussles for the ball with Poland's Kamil Grosicki during an Euro 2016 Group D qualifying round soccer match between Gibraltar and Poland at the Algarve stadium in Faro, southern Portugal, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014.  Days before one of world football's biggest ever mismatches, the captain of Gibraltar laughs as he contemplates the task facing his team of amateurs against Germany."To put things in perspective, we have gone from Sunday league football to playing the world champions in 18 months," Roy Chipolina said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself." (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)

    FILE - This is a Sunday Sept. 7, 2014 file photo of Gibraltar's Joseph Chipolina, left, as he tussles for the ball with Poland's Kamil Grosicki during an Euro 2016 Group D qualifying round soccer match between Gibraltar and Poland at the Algarve stadium in Faro, southern Portugal, Sunday, Sept. 7, 2014. Days before one of world football's biggest ever mismatches, the captain of Gibraltar laughs as he contemplates the task facing his team of amateurs against Germany."To put things in perspective, we have gone from Sunday league football to playing the world champions in 18 months," Roy Chipolina said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself." (AP Photo/Francisco Seco, File)  (The Associated Press)

The captain of Gibraltar's national soccer team laughs as he contemplates the task facing his team of amateurs against Germany.

"To put things in perspective, we have gone from Sunday league football to playing the world champions in 18 months," Roy Chipolina said, shaking his head in bewilderment. "Sometimes I have to pinch myself."

Win, lose or draw — and some locals here will be happy if Germany is kept to single figures in Friday's European Championship qualifier in Nuremberg — it's a victory for Gibraltar just to be sharing a field with a team that beat Brazil 7-1 en route to winning the World Cup four months ago.

After a 16-year fight, the tiny British colony — a rocky outcropping on the southern tip of Spain inhabited by about 30,000 people — became a fully recognized international team when it was accepted as the 54th and smallest member of UEFA in 2013. The move had previously been resisted by the Spanish, who dispute the sovereignty of the territory.

The acceptance sparked wild celebrations in the narrow streets of Gibraltar, some of the biggest parties since one native won Miss World in 2009.

A completely amateur set-up, from the players to the country's football association, suddenly had to become a whole lot more professional. Within months, they had been drawn in a European qualifying group containing Germany, Poland, Ireland and Scotland.

"We have gone from 10 people watching us play to 35,000 people watching us play," Chipolina said in an interview just off the bustling main street that runs through Gibraltar, which has an area of just 7 square kilometers.

The past 12 months has been a year of firsts for the Gibraltarians: A first official game — a creditable, unexpected 0-0 against Slovakia in November; a first (and so far only) win — 1-0 over Malta in June; a first Euro qualifier — a 7-0 loss to Poland in September.

In their two other Group D qualifiers, they've lost 7-0 to Ireland and 3-0 to Georgia. No points, no goals.

It's been a culture shock for the players. Only three Gibraltar internationals play professionally — two of those in the English lower leagues — with the rest having to balance playing the game they love with holding down a full-time job.

Take the team's main striker, Kyle Casciaro. He is an operations manager for a shipping firm in Gibraltar and works 9-6 Monday to Friday, as well as being on call every other weekend. In his spare time, he plays for Lincoln Red Imps — one of eight teams in the amateur Gibraltar Premier Division. They train three, sometimes four, nights a week before a weekend match. Then there is fitness work at the gym.

"Yesterday, I finished work, went home quickly, changed into my kit, had a banana, then went to get the coach to training in Spain," Casciaro said in an interview during a break from work.

Going on international duty with Gibraltar involves taking a week off work for the likes of Casciaro and Lincoln teammate Chipolina, who is a customs officer. Representing Gibraltar in 10 European qualifiers per year requires 50 days off work and they have only 25 days of annual leave. So, they rely on the goodwill of their employers to accept a request from the Gibraltar FA to take "special leave" for international matches.

"It's hard enough balancing football, work and family, with your wife nagging at you when you go training every night," Chipolina said with a smile. "Then you've got to use your annual leave for football, so you have to tell your wife we aren't going on holiday this year."

Firemen, a policeman, a store manager, a student, a teacher, a researcher — they come from all walks of life to play for Gibraltar.

Admittance to UEFA means Gibraltar's players are, however, getting a glimpse of what life would be like as a professional footballer. When they go away for international duty, players now wear suits instead of tracksuits, stay in five-star hotels and VIP areas, and are even starting to be asked for autographs. They follow a strict itinerary, when two years ago they would book their own hotels and everything would be fairly ad hoc.

But back at their clubs, life can still be amateurish. Gibraltar midfielder Jeremy Lopez plays in the domestic league for Manchester 62 FC, which holds one of its three training sessions each week on a concrete parking lot behind a hotel.

"Can you imagine Bastian Schweinsteiger doing that?" Lopez said, referring to the Germany midfielder he is about to confront.

There are severe challenges and hardships facing Gibraltar's footballers. There is only one full-sized field on the territory, at Victoria Stadium near the border with Spain. The arena has to be shared by teams from all leagues and age groups — juniors to seniors, men and women — so time is at a premium.

Because Victoria Stadium only has a capacity of about 2,000 and doesn't meet UEFA requirements, Gibraltar has to play its "home" matches in Faro in Portugal — a five-hour drive for the team and their fans, who usually number around 500. The GFA is looking into building an 8,000-seat stadium at the other end of the territory but that is years away from being a reality.

And Gibraltar coach Allen Bula said he realistically has a pool of only about 60 players to choose from when he selects his national squad.

Still, Gibraltar isn't complaining, not after what it has been through to get recognition from the global football community. Long-awaited UEFA membership is offering the team and the country new opportunities.

"It's giving us international exposure, free publicity, PR that money can't buy," said GFA chief executive Dennis Beiso, whose target is for Gibraltar to become "the best of the minnows within Europe" on and off the field.

A daunting trip to Germany awaits but it's not the first huge obstacle to have faced Gibraltar's footballers.

It won't be the last.

"It's going to be a different level, a different planet," Casciaro said. "I think, to be quite honest, they are going to score as many goals as they want."