By Cameron Pope
When the draw for the second round of Europa League qualification took place in late August at the UEFA headquarters in Nyon, Switzerland, the appearance of a ticket marked ‘Rangers (SCO)’ was warmly received on the Iberian Peninsula’s southern tip.
For Lincoln Red Imps, a semi-professional outfit from the Gibraltar National League with a modest stature yet proud history, an upcoming tie in mid-September against a famous Old Firm club constitutes a major opportunity for exposure, a chance at a fabled upset and, crucially, emphasises the extent to which the Gibraltarian game has grown.
Just six years ago, against Faroese side HB, the Red Imps themselves were the first to carry the flag for Gibraltar as the territory’s representatives in the Champions League, following its FA’s historic admittance to the UEFA ranks.
The national side – logically monikered ‘Team 54’ in reference to their status as the fifty-fourth addition to the European football family – had long been consigned to non-FIFA obscurity in a seemingly never-ending quest for recognition. The Gibraltar FA’s first application to join the continental governing body had been tabled back in 1999, but, met with fierce opposition from the neighbouring Spanish – who to this day assert their ownership of the territory and doubtlessly feared similar movements from Basque and Catalan football associations – their bid was blocked.
UEFA soon moved the goalposts, its eligibility criteria narrowing to allow only sovereign states to become members – despite the fact that recognition had already been given to the Faroe Islands, a non-UN member state, back in 1990 – thus thwarting the advances of fledgeling football hopefuls such as Gibraltar, Kosovo and Greenland while keeping the Spaniards onside.
But the Gibraltarians’ persistence did not waver; the FA took its fight to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who in 2003 ruled that the retrospective regulation change could not lawfully be used to bar Gibraltar’s entrance to the confederation. UEFA, however, paid no heed to the verdict and continued to block the application. In 2006, it finally conceded, in part, by awarding the Gibraltarians provisional membership of the organisation with a vote on full acceptance pending, but when the time came to go to the ballot, Spain was again the driving force behind the territory’s rejection. When the federation threatened to withdraw all Spanish teams from UEFA tournaments if the proposal were accepted, just three nations (England, Scotland and Wales) voted in favour of Gibraltar, who were back to square one, it seemed.
It was not until 2013 that the Gibraltarians were finally rewarded for their efforts. Prolonged pressure from CAS forced UEFA into affording the FA provisional membership once again, and in May 2013, only two countries – Belarus and no guesses who else – voted against Team 54’s acceptance; Gibraltar was the confederation’s newest full member.
In short, the last decade has been an eventful one; a first official international friendly in November 2013 – a 0-0 draw with Slovakia – was soon followed by the team’s first win, a 1-0 April victory over Malta that will live long in the memory. But heart-warming as these exploits may be, credit must also be given to the territory’s club sides, whose performances in Europe often go undocumented in the shadow of their national team’s spirited underdog tale.
Club sides Europa FC and St Joseph’s have both joined 24-time league champions Imps in the preliminary stages of the continent’s two primary competitions since that maiden campaign in 2014/15, each with varying degrees of success. Saints have just the one triumph to their name, earned last season when they dispatched Kosovo’s Prishtina in the preliminary round, while Europa have managed two wins, twice registering aggregate victories over Sant Julia of Andorra and the Armenians of Pyunik.
But Gibraltar’s most successful outfit domestically remains head and shoulders above their compatriots when on the road, too. Lincoln became the first and still only club from the territory to win a Champions League tie back in 2015, edging past Santa Coloma over two legs. A year later, they repeated the feat against Estonian side Flora at the first qualifying stage, but it was their second-round endeavour that catapulted them into the spotlight.
As Scotland’s UEFA coefficient continued to stagnate, its clubs languishing on the lower rungs of the European hierarchical ladder, league champions Celtic found themselves bound for the British Overseas Territory on the first step of a long road to the group stage. The Bhoys had dropped into the Europa League the season prior and, drawn against part-time opponents the Red Imps, newly appointed boss Brendan Rodgers and his charges had been afforded a kind start on their quest for improvement.
But when Celtic arrived at Victoria Stadium – the facility the Red Imps share with the rest of Gibraltar’s top-flight clubs – for their mid-summer tie, they were gravely unprepared. A hard-fought contest ensued and by the interval, Celtic had only a disallowed Moussa Dembélé goal to show for their efforts, chalked off for a foul in build-up play.
Complacency, a lack of fitness, the unfamiliarity of a plastic pitch or just plain misfortune have all been blamed for what happened after the break. Lee Casciaro, one of eight full internationals in the Imps squad that evening, had already written his name into Gibraltarian football folklore the year before, netting his country’s first competitive goal in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Scotland at Hampden Park. Fast-forward a matter of months and he found himself latching on to a lobbed ball from deep, turning inside Efe Ambrose and striking low, past goalkeeper Craig Gordon and into the net, giving the hosts an unlikely lead. Ultimately, they would hold it; Leigh Griffiths was twice denied by the crossbar as Lincoln Red Imps battled to a heroic victory, giving Casciaro double reason to be fond of Glasgow, one expects.
The Hoops were left reeling; the ‘Shock of Gibraltar’, as Scottish media hastily dubbed the humiliation, turned heads across Europe and finally, Gibraltarian club football had its moment of fame. Celtic did spare themselves further blushes when the sides met for the second leg, turning the tide with a 3-0 win at Parkhead, but the memories will be long-lasting for both sides, then-captain Scott Brown conceding that the opening result left a ‘scar’ on the Old Firm club.
Moving forward to the present day, the draw for the second qualifying round of the 2020/21 Europa League could have pitted the Imps against a whole host of opponents, plucked from almost every point on the map from Granada – a three-hour drive – to Dynamo Moscow or Israel’s Hapoel Be’er Sheva. And yet, their latest adversaries hail from the collection of star names in the 36-strong seeded pot, featuring heavyweights such as Tottenham, AC Milan and Wolfsburg. UEFA’s grouping ultimately landed the Imps a trio of potential match-ups; Reims and Rio Ave were avoided, leaving the semi-pro outfit up against Steven Gerrard’s Rangers.
Champions of Scotland on 54 occasions, one of the most successful clubs in the world in terms of total trophies won and yet still currently understudies to Celtic in their own country, Rangers will enter the competition on 17th September against their cross-city rivals’ humblest conqueror.
Lincoln – who can afford to feel slightly aggrieved at the fact they are contesting only Europe’s secondary competition this year, given that the cancellation of the Gibraltarian domestic season due to the COVID-19 pandemic saw the reigning champions awarded a third-place finish – can at least consider themselves battle-ready. This term’s European journey began almost a month before the impending visit of Rangers, though it took little out of them; Kosovar opponents FC Prishtina saw both their first and reserve teams struck by bouts of coronavirus and were unable to enter the territory of Gibraltar without having to submit to quarantine, and thus Lincoln were handed a 3-0 walkover.
On 27th August, Victoria Stadium finally played host to some continental football, a one-legged affair under European tournaments’ newly adopted, COVID-enforced format. Lee Casciaro was on the scoresheet as the Imps recorded a 2-0 victory over Luxembourg’s Union Titus Pétange.
And while the absence of fans, the compromise reluctantly accepted by many clubs, players and leagues alike that has enabled the game to return, renders the Rangers tie much less of a money-maker, it will doubtlessly evoke fond memories for home supporters – recollections that will indubitably bring a smile to the face of many a Gers fan, too. While this will not be the first time the Teddy Bears have travelled to Gibraltar – it was Rangers who put an end to St Joseph’s Europa League campaign last season, with a resounding 10-0 aggregate win – the fact that this year’s opponents inflicted the most shocking of victories on Celtic lend the game an added burst of flavour.
While the chance of a repeat performance is, of course, slim, the whirlwind events of this year may play into the Red Imps’ hands. The new one-legged ties introduced in the latter stages of last season’s tournaments orchestrated the downfall of Manchester City, all the while helping widely cherished surprise-package Atalanta to come within minutes of a Champions League semi-final berth; in short, deciding ties over ninety minutes can level the playing field. With less time for class to shine through, those keeping an eye on this cycle of qualifying rounds could be in for a treat; somewhere, someone will be caught out. Lincoln Red Imps were ahead after ninety minutes the last time they welcomed Glaswegian opposition to Gibraltar, and stranger things have happened. After all, this is 2020.
This tie deserves Europe’s attention for more than merely nostalgia and the lure of another giant-felling, however. That Rangers and the Red Imps should be thrown together is an interesting coincidence – it does not take a history degree to understand that the concept of Britishness is deeply embedded in Rangers’ identity. In modern times, the club draws fans from many walks of life, but for almost a century-and-a-half it has unquestionably represented the protestant, unionist side of the Old Firm divide. Its colours – red, white and blue – contrast with the green and white of Celtic. The song ‘I Was Born Under a Union Jack’ has been known to proudly reverberate around their Ibrox home on matchday, along with, on occasion, some less savoury pro-union numbers.
And how often will the luck of the draw turn out a situation whereby one team’s national anthem happens to be their opponent’s popular terrace chant? Well, in the shadow of the famous Rock on 17th September, that will be the case. Gibraltar, the gateway to the Mediterranean, came under British control in 1713 through the Treaty of Utrecht and despite fierce opposition from Spain, it has remained closely tied to the UK. Llanitos have twice rejected proposals for Spanish sovereignty via a referendum and have persisted in staying staunchly British, with Queen Elizabeth II as their head of state. As such, God Save the Queen is sung by Rangers fans and Gibraltarians alike. Indeed, a game played in front of a live audience would be a sight to behold.
And the connections to Britain run deeper still. The Red Imps are so named due to the benevolence of Reg Brearley, a Lincoln City FC director who, when holidaying in Gibraltar in the 1970s, met with local side Blue Batons. Brearley decided to provide sponsorship and kit for the team and, as part of the deal, the Gibraltarian outfit rechristened itself in honour of Reg’s team back in Britain.
For those who like their football off the beaten track, a fascinating match-up lies in store on 17th September. On offer is a curious encounter that pits a proudly British Goliath against an adventurous Gibraltarian David, he too, a proud British citizen.
And if that is still not enough to convince you of the zeal of the Europa League’s earliest rounds, let’s get back to basics; who doesn’t love a cup upset?
Besides, Rangers have demons of their own in Europe. Just type ‘Progrès Niederkorn’ into Google.