In a three-part series for the Chronicle, Kenneth Asquez, a registered FA Intermediary, looks back at Gibraltar’s entry into international football, and offers a few ideas for the future.
LONDON, Friday 24th May 2013. The venue is the Grosvenor Hotel. By an overwhelming majority of 98.25% of the votes, Gibraltar’s entry into the highest level of European football was endorsed. The UEFA Executive Committee had previously admitted Gibraltar as a provisional UEFA member at its meeting in St Petersburg, Russia, October 2012. Ahead lay a long and arduous journey throughout which Gibraltar campaigned eventually under the banner of “We are ready”.
The first significant challenge to overcome was to manage the transition from amateur to semi professional, as substantial funds would become a source of income to some clubs for the first time ever. Local football had now become an attractive proposal to business-minded individuals who had little or no history or interest in the game, but who saw an opportunity to tap into the lucrative and prestigious world of international football. The Clubs were immediately burdened with significant red tape in order to meet the rigorous criteria imposed by UEFA under their Club Licensing Regulations. Although a period of grace was granted to cover certain areas, the amount of work involved in meeting these commitments was extensive and demanding. This was unreasonable on our clubs which were run for decades predominantly through volunteer work.
Gibraltar and UEFA had agreed a roadmap towards membership. But where was the roadmap to help the clubs navigate through these stormy waters and meet these challenging deadlines? Instead of immediate participation in the two main European Competitions, perhaps a more phased approach might have been well advised and advocated regardless of what UEFA had to say on the matter.
By the time the first season under UEFA membership had kicked off come September 2013, both the first and second division clubs had seen a significant increase in numbers of foreign players. Our game was flooded overnight with predominantly Spanish players. In some cases this situation was forced upon clubs that suddenly lost local first team players to rival teams due to increased financial rewards on offer (St Joseph’s and Glacisfor example). Others signed up foreign players out of choice, in order to have an immediate impact on the league and challenge for the European Competition places and the commensurate prize money distributed by UEFA (Europa FC for example).
The view from the GFA at the time was that any cap on EU nationals would contravene EU law. The absence of a long term strategy for the game culminated with an invasion of foreign players. By the time the second season kicked off in September 2014, I estimate that in the First Division alone, 70% of the starting line ups were composed of foreign players.
The level of competition had indeed increased in the top division, but who was the ultimate beneficiary? Most certainly not our national senior team, which was competing internationally for the first time. The influx of foreign players meant the talent pool available for the national manager to select players was declining rapidly. The ambitious Europa Point Stadium had clouded the judgment of many. It was evident that the there was no roadmap in place to guide the clubs. It led me to the conclusion that the primary motives for joining Europe’s elite world of football were in fact flawed. Good corporate governance demands that senior executives and directors establish and regularly review a risk register.
Nine months down the line we faced our second challenge. A misinterpretation of the rules created a conflict at the end of our first competitive season within UEFA membership in respect of which team would qualify for the Europa League Competition as Gibraltar’s representative for the season 2014/15. Was it Manchester 62, who had finished runners up to Lincoln (who automatically qualified for Champions League themselves), or Europa FC, finalist in the Rock Cup Final? As from the end of the 2014/15 season, new legislation introduced by UEFA prevented participation of a losing finalist from qualifying automatically for any European Competition and the place being passed on instead to the highest placed team in the League.
The GFA, inexcusably, opted to allow Europa FC as losing finalist to participate in Europe and paid out financial compensation to Manchester 62. The cost of this oversight is estimated to have been £95,000. The GFA did not, and does not have a mandate from the clubs to use funds it receives for grassroots development in this manner, least of all without consulting the clubs they represent. As a result of this expensive oversight the GFA made the first important appointment, that of a Head of Legal Services, a post which, incredibly, was not created upon entry into UEFA in May 2013, despite representations being made to the contrary.
The leading small footballing nation
BY THE start of the 2014/15 season local football had already tasted European football in terms of Champions League (Lincoln FC) and Europa League (Europa FC) and was looking forward to seeing our national team competing against current World Champions Germany, Poland, Scotland, Republic of Ireland and Georgia. The lack of sporting infrastructure in Gibraltar meant no games could be hosted locally. Both the economy and the community would miss out on an opportunity to experience sporting tourism of the highest level for the first time.
The GFA determined that our home away from home would be Faro, 392 km away. Where exactly was the thought process here? We had been drawn in a Group with nations who historically have an army of travelling fans, as was the case of Scotland, Germany and Republic of Ireland. Once it was evident that the Victoria Stadium would not satisfy the strict UEFA guidelines to host competitive games of this level, and with no possibility of requesting a temporary exception, the thought process should have turned to identifying a venue whereby we could maximise match day revenue for each particular game.
The decision to use Faro as our home away from home was once again the easy way out and, more importantly, the wrong choice. London, albeit a testing challenge, would have provided excellent revenue opportunities for the GFA. Reasonably sized and well connected stadiums like Craven Cottage, home of Fulham FC in South Kensington, or the Hive, home to Barnet FC in North London, would have resulted in a cheaper option than Faro and provided exceptional opportunities to maximise match day revenue. Instead of making the European Championship qualification a financial windfall and generating much needed revenue to invest back into our clubs, Faro turned into a financial haemorrhage with collective losses I estimate to be in the region of £500,000.
In March 2015 the GFA made another set of important appointments with Michael Llamas QC taking up the role of President, a position which was vacated two months earlier with Desmond Reoch’s resignation. Michael had led the legal team throughout the decade-long litigation and his integrity and legal skill shone throughout the process in Gibraltar’s legitimate challenge in the international courts. He had very clear in his mind from his first day in office what Gibraltar required in order to position itself to succeed as a small footballing nation within Europe’s elite. Firstly, to improve the local sporting infrastructure. Secondly, to introduce a Home Grown Player (HGP) rule. Dennis Beiso, previously CEO, was appointed General Secretary and empowered to lead the GFA.
The Europa Point stadium project had failed dismally. The amount of money spent on such a glamorous and lavish presentation, coupled to the number of flaws in the project, made it depressingly obvious that the architects appointed by the GFA had not carried out the necessary research. A total of £835.792 of UEFA funds was invested into this project and two years were lost before the GFA decided to rethink their plans for a new stadium.
Even more worryingly, the Spanish economy had benefitted financially as, due to a lack of sporting infrastructure in Gibraltar, most local clubs were forced to train across the border at a significant cost to them. The fact that this very nation had forced us to spend a significant amount of taxpayers’ money in the decade long litigation to achieve UEFA and then FIFA membership is totally and utterly unacceptable. Were we ready? Was it a question that the cart was put before the horse? Or, to our detriment, was it that we lacked a long-term strategy, a roadmap?
It is palpable that Gibraltar will never be able to compete on sporting or financial terms with the bigger nations of either UEFA or FIFA. However, there is no reason why we cannot aim, within a reasonable period of time, to be the best of the smaller nations. Gibraltar has always produced extremely good athletes. However, the nurturing process of the athlete and a severe lack of sporting infrastructure to develop them is where we fall painfully short. The secret to creating and sustaining success in sporting terms must contain these two elements.
At the 1996 Summer Olympics hosted by Atlanta, Great Britain were effectively the paupers in the Olympic world. Success was not the norm and they had finished 36th in the final medal table, behind the likes of Nigeria, Republic of Ireland and North Korea. Over the years they had become the minnows in the Olympic Pond. Fast forward twenty years to the Rio Summer Olympics and Great Britain ended up with a record haul of 67 medals second only to the United States. Coincidence? Pure sporting luck ? No, they simply decided to carry out a forensic audit on the reasons for such a dismal and poor performance at the Atlanta Olympics.
In the aftermath of this forensic audit a body called UK Sport was founded. UK Sport was essentially the funding body – an investment enterprise. It received its own income from two sources, the National Lottery and the Government, and it invests that money into the sports and athletes it believes will be successful. It then rides those investments hard. This is how business principles are and should be applied to successful sports management in order to be successful.
It was UK Sport who set themselves the target of achieving 66 medals by the 2016 Olympics. Similarly, if Gibraltar wants to achieve and sustain sporting success – and in the context of this article, I am referring to football – we need to set ourselves a target. We should aim to become the leading small footballing nation. This has to be the BHAG (Big Hairy Audacious Goal), our strategic vision statement acronym well enough established in business to have its own Wikipedia entry: it is a goal that is, by design, so challenging and risky that it stimulates progress.
Government invests £5.4m annually in sports. FIFA and UEFA subsidies alone amount to roughly £3.5 per annum which, for a nation of our size, are substantial amounts of money. The rise of Team GB came through money, lots of it. Did this mean that they just bought their way up the medal table? Well, not exactly, because their budget is dwarfed by comparison to China and Russia. Further analysis shows that Team GB outspent Australia by 37 per cent, however they beat them on the medal table by 131 per cent.
UK Sport’s first major decision to enable this turnaround was the creation of its very own “Talent Lab”. The war-room for the GB Olympic campaign was an office in Loughborough noted for its sports-related courses and achievements. The key stage for nurturing a footballer is from the age of 15 to 20. Certain important obstacles may derail his/her progress. Locally, we face the academic route which for decades has stalled the progress of the player whilst they pursue their academic studies in the UK, and rightly so. However, we need to address this issue urgently if we want to have a competitive National Team in five years’ time. The likes of Lee Casciaro and Roy Chipolina are not getting any younger and I don’t see anyone close to their calibre coming through in the local leagues. To a lesser extent we have the social “B & B” (Birds & Booze) influence on these youngsters too, but this is manageable under the right conditions.
We must enhance the integration of higher education with sport in order to keep producing players. The American model of funding through higher education could be one of the answers to fill the existing void. By encouraging sports-specific scholarships we will continue the nurturing process of the player, promoting academic achievement while allowing their sporting talent to be fulfilled. I am sure that the Director of Education would welcome moves in this respect, given that we mostly see a continuous flow of lawyers, accountants and teachers being formed academically.
Another solution to curtail the existing deficiencies of our current model of nurturing players, which is failing, could be the creation of our own UK-based talent lab. A Gibraltar House for athletes which, by identifying a well-connected location where we can partner with a local club which has two or three universities in the vicinity, would allow players to study during the day and continue their sporting development in the evening.
Even if we need to invest funds in infrastructure, this will be an asset in our hands and ultimately represent significant savings. More importantly, it will plug the existing hole we have had for decades in developing players. Considering that our annual expenditure into education is £50m, the cost of setting this up in the UK would not be excessive and would be no skin off the nose for either Government or the GFA, whose main interest should be the continued development of players.
We owe it to our players to provide them with the right tools and structure to be able to develop their potential, as this was the objective of joining UEFA and FIFA.
Infrastructure, integrity and looking after our players
BY THE end of 2016, the GFA had completed the selection process for the post of Technical
Director and an announcement was made on the 10th January 2017. This was another key post, which but came three and a half years after Gibraltar first joined UEFA, further demonstrating the lack of a post-UEFA entry roadmap being in place. Desi Curry brings an immense wealth of experience to our nation and he has a very tough job ahead of him. The footballing future of our nation is in his hands and he must develop a sporting structure that ultimately pro- duces a steady flow of players that are good enough to represent our nation Gibraltar at international level. The time for action is now, before it is too late.
By creating a pathway for the athletes in the different sports, we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to lay down the foundations based on the admirable work achieved by Michael Llamas QC in securing such a significant amount of funding from FIFA and UEFA. Let us not waste this opportunity. Let us learn from expensive mistakes of the past.
A simple look at the new facilities plans announced recently by the Gibraltar Government shows some flaws. already for example squash, a dying sport with little local or international participation, will receive a 200% increase in facilities. This is wrong and furthermore demonstrates that we do not have a detailed sports infrastructure strategy in place. We should not be embarrassed to import expertise to achieve this and deliver what the community as a whole, not just sports, deserves.
The four planned facilities are major investments in the future of Gibraltar. Medium to long term investments of this nature have the ability to have a profound transformational change on any community, if approached the right way. The Government needs to develop a Sports Infrastructure Strategy that collaborates with all sports, establishing plans and across government departments and drawing on the necessary expertise, e.g. infrastructure (road and transport networks) and culture (events), to ensure that the infrastructure investment delivers for the next generation of Gibraltarians.
There needs to be multi stakeholder collaboration (GOG, GFA, Clubs and Associations) to understand vision, ambition and future strategic plans. This plan must include a commercial element (increasing events, third party investors/ partners and attracting more visitors to Gibraltar), a community focus (increasing jobs, improving sports facilities for performance and community usage), and an educational dimension (alignment with university courses, youth/talent development both in performance and community lifestyle). We have to understand that by promoting sport and an active healthy lifestyle in the community, our health costs (currently standing at £107.5m) will start to decrease slowly over time.
We also have to manage the financial risk from the constraints of indicative cost mod- els. We have a limited amount of money to deliver four sports facilities and a new stadium, and the tax payer cannot be expected to absorb any future shortfall. There needs to be strong financial management from experienced individuals of the highest order. A staggering amount of money was invested on the failed Europa Point project and football doesn’t have anything to show for it. More often than not, stadiums are delivered late and over budget. On match day income alone, the new stadium’s business model is not sustainable and funds destined for development of grassroots football cannot be haemorrhaged away in maintaining this new stadium in the same way as it as in Faro. A financially stable economic model needs to be created and implemented. Gibraltar and the GFA have announced an ambitious plan for the next two years. We have an opportunity to lead the way again and this comes from importing the experience of competent professionals who possess the skills and have delivered in this exclusive industry. Wembley was delivered five years late and at three times its projected cost. We cannot afford to make the same mis- takes again, especially after the Europa Point debacle.
The Home Grown Player rule is a positive step introduced before the start of the 2016/17 season. However given the significant numbers of foreign players registered in our league its introduction has to be phased over the next four years and driven and imposed by the GFA. The competitiveness of the current League will be reduced and standards will fall. However it is a small price to pay to ensuring that local players (especially those who do not pursue academic goals for a period of three to four years) will continue to be developed and provide ultimately the relevant tools for the National Coach for selection.
There are two final points which concern me in respect of how the game has developed locally. One in respect of the integrity of the game, the other is the well- being of the players.
Sports’ gambling is common practice around much of the world. People are always looking for ways to make money on pastimes they enjoy, from card games to watching their favourite sports teams take part in competitions. Businesses have long been catering to this need for centuries. The rise of sports’ gambling has led to questions about the impact on the integrity of sports in general. Sports’ betting sites allow sports gamblers to put money on a plethora of predictions of game outcomes and make money if their pre- dictions come to pass. It is the diversity of outcomes that you can stake on that has caused a lot of betting scandals. People have been able to make money out of manipulating facets of games rather than just the overall outcome.
Exposing young players to sudden wealth and temptation is seen as a prime cause of corruption in football. There are many well documented cases involving the fixing of sport outcomes to benefit gam- bling syndicates or the betting houses. In 2009 one of the largest investigations into football in Europe showed that over 200 matches including three games in the UEFA Champions League were fixed. The scandal was un- covered through tapping of the phones of persons linked to organised crime. It was also dis- covered that many small clubs across Europe were reliant on match fixing for revenue to stay afloat. Dozens of raids were carried out and many people were charged.
In January 2017 Jesus Serrano Toscano, a registered player of Europa FC, was found guilty of breaching betting rules and received a subsequent 6 month ban and a £250 fine. On the 10th February 2017 the GFA announced on its website that after consideration of all mitigating circumstances, the rest of the ban outstanding (five months) was suspended for a year. If a player has committed a serious offence and breached betting rules, reducing the punishment from six months to one is far too lenient and sends the wrong message. Sanctions must be rigorous and severe and the GFA must be strong in this respect, not only because our President serves as the European Representative to the FIFA Ethics Committee, but more importantly to maintain the integrity of the beautiful game and deter organised crime syndicates from targeting Gibraltar. Minor matches between lesser sides and from poorer or smaller countries are of particular interest as largely unnoticed elsewhere, these can attract huge interest from gamblers, especially in Asia.
On 25th August 2007 I was present at the Ramon Sanchez Pizjuan Stadium for the first game of the 2007/08 season be- tween Seville and Getafe. After 35 minutes of the game had passed, Antonio Puerta one of the most promising left backs in Europe at the time was seen crouching and then subsequently collapsed. Two of his team- mates immediately ran to his side as he lost consciousness. Moments later, club medical staff and other players followed suit.
After recovering and being substituted, Puerta was able to walk to the dressing room, where he collapsed once again. He was resuscitated by the doc-tors and taken, by ambulance, to the Intensive Care Unit of the Virgen del Rocío Hospital. Puerta died three days later on 28th August 2007, at 14:30. Puerta’s premature death from heart problems is similar to those of Marc-Vivien Foe, Matt Gadsby, Miklos Feher, Renato Curi, Serginho and Phil O’Donnell all of whom collapsed whilst playing in football matches.
Following Puerta’s death, FIFA ordered the installation of resuscitation rooms in every stadium that hosted the World Cup Qualifiers. National Associations across Europe went through a strategic review of all sporting facilities, from training grounds to stadiums. To date I can only recall one serious incident locally which resulted in the death of an official. However this should not deter us from undergoing a serious review, together with the GSLA, to improve access to the Stadium in the event of an Emergency Response Unit having to attend a serious incident. In fact I would go further and ensure that there is an emergency response unit permanently based at the Stadium through- out the year. Naturally there are costs involved. However, with the level of funding received by the GFA I cannot think of a more deserving way to invest a modest fraction of this funding than by ensuring that the existing medical shortcomings are covered. More importantly both our junior and senior players’ wellbeing, which should be of paramount importance, will be guaranteed.
Gibraltar is facing challenging and testing times with the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. However, we have always had an ability to re-invent ourselves, in a constant and dynamic way. Football has a golden opportunity to lead the way again and underline that we were ready to join the elite of football.