Retro Trip: La Línea and Gibraltar (August-September 2019)

Back in August of 2019, I boarded a plan from London to Gibraltar. My mission? Get married!

Landing in Gibraltar

One of the joys of being in an international relationship is that things other people take for granted are infinitely more complicated. Getting married in the UK, Spain or the USA would have involved Visas, lots of paperwork and a whole lot more expenditure, but Gibraltar offered a cheap and interesting alternative!

Our ceremony was scheduled for Monday morning, so that meant our paperwork had to be submitted on the Friday beforehand, hence our need to be there over the weekend, which also opened the door for some football! And I was lucky enough that things lined up perfectly for me to see games on both sides of the border!

Gibraltar’s Peculiar History

Gibraltar has been a strategically important site since ancient times with the rock being one of the legendary Pillars of Hercules of Greek and Roman myth. There are various versions of the story, one says that Europe and Africa were connected until Hercules used his superhuman strength to smash through the mountain range that linked them, leaving only the Rock of Gibraltar and its African counterpart (either Jebel Musa in Morocco or Monte Hacha in the Spanish enclave of Ceuta) standing. Another version says that instead of creating the Strait of Gibraltar, Hercules actually narrowed the gap between Europe and Africa to prevent sea monsters from the Atlantic gaining access to the Mediterranean.

What was clear to the ancients was that to sail beyond that point was to head into the unknown…

But what you’re probably wondering is how this lump of rock in the south of the Iberian peninsula became a British overseas territory…

In 1700, the Spanish king Carlos II died without an heir. As he was a drooling simpleton, rendered sterile by generations of inbreeding between his Habsburg ancestors, this came as no real surprise.

The fact that he decided to nominate his French cousin Philip, Count of Anjou, as his successor set alarm bells ringing around Europe as this would bring Spain and their Latin American possessions into France’s sphere of influence, which pretty much everyone else in Europe wanted to avoid at all costs.

Thus began the War of the Spanish Succession, which lasted from 1701 to 1714. Early on in the war, in support of their favoured candidate, the Austrian Archduke Charles, British and Dutch troops landed in southern Spain and captured Gibraltar which they saw as strategically important for controlling sea traffic in the western Mediterranean.

The war dragged on in an inconclusive fashion until a peace treaty was eventually agreed and one of the terms was that Gibraltar was ceded to Great Britain in perpetuity. Spain made numerous attempts to regain the territory, most notably the great siege of 1779-1783 which saw the old town almost completely destroyed, after which it was rebuilt in the intriguing mixture of English regency and European styles that it still has today.

The victory of Franco’s Nationalists in the Spanish Civil War posed a real threat to Gibraltar, especially after the outbreak of the Second World War, as it remained important for Britain in terms of access to the Suez Canal and their access to India and oil reserves from the Middle East. But with Spain devastated by three years of civil war, Franco was in no position to go on the attack and, with most of the civilian population evacuated, Gibraltar remained safe.

After the war, relations between the UK and Spain remained tense and in 1969, Franco ordered the closure of the border which wouldn’t be fully re-opened until Spain joined the EEC in 1985. Residents of Gibraltar have consistently rejected any idea of joint sovereignty between the UK and Spain, but with the continuing fallout from Brexit, it’s an issue which isn’t going to go away anytime soon.

Gibraltar is a very difficult place to describe. Aesthetically, it looks like a small English town with its red phone boxes, pubs and typical high street stores like Marks and Spencer. But the air is full of the sound of different languages, English, Spanish, whatever is being spoken by the passengers of the Mediterranean cruise liner that has docked in the port that particular day and not forgetting Llanito, the unique dialect spoken in Gibraltar combining aspects of English, Andalucían Spanish and others including Maltese, Portuguese and Genoese Ligurian, reflecting the eclectic ethnic background of the territory’s residents.

And then you’ve got the Rock itself. It’s definitely worth a trip up to the top in the cable car to admire the views, but beware of the monkeys! They’ve become accustomed to people over the years, so there’s no fear factor. While I was there I saw someone lose a just-purchased ice cream to them…

The infamous monkeys

Football on The Rock

Gibraltar joined UEFA in 2013 after years of opposition from Spain, who in addition to the obvious issues over their territorial claim on the territory were also concerned that it could open the door for future acceptance of separate Catalan and Basque national teams.

In the early years, their qualifiers were all played outside Gibraltar as the Victoria Stadium was not deemed up to standard. With finding a venue in Spain obviously out of the question, Portugal came to the rescue, with the Estádio Algarve in Faro, one of the venues from Euro 2004, becoming Gibraltar’s home from home for their first three qualifying campaigns. When I lived in Huelva, just over the border from Faro, I always had an eye on travelling over for a game, but alas dates never quite lined up.

The 2020/21 UEFA Nations League saw them actually win their group, remaining unbeaten from four games with Liechtenstein and San Marino and means that in the next round of the competition they’ll be competing with the likes of Northern Ireland, Turkey and former European champions Greece in League C.

Initially the biggest impact of UEFA membership on the territory’s club sides was that one of the clubs was forced to change its name. Manchester United had been set up in 1962 by some supporters of the English club, even receiving permission from Matt Busby to use the name. But the possibility of meeting their more famous namesake, however remote it may be, necessitated a change to the more prosaic “Manchester 62”, although they continue to play in the red, white and black colours.

Probably the most notable result in the history of Gibraltarian club football came on 12th July 2016, when Celtic played perennial local champions Lincoln Red Imps in the first round of the Champions League qualifying rounds. It was Brendan Rodgers’ first official match in charge but it didn’t exactly go according to plan with the resulting 1-0 win for the hosts quickly being dubbed “The Shock of Gibraltar” in the press.

Club football was reformed ahead of the 2019/20 season, with sixteen clubs being invited to form the new National League, with no promotion or relegation. Part of the reason behind this was to encourage clubs to prioritise developing home-grown talent, rather than paying big salaries to entice players across the border.

Instead of the second tier, a new Intermediate League was formed featuring the reserve sides of nine senior teams, plus former senior club FC Hound Dogs who, lacking the resources to play in the National League, were granted special dispensation to play in it.

Unfortunately the new format got of to a disastrous start as in the first week of the season in August, three of the sixteen teams, Gibraltar Phoenix, Gibraltar United and Leo, had dropped out of the competition due to financial problems. A fourth, Olympique 13, were expelled in September after forfeiting a game due to a shortage of players.

Then when the Covid-19 pandemic struck in the spring, the season was unable to be completed and it was declared null and void in May with no champion named.

The current season has seen a number of stoppages in play, again due to the ongoing effects of the pandemic, and the expulsion of another club, Boca Gibraltar, in December. Unfortunately, mismatches are still all too common, the current campaign has seen a 13-1, an 11-0 and a few 9-0’s in the first part of the season before the league split and the top teams play amongst themselves in the “Championship group”.

The Victoria Stadium

If you fly into Gibraltar airport as I did in 2019, the stadium is one of the first buildings you see as you land. The stadium actually backs onto the airport runway – during the game I saw a flight coming in to land.

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Victoria Stadium

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Victoria Stadium 36.149242, -5.350213 The home of football in Gibraltar. All the teams in the Gibraltar National League play their matches here, as does the national side after a spell of playing in Faro. Notable for its superb views of the Rock and the regular sight of planes landing at and taking off from the adjacent airport.

It is a good distance outside the main centre of Gibraltar, so if you are in the town itself before a game, it will take you about 10 minutes walk to get there. Should you be staying in La Línea, it will take a bit longer, the journey on foot from the centre will be around 25 minutes – and longer if there are queues at the border crossing…

Every team in Gibraltar calls the Victoria Stadium home, so it’s probably one of the most intensively-used grounds in world football. When I was planning our time here, I was half-hoping for a Saturday afternoon stacked with one game after another. However, the reality was very different.

When I visited Gibraltar before in April 2017, I had somehow ended up there on a blank weekend for the league season with only the Gibraltar Futsal League offering sporting entertainment and on this occasion, the number of teams dropping out early on had played havoc with the fixture list and the league seemed to be winding down ahead of the international break.

In the end, it was the Gibraltar Intermediate League that was to prove my saviour with a Thursday night meeting between the wonderfully-named FC Hound Dogs and College 1975’s Intermediate side pencilled in for Thursday evening at the Victoria Stadium.

After meeting Sarah earlier in the afternoon (she had travelled separately from Madrid by train) we had dinner in Casemate’s Square – good old traditional fish and chips – and walked up to the ground. To be honest, there wasn’t really much there to even suggest there was a game on, beyond the actual presence of two teams on the pitch. The gates were open but with no one operating them – presumably attendances in this league aren’t a big concern – and there was no sign of any food, drink or merchandise on sale. The stand was sparsely populated, though the crowd grew steadily as the game went on, thanks to people who had finished their own training sessions on the neighbouring pitches dropping in.

I can’t really comment too much on the standard of the football on display, let’s just say I didn’t really expect too much given that this was basically a reserve league.

The game was actually pretty exciting in terms of action though. College 1975 went in front with a shot from a tight angle which clipped in off the post. Hound Dogs managed to get level after the break but almost immediately went behind again through a somewhat comic own goal, the goalkeeper’s save rebounding back into the net off one of his own defender’s shins.

But they pulled level again a couple of minutes later thanks to a fine finish from close range and the points would end up being shared. When the season was ended prematurely in March 2020, Hound Dogs finished ninth out of the ten teams, this being one of only 11 points they picked up from their 16 games. College 1975 didn’t fare much better, two places higher, with four more points.

Although going to a game here accomplished a long-frustrated ambition, I did feel slightly underwhelmed. I hadn’t got any sense of whatever fan culture exists in Gibraltar, a free of charge game where half the crowd is made up of people who have wandered in out of curiosity is hardly going to provide much evidence of that.

A few days after I left for home, Gibraltar hosted Denmark in a Euro 2020 qualifier. A capacity crowd watched the star-studded Danes run out 6-0 winners, with two goals coming from Christian Eriksen. A world away from what I’d seen there.

Perhaps once the world has returned to something resembling normality, I’ll venture down here again and get to watch Lincoln Red Imps, St Joseph’s or Europa FC in a game that actually matters!

Crossing La Línea

A typically busy border crossing

Now it’s time to take a look at what’s on the other side of the border.

The town initially grew up from settlements along the frontier separating British-held Gibraltar but wasn’t formally recognised as a separate entity until 1870, when the name La Línea de la Concepción was chosen. It was then granted the status of a town in 1913.

The economy of the town has long been dependent on people crossing the border to work – currently it is estimated that around 15,000 of its residents work in Gibraltar – and since 2017 some businesses in La Línea have even accepted payment in Sterling.

For these reasons, ensuring a frictionless border post-Brexit is vitally important to the long-term prospects of the town.

In both my visits to this part of the world I’ve stayed in La Línea for the simple reason that accommodation here is much cheaper than in Gibraltar. The town itself is not one which will feature on many tourists ‘must-see’ lists. It’s pretty much your typical small Andalucían town with a big square around the main church, narrow tiled streets and just outside the centre, a series of beaches. And right next to the beach, you have a stadium…

Linense and the Estadio Municipal

The city is represented by RB Linense, who have spent most of their existence in the third and fourth tiers with the exception of a six-year spell in La Segunda between 1949 and 1955.

The club crest

Just in case you thought this was a forgotten outpost of a certain Austrian energy drink’s sporting empire, the RB stands for ‘Real Balompédica’, which appears to be a unique name in the ranks of Spanish football, though the clubs fans usually call it ‘Balona’.

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Estadio Municipal de La Línea de la Concepción

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Estadio Municipal de La Línea de la Concepción 36.158494, -5.340385

We walked to the stadium directly from Gibraltar where we’d spent most of the day – a journey which seemed a lot longer than I’d thought it would be due to the early evening sun and oppressive humidity (it was close to 90% for the duration of our stay) – but we were glad to find the ticket office was in the shade, which made waiting in the queue that bit more bearable. Although it initially seemed long, it moved quite quickly and we were soon clutching our credit card-sized match tickets and heading inside.

The stadium exterior

Under the stand there was a bar doing a roaring trade in selling bottled water, I would end up making a couple of trips myself due to the heat, but sadly there was no merchandise available. It seems to be a common problem for lower-league clubs at early season games that their stock for the new campaign hasn’t arrived in time. One of the staff assured me that scarves would be available at the next home game – sadly too late for me to add to my collection.

Although we were still at the start of the season, this was a big game. Visitors UCAM Murcia had been in the Segunda a couple of seasons before and were considered one of the likely promotion contenders before the season started so this was an opportunity for Balona to put down a marker early on.

The only goal of the game came from Balona’s Tomás Sánchez in the first half and in truth, while the action on the pitch wasn’t particularly memorable, the whole experience has stayed with me.

The fact it had a large crowd in attendance was one thing that made a big difference and the home fans were extremely vocal as they cheered on their heroes.

And then there were the concrete benches everyone on my side was sitting on. Certainly more unique than plastic seats, although the direct sunlight made them extremely warm to sit on. Pretty much everyone was glad to see the sun gradually disappear behind the horizon and reward us with a beautiful sunset – one of the nicest I’ve ever seen at a football ground.

All-in-all, not a bad way to spend my last night of “freedom”!

Reflections from 2021

Over a year and a half later, it’s pretty sobering to think that this was my last proper football trip somewhere – even though football wasn’t the main purpose of my visit, I can still count this as a football trip.

As I said earlier, I’d love to get the proper Gibraltar football experience at either an international or a National League game. I’m crossing my fingers that when the next Nations League draw rolls round, Northern Ireland finally get drawn with them, though I anticipate that getting tickets would be a nightmare.

On the other side of the line, Linense are currently competing for promotion to the new third tier of Spanish football, the Primera RFEF (as it seems likely to be called), having finished outside the top three in their initial group. The thought of revisiting the Estadio Municipal greatly appeals, as long as it’s another evening kick off so I can enjoy the sunset.

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