QUALIFICATION for the finals of Euro 2020 was always going to be an impossible dream for Gibraltar, the early promise displayed in narrow defeats home and away in the opening fixtures to the Republic of Ireland failed to come to fruition and bruising defeats from group heavyweights Denmark and Switzerland followed, with Georgia piling on the punishment twice, firstly with a 3-0 win in Tbilisi, followed by a much improved performance from Julio’s boys in losing a thriller by the odd goal in five against the Georgians at a frenzied Victoria Stadium last month. That magnificent second-half recovery saw Gibraltar roar back from a two-goal halftime deficit to parity, with goals from evergreen stalwarts Lee Casciaro and Roy Chipolina – the stadium was rocking, Georgia was rocking, victory was within grasp, surely at least the first group point or, savour it, finally the first glorious victory was about to come to pass, the dream was becoming a reality, and then…. disaster, against the run of play the visitors scored, the dream was crushed and cold cruel reality was restored. Joe Chipolina’s heroic Lions of the Rock deserved better.
Played 6, lost 6, goals for 2, goals conceded 19 is the stark summary of Gibraltar’s campaign so far, unfortunately those figures can be expected to significantly worsen, as the Rock’s last two games are away to Denmark and at home to Switzerland three days later, two countries engaged in a fierce three-way battle with Ireland for the coveted two tickets to travel to the Euro 2020 finals. Goal difference could be crucial in deciding which nations prevail, so it will be time to don tin hats and strategy will, of necessity, consist of mass defence, with much demanded of ‘keeper Kyle Goldwin, ideally ensconced on the goal line inside a big red No.5 double-decker bus!
So, it is with a certain amount of trepidation we look forward to Group D’s final two games, but however welcome world headline-grabbing events like last year’s sensational double over Liechtenstein and Armenia, Gibraltar’s increasing role in international sport means far more than success on the playing field. Entry to UEFA and FIFA competitions, so long denied by a big bully neighbour, has opened up a magical wonderland of travel to and from exotic, exciting places. Gibraltar is a picture postcard destination, I doubt there is a single person on the planet who isn’t familiar with the iconic outline of The Rock, that ghostly form, like a great grey ship that has run aground, an image better known universally than any of the seven wonders of the world, a sun-kissed Shangri La, just waiting to be explored.
This year Euro 2020 qualification ties have seen fun-filled visits by football fans from Ireland, Denmark and Georgia, the Irish clash last spring especially will live long in the memory – the sight of hundreds of red and green clad rival footy fans, drinking, dancing and singing together in uninhibited harmony at a bemused Ocean Heights still evoke a warm glow in these dark days for sport, when populism, racism and xenophobia seem to be reappearing in less enlightened lands. Not a single incident, not a single discordant note, and the fun was repeated in the Europa League when Stevie Gerrard’s mighty Glasgow Rangers flew in to meet and beat St Joseph’s, no howls of protest from visiting Gers fans even when republican songs so rapturously received for the Ireland game were innocently replayed to the perplexed and very non-receptive unionist contingent. Understandable it was that local Sports Arena staff could scarcely be expected to immediately grasp the intricacies of centuries of tribal conflict and ritual, but it all ended well, no blood was spilled, the hand of friendship rather than the fist of fury triumphed.
The looming spectre of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit threatens roadblocks to current ease of travel throughout Europe and, according to the excellent government booklet worst case scenario on the vexatious issue, would see delays of up to eight hours at the frontier, new visa requirements, replacement passports and driving licences, new medical insurance required as the existing EHIC medical card would no longer be valid. Quite why anyone would consider that nightmare prospect preferable to the current seamless travel arrangements is a bit of a puzzler, and I have yet to speak to a Gibraltarian who disagrees with me. However, it is a different story among the UK expat community, some of whom vociferously champion a no-deal exit, citing the usual piffle about sovereignty and taking back control etc, etc… Name me one positive outcome, I challenge, and back came a rather hesitant response – ‘the return of full duty-free at airports’. Pardon…? Have you forgotten that we all live in Gibraltar, the Land of the Duty Free? Bizarre!
Next up on the Euro itinerary is a visit to Copenhagen for the return fixture against Denmark, long regarded as one of the happiest places on Earth to live, free medical care, free education, very generous maternity and paternity leave, fantastic social care benefits, all of which the Danes are happy to pay for with taxation rates of up to an eye-watering 60 percent. There is, however, one problem that is causing their government some angst, to the extent an initiative has been announced called “Do It For Denmark”… it’s the nation’s low birth rate! Yes, it appears that the Vikings, the scourge of the Atlantic island communities for centuries, raping and pillaging, wanton behaviour that gave rise to the cry on those stricken islands of ‘Lock up your daughters, lock up your wives, the Vikings are coming’, are now firing blanks or not firing at all in the bedroom! Odin and Thor must be spinning in their graves.
Three days later Gibraltar conclude the campaign when Switzerland, another of Europe’s top sides are welcomed to Victoria Stadium – don’t be late, the cuckoo-clock men know a thing or two about timekeeping!