The territory of Gibraltar has 30,000 inhabitants, 11 of which took the field earlier this month against Poland in a qualifying match for UEFA Euro 2016. The team got crushed, of course, because that’s what happens when a 2.3 square mile British territory plays against a middling European soccer power. But who really cares? We could bicker over the merits of a team that has almost no chance to ever win a high-level competitive game, or we could enjoy the fact that the team exists at all.
The Gibraltar National Soccer Team traces its history to way back in 1923, when the side traveled to Spain to face Sevilla, losing twice in a row. While never a dominant group by any measure, the team had a few moments of glory, the greatest of which came when it earned a draw against Real Madrid in 1949. But as you might expect, the triumphs were few and far between.
An obvious underdog on the field, Gibraltar has also faced opposition outside of games from its more prominent neighbor to the north: Spain. Here, politics come into play, as the Spanish government does not feel too much warmth for the British territory carved out of the southern end of the Iberian peninsula. Gibraltar spent years trying to become a member of UEFA, but found their attempts to join blocked repeatedly by the Spanish. The application finally went through in 2006 and ever since, Gibraltar has belonged to the same football federation as England, Germany, the Netherlands, and of course, Spain.
Before the match against Poland, the highest stage the team ever reached was the Island Games, a tournament of island nations (and tiny scraps of land like Gibraltar). The men from the Rock won the tournament in 2007, overcoming such heavyweights as Rhodes, Minorca and Jersey. Gibraltar FA President Joseph Nuñez told the New York Times in 2006, “Since then  we have stagnated while the rest of Europe has progressed, because we have had no international competition open to us due to Spain’s opposition.”
But before we condemn the Spanish for stunting the growth of a would-be world soccer power, know that Gibraltar has the smallest population of any UEFA member. It wouldn’t be a World Cup contender or even a participant had it been playing with the best all this time. But still, a federation cannot improve if the strongest competition it faces is Rhodes.
Now, in their attempt to qualify for Euro 2016, Gibraltar found itself facing Poland, which boasts players like Robert Lewandowski of Bayern Munich and Wojciech Szczesny of Arsenal. Who does Gibraltar have to send out against these world-class players? A couple policemen, a firefighter, and a customs agent. Oh, and they have two actual professional soccer players. In fact, let’s meet the players who took the field in Gibraltar’s first UEFA-sanctioned competitive match.
Jordan Perez, the team’s goalie, serves in the City Fire Brigade of Gibraltar. The back four consists of an administrative clerk, an academic director, a customs agent, and at right back, Scott Wiseman, who actually plays soccer for a living. Ryan Casciaro patrols the field from his position just in front of the back four, and then goes home after practice to his work as a police officer. The midfield then becomes even more diverse array of occupations, featuring an electrician, a storekeeper, a second policeman, and yet another professional soccer player in Liam Walker, the team’s #10, who plays behind the striker and suits up for Bnei Yehuda, an Israeli club based in Tel Aviv. And finally we have the lone center forward, Kyle Casciaro, who makes his living as a shipping agent.
Poland beat this group 7-0, but that doesn’t matter. As the Gibraltar FA website declares in its summary of the defeat, “The 7th September was always going to be historic occasion for the Gibraltar National Team, no matter what happened on the pitch. It was the first time that Gibraltar took to the field in a competitive international game and the first ever European Qualification campaign.”
It was a long, frustrating journey to this game. Opposition from Spain limited the team to playing opponents like Minorca for years. But Gibraltar played a meaningful match, and that’s what counts, even if almost nobody on the team gets paid to kick a soccer ball around. Coaches love to tell us that there are no such thing as moral victories in sports, but we all know that isn’t true. Because when you have to spend decades arguing just for the right to step out onto the field, you get to call watching 7 goals go into your own net a success.