Upon This Rock (Gibraltar)

The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) was formed in 1895 and is one of the oldest operating national associations in the world. Football on the isthmus dates from the 1890’s and were kickabout games on the British Garrison which had been built in 1704. In 1901 the first organised match was reported between a civilian Gibraltarian XI and side representing the military, which would become known as Prince of Wales FC. The match took place on a grass pitch inside the racetrack that had been laid on the flat land between Gibraltar and the frontier with Spain and is believed to have been close to the site of the present day Victoria Stadium.

The first golden period for Gibraltarian football came with the reconstruction of the Victoria Stadium in period at the end of World War II. The site was originally a military pitch and had been in use since 1926. The new facility attracted many professional clubs and GFA representative sides took on the like of Real Madrid (a notable 2-2 draw!), Atlético Madrid, Real Valladolid and more exotic opposition like Red Star Belgrade, Hajduk Split and Wacker Innsbruck. In the period 1949 to 1955 many UK nationals did their military service in Gibraltar and military football leagues proliferated. The Army had three pitches out by Europa Point and there was another pitch in the town centre, generally known as the Naval Ground.

This period of unprecedented success for the GFA ended when in 1956 the Spanish government banned their clubs from playing on the peninsula and four years later the UK ended National Service reducing the number of military personnel in Gibraltar by some 90%. In 1971 the Victoria Stadium was again rebuilt, this time by the Royal Engineers. The GFA upgraded the pitch and athletics track in 1991.

Gibraltar’s first attempted to join UEFA in 2007, but their bid was overwhelmingly rejected. Spain had lobbied FIFA citing the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 as a basis for declaring the proposed national stadium of Gibraltar as being built on disputed land and was contrary to FIFA’s constitution. However, an appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sports, found in favour of Gibraltar and UEFA had to agree to provisional membership. By 2013 the GFA were formerly voted into full membership with only Belarus and Spain voting against them. This allowed the tiny nation of just 30,000 people access to all international and European club competitions. Similarly to the Armenia and Azerbaijan scenario, Spain and Gibraltar will be kept apart in competition draws.

The GFA’s problems, however, did not end there even when finally elected to UEFA they could not host games on a stadium they did not wholly own. Ownership of the venue was largely with the Government of Gibraltar. The 54th member nation of UEFA then had to play its home international matches in Portugal in the Estádio do Algarve in Loulé. There were schemes to build a new national stadium at Europa Point and also Lathbury Barracks but neither came to fruition.

The issue was resolved by the Government selling the stadium to the GFA for £16.5m, largely funded by grants from UEFA. The sale price would be reinvested in other venues for sports displaced by the sale and in upgrading venues in time for the 2019 Island Games. The new Victoria Stadium will be UEFA Category 4 compliant with a capacity of 8,000. The new project will start in early 2019 and take two years to complete. Football will continue to be played while work progresses but there it was decided there would be no football tournament in the Island Games due to the construction plans. This tournament will be held instead on Anglesey in June 2019.

Gibraltarian clubs’ European matches had been held at the Victoria Stadium, including Lincoln Red Imps’ famous 1-0 win over Celtic in July 2016, but the move into sole ownership allowed national team games to be staged in Gibraltar from the start of the new UEFA Nations League.

On the domestic scene a Gibraltarian Football League has existed since the 1895/6 season when Gibraltar FC were the inaugural winners. The most successful side were the military side Prince of Wales FC, who had won 19 titles by the time they disbanded in 1953. It has taken the rise of Lincoln Red Imps in recent years to overhaul that total and they now stand on 23 titles of which includes 16 of the 18 championships contested since the turn of the new millennium. Only wins by Gibraltar United (2001/02) and Europa (2016/17) have punctuated their dominance.

The first game today is between St. Joseph’s, the oldest club in the Gibraltarian League system having being formed in 1912, and Gibraltar Phoenix. The two sides are very evenly matched and lie fourth and fifth in the ten team table at the start of play. It ends goalless although it is a reasonably interesting game. Despite free entry a very modest crowd gathers for this 4pm kick off.

Saturday November 24th 2018 (16.00pm) – Gibraltar First Division

St.Joseph’s 0
Gibraltar Phoenix 0

Att:62 (at Victoria Stadium)

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Such is the conveyor belt use of the artificial surface at the Victoria Stadium, only half an hour separates this game from another First Division contest between Lynx and Mons Calpe, named after one of the two Pillars of Hercules. Lynx are struggling in eighth place in the table while Mons Calpe are fourth. The match goes true to form and Mons coast to very comfortable 3-0 in pouring rain. Lynx are a noticeably poorer team than the other three watched today despite having one of the famous Chipolina brothers, Kenneth, in their rearguard.

Saturday November 24th 2018 (18.15pm) – Gibraltar First Division

Lynx 0
Mons Calpe 3 (Sastrie 24, Pereyra 33, Pegalajar 90)

Att:71 (at Victoria Stadium)

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There was an option to see a third straight game at 20.30pm, a second tier clash between Manchester 62 FC and College 1975, but it was nice to have an evening meal in the old part of this historic area.

As a footnote occasionally planes cannot land at Gibraltar airport in high winds and bad weather. This can result in planes landing at Malaga airport instead, and the obvious delays that ensues. Could be worth factoring this possibility into your travel plans.

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Just Like Paradise (Football In Heaven 2017)

Well isn’t that just typical you wait ages for someone to organise a groundhop in Romania and then two come along within a few weeks of each other. This one was to be in the stunning Bucovina region in the north east of the country close to the borders of the Ukraine to the north and Moldova to the east. The event was publicised as “Football In Heaven”.

Organising this adventure into the Carpathian mountains and sharing with us his stunning home province was Emanuel Rosu, World Soccer’s Romanian correspondent (@Emishor on Twitter). Emi had combined with the regions Football Association president, Ciprian Anton, to open up the region to groundhoppers. Very kindly this extended to providing a minibus free of charge for the weekend and Emi, Ciprian and the bus were duly waiting to collect 11 hoppers at a slightly chilly Suceava airport, early on the Friday afternoon. We were also joined by local journalist Chidoveţ Dănuţ and film maker Daniel Vatamanu.

We arrived a little late at the Stadionul Vasilica Onofrei home of fifth tier Viitorul Adâncata, but when you have “El Presidente” of the local FA on board your bus the game waits for you and duly kicked off some 25 minutes late! Now ok this wasn’t much of a ground, a few benches to the right hand side and a cabbage patch of a pitch but we witnessed a decent 90 minutes which saw the hosts win 4-2 in an entertaining encounter with local rivals Voinţa Zvoriştea.

Now what happened after the game, as darkness enveloped the ground rapidly, is the sort of heart warming thing you find on these trips to remote and far flung places. Behind one goal was a raised covered platform and this was covered with trestle tables laden with food. A woman laboured over hot pots and pans to produce some delicious sarmale (pork, rice and cabbage parcels), platters of cold meats, bread and drink (including whiskey and brandy) are provided free of charge for everyone in attendance. It wasn’t a one off for the president and some strange foreign guests either, it’s done at every home game, such is the milk of human kindness at a small village club like Adâncata.

Friday October 27th 2017 – Romania Liga V

AS Viitorul Adâncata 4 (Bilţ 15, Ujeniuc 19, Munteanu og 45, Atomei 49)

Voinţa Zvoriştea 2 (Munteanu 20, Bejinariu pen 90)

Att:107 (at Stadionul Vasilica Onofrei)

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After a pretty decent breakfast at the Hotel Continental in Suceava, we ambled down to the Stadionul Areni home of second division Foresta Suceava Friday for an 11am kick off against UTA Arad . The visitors had endured a hellish nine hour 350 mile journey from western Romania to fulfil this fixture. Tickets costing 10 Romanian Lei (£1.90) were purchased from kiosks outside the ground. The ground is a typical 1960’s concrete and breeze block affair with more recent touches of an electronic scoreboard and some plastic seating being the only concessions to modernity. Someone however has taken the time and trouble to liberally paint the concrete in the clubs’ colours of yellow and green the result is a fine looking venue. Foresta have been battling hard with financial woes of late a desperately need a win. The hosts duly go in front of around 700 spectators before UTA fire a double quick salvo before halftime, the second a quite monumental header from the centre back. Foresta work hard in the second half and manage to find an equaliser and it looks like a share of the spoils until UTA, cruelly, score again with virtually the last kick of the match.

Saturday October 28th 2017 – Romanian Liga II (11am kick off)

Foresta Suceava 2 (Renquin 29, Acolatse 84)
UTA Arad 3 (Hlistei 35, Ciucă 37, Păcurar 90)

Att:678 (at Stadionul Areni) Admission 10 Lei (£1.90)

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The bus then whisks us up into the foothills of the Carpathians as we head for a fourth tier match between Victoria Vatra Moldoviței and Foresta’s reserve team. Well what can you say about this ground? Set in a hollow surrounded by tall forest where bear sightings are not uncommon. Behind one goal there are stunning mountain vistas. The pitch is noticeably wet and had standing water on the dressing room side. Of course this not being England, there is no doubt the game will take place and a small crowd gathers in the spectator accommodation. This consists of a long row of bench seating at the top of the bank the seating is just inside the crash barrier of the D17 highway. Cars whizz by and lorries trundle by some slowing down for a sneaky look at the game. It gives you a great vantage point for the game but this is a seriously dangerous place to be a spectator! If the location isn’t memorable enough about fifteen minutes into the game a pick up truck screeches into the small clearing on the other side of the road and a bearded man with leathery skin and welly boots leaps out and marches down the road banging an enormous drum. He certainly livens up what is a poor quality encounter which went the way of the hosts with a solitary goal in the second half.

Saturday October 28th 2017 – Romanian Liga IV (4pm kick off)

Victoria Vatra Moldoviței 1 (Pelinar 59)
ACS Foresta Suceava II 0

Att:63

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Overnighting in the mountain town of Vatra Dornei, we arrive at the ground of fifth division Vânătorul Dorna Candrenilor in rain and morning temperatures of -2 but the welcome is warm and a buffet of food and some scarily strong firewater fortify us for the trek to the stand. It’s an excellent stand for the level and was built two years ago. Vânătorul are top of the league and race into a two goal against Sporting Poieni Solca. There is a flurry of late goals and the result of 3-2 suggests it was closer than it actually was.

Sunday October 29th 2017 – Liga V (11am kick off)

Vânătorul Dorna Candrenilor 3 (Clanetariu 18,30, Iosub 80)
Sporting Poieni Solca 2 (Hamcescu 70, Martolea 85)

Att:76 (at Stadionul Dorna Candrenilor)

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Everyone races back to the bus to warm up and we head back down the mountains to Pojorâta. The local side, Bucovina Pojorita have suffered a couple of bankruptcies in recent seasons and are now in the fourth tier. The main stand sits at the foot of a contoured hill dotted with shepherd’s huts, heavy forestation sweeps up almost as high as the eye can trace. It really is like watching a football match on a “Lord of the Rings” film set. To heighten the state of frenzy of the hoppers further the club have also produced a programme albeit a modest four pager. The hosts win at a canter by two goals to nil.

Sunday October 29th 2017 – Liga IV (3pm kick off)

ACS Bucovina Pojorita 2 (Tomco 23, Timpau 71)
ACS Şomuzul Preuteşti 0

Att:87 (at Stadionul Pojorita)

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Our hosts were magnificent and as for the scenery, well sometimes words just fail to come out when you try to speak. There is already talk of a “Football In Heaven 2” next year, do yourself a favour and move heaven and earth to get yourself on it, you won’t regret it.

Some years ago an ageing long haired American rocker sang “This could be just like living in paradise” spending a few days in this astonishing place he could well have been talking about beautiful Bucovina! The second line of that chorus certainly hit home waiting in the departure lounge as David Lee Roth sings “and I don’t want to go home”.

A much expanded version of this article will appear in a future edition of “Football Weekends” magazine.