“If you had told me three or four years ago that we would playing FIFA qualifiers and against some of the best nations in world football, I would've told you that you were mad. We’re all living the dream.”
There are legions of part-time players around the globe who no doubt can read these words spoken by Gibraltar captain Roy Chipolina with both understanding and surging jealousy after the whirlwind that has catapulted them from hardened amateurs to sharing the field with world champions. After years of dedication to the sport, purely for the love of the game, players in the autumn of their careers have been given a pathway to playing with footballing gods, while youngsters have had their career prospects potentially transformed.
However, the depths of this lucid fantasy they’re strolling through ahead of their first FIFA World Cup™ qualifier has many more facets to it, with blood, fraternity and sacrifice all woven within it since becoming FIFA’s 211th member in May.
A glance at the team-sheet reveals the first point very clearly, with potentially 50 per cent of the outfield sharing just two names. The trio of Lee, Ryan and Kyle Casciaro are the tighter genetically, all being brothers, while Roy is joined by Joseph Chipolina – whose grandparents were cousins – with the duo growing up almost as close as cousins themselves.
“As a young boy I was always wanting to play with my brothers, which is why it’s a dream to be in the same team as them,” Kyle, the youngest of the three at 28, told FIFA.com. “I never thought I’d be playing on such a big stage with them both. It’s a privilege for my parents to have us all playing together internationally and at club level.”
“It’s not often you get three sons playing for a national team,” eldest brother Lee, 34, reflected, “and we know how each other plays which is an advantage which maybe other nations don’t have.” That knowledge goes for all five of them, and more besides, as another look at the team sheet reveals as many as eight of the side represent Lincoln Red Imps. However, the bond goes even deeper, as the Chipolinas revealed.
We used to comment in the tunnel: ‘what are we actually doing here?’
“I don’t think there’s anyone in FIFA like us,” Roy explained. “In a lot of ways we are like a family because with Gibraltar being such a small community there’s only one senior high school. You’re all together from a very young age. Myself, Lee, Ryan, we’ve all played in the same team since we were six years old.”
“All the lads my age, have hung out since we were young,” Joseph concurred. “We used to go to certain discos, hang out, go to the beach. Lincoln have been champions for years because that’s what we are, a family.” Ryan added: “It’s great to be playing with all the same players as you were when you were five, all living their dream.”
This has meant, having joined UEFA in 2013, this band of brothers – by birth or bond – began their EURO 2016 qualifying campaign having gone from facing guys they attended school with to taking on the likes of Robert Lewandowski and Manuel Neuer in something of a baptism of fire. But for many of them, facing the likes of Germany and Poland was a perfect result.
“When the European qualifiers were being drawn we wanted big nations to play against so we could find out what level we were at, while getting to play against people we watch day in, day out on TV,” Ryan confessed. Though Roy admitted, ahead of shaking hands with the likes of Neuer in Nurnberg: “We used to comment in the tunnel: ‘what are we actually doing here?’
“There’s professional players that don’t get to play against the world champions, let alone us! We’ve gone from playing Sunday league football to the world champions in two years.”
While the 30,000 population has revelled in this newfound focus on the peninsula, there have been some casualties of this sudden rise – one being sporting pride. “No one wants to go to a football match and lose 7-0 or 8-0. I’ve never been on the losing side before this,” Kyle lamented, looking back on their first baby steps on the international stage. “Lincoln have won 14 leagues in a row now, so imagine when we go play another nation and lose with scorelines like that.”
“We are competitors, we always want to win,” Joseph summed up. “We will always go out on to the playing field and leave our hearts and souls.”
This is why Lincoln’s recent 1-0 win over Celtic in the first leg of their UEFA Champions League Second qualifying round meant so much to them. Lee scored the goal and the reality is still hard for them to believe. “We laugh at it when we say it. We’ve actually beaten Celtic, a team who has actually won the European Cup – that’s like winning the World Cup in Gibraltar,” Roy, who also captains the Red Imps, explained.
During training I have the phone in my hand while I’m running. If I get a call I have to take it.
Despite the 3-1 aggregate defeat, in their third season in the continental club competition, this win was a milestone. “It was probably the first fixture where we gained a little respect from other nations,” he continued. “At international level we haven’t had that yet because the results haven’t shown that.”
The reflex reaction is to assume a lack of talent or quality, perhaps some tactical naivety, is the root cause of the heavy international defeats. And while you can’t argue against the fact these players haven’t been nurtured like many of their opponents and the coaching isn’t to the same depth or standard, but the issue is much more complex.
But the main hindrance is largely summed up in one word: work. Amateur status brings about amateur pay. While money has begun to trickle in, and they no longer pay their own flights and accommodation as they did when appearing in the Island Games, it is in no way enough to warrant being their primary focus, with performance unsurprisingly affected.
“You go to training and sometimes you’re tired because your priority is your job,” Lee explained. “Football is like an extra job.” Shipping agent Kyle finds himself all too often leaving his work early and still arriving late for training, but sometimes the two overlap. “It’s funny, during training I have the phone in my hand while I’m running. If I get a call I have to take it as it’s one of my boats coming into Gibraltar bay!”
With up to 60 days a year away needed for all their games, with ‘home’ qualifiers being played in Faro, Portugal, getting time off at all is tough. “Fortunately my colleagues at work help me a lot with games, meaning I’ve managed to not miss any of them,” Kyle explained. “But I can’t be taking my leave to have holidays.”
“A couple of guys worked until 3.30pm and then we had to go play the [Celtic] match,” Ryan said. “It’s how you have to do it or else we won’t have leave for when we’re playing abroad. The amount of sacrifice that goes into it is incredible.”
Now they look ahead to their Russia 2018 qualifying group, following a glamorous friendly with European champions Portugal, starting out against Greece. Joined by Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Estonia and Cyprus, wins are still too much to target outright, though confidence of a first competitive point – having drawn in a friendly with Estonia – has grown.
“We are going into every match, at least at the beginning, to get a respectable result and going from there,” Ryan insisted, having already held Germany and Poland to 1-0 half-time scorelines at home – but ending in 7-0 losses. “We want to win matches, but we have to be realistic.”
With turning good 30-minute spells into solid 60- or 70-minute ones their first task as a team, Joseph expects these lessons to set them up well for this new milestone in Gibraltarian football. “To learn about something you have to be knocked down. Now we know what we can come up against, we know the differences between them and us.”