‘Bring on England’, says Gibraltar coach ahead of UEFA debut
Jitters abound but the mood is ebullient at the Gibraltar training camp 24 hours before their UEFA debut against Slovakia at Portugal’s Algarve stadium (Tuesday 1830 GMT).
“We are looking at the nerves of our players. It’s something new, the historic moment, the emotion. One minute (into the match) and it’s got to be out of the way. If not, that can play against us,” Bula told Reuters in an interview.
“But we are going out to win”.
The rocky territory became UEFA’s 54th member in May, following a 14-year court marathon against Spain’s objections to their football ambitions as a national side.
With that apparently put behind them for good, Gibraltar’s players, coach and staff seem to have their long-denied football fantasies finally within grasp.
If he had to pick between playing England or Spain one day, coach Bula would have little doubt.
“England, for us, it’s in our blood in our heritage. It’s a part of us.
“But, although it’s a dream to play in Wembley against England, it would be a bigger dream to play in Wembley (pause) and beat them. Let’s get that clear,” a smiling Bula said before team training.
Gibraltar is an economically self-reliant, and mostly self-governing British Overseas Territory.
Spain disputes Gibraltar’s sovereignty, ceded to Britain “in perpetuity” under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht as a spoil of the War of the Spanish Succession.
The coach said he would be happy to play Spain “any day” despite the fact that UEFA’s ruling on Gibraltar means they cannot be pooled with Spain in the Euro qualifying phase that starts after the World Cup next year.
To help ease the way on to the big European stage, Bula called up experienced duo Scott Wiseman from English Championship side Barnsley and former Manchester United defender Danny Higginbotham, now at Chester in the fifth tier.
Higginbotham, who will be sharing the pitch with mostly amateur players, is revelling at the unexpected opportunity.
“I didn’t think that at 34 I’d have the opportunity to play international football,” he said, adding he still hopes to grab a few more caps.
“My career is starting to get into the twilight so to get this opportunity is great for me.
“I haven’t done this just as a public relations stunt or for me to come away for a few days. I’m not going to be playing in five, six, seven years time but hopefully what happens in the next couple of years will have a big bearing.”
On a cool but sunny day at Almancil, near the match venue in Portugal’s southern region of the Algarve, Bula has set his sights way beyond Tuesday’s match.
“As a manager it’s not all right for people to accept that because we are classed as minnows, smaller nations, it’s all right to lose. This will make managers not push themselves.
“We are going for qualification (for Euro 2016) and at the end of the tunnel is France. That is what I am aiming for: France.”
Tuesday’s match will be the first at their temporary home at the Algarve Stadium, situated midway between Faro and Loule in Portugal.
The stadium will be their venue for the Euro 2016 qualifiers because the 2,000-seater Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar is not big enough to meet UEFA’s minimum standards for official matches.
Gibraltar captain Joseph Chipolina admits to being nervous and struggled to hide his excitement.
“To be honest, I didn’t think I’d ever see it. Now that I am 30, I am going to make the most of it,” he said.
(Editing by Alison Wildey)