IT’S one of the longest trips for a home game in football. Since 2013, hundreds of Gibraltar fans have woken before dawn and crawled bleary-eyed onto coaches and cars for the 800km round-trip to Faro.
Monday’s 6-0 World Cup qualifying defeat to Belgium is the ninth time this time-consuming, expensive journey has been made. It’s hoped it will be the last.
“The GFA is working closely with the Gibraltar Government, as well as with FIFA and UEFA, to bring these home games home, even before the new national stadium is built,” the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) said in a statement last month.
“This is essential. We are working tirelessly toward making our next home game our last home game to be played in foreign soil.”
Last week, a GFA spokesperson told the Olive Press they were ‘optimistic’ high-levels talks would grant clearance for next June’s Group H Cyprus match to be played on the Rock.
Gibraltar football officials have certainly put in tireless work on behalf of the national game, with UEFA and FIFA membership secured in the past three years. A permanent base in Gibraltar for the national team would be the final piece in the jigsaw.
Other sides have travelled longer distances to play at home – in 2008, Russian military action forced Georgia’s home game with Ireland to be moved 2,000km to the German city Mainz- but so far, Gibraltar’s players and fans have clocked up an eye-watering 7,200km on the road to Faro.
Separate proposals have been made for a 8,000-seater stadium at Europa Point and a 4-5,000 capacity ground at Lathbury Barracks. Exemption can be granted by football authorities for a stadium to host international games even if it doesn’t reach minimum standards.
For now, everyone must hope an agreement can be struck.
For fans and journalists who have regularly made the 12-hour journey, like Gibraltar Magazine writer Mark Viales, playing at home again would be a welcome move.
“I think the novelty of Faro is wearing off a bit,” said Viales, who paid his own way to Portugal for last month’s qualifier with Greece.
“Playing in Faro affects everybody. First of all, the money the Gibraltar fans have to spend getting there (a coach is around £40). Plus, what they spend in Faro could go into Gibraltar’s economy.
“Games during the week make it almost impossible for people to travel. And the proof we would be better off playing in Gibraltar came when Lincoln Red Imps beat Celtic.
“Everyone wants football to come home.”
The fans’ journey to Faro has also been struck by tragedy. In June 2015, a coachload of Gibraltar fans returning home were involved in an accident which killed one Moroccan man.
Chestertons Gibraltar’s Mike Nicholls was on the coach just behind that night and admits he is reluctant to ever make the trip again.
“We should play in London in the interim. It’s easier to get to (you just walk to the airport) and you can have a laugh on the flight,” he said.
“London is infinitely better than Faro, and the attendance would be so much greater as London people care about Gibraltar whereas Faro residents couldn’t give two hoots.”
The dangers of the long drive were underlined again last month when former Bruno’s Magpies coach Joel Richard Williams suffered a terrifying accident driving to Portugal for the Greece game with photographer Michael Menez.
“I was on the way to Faro beach before the Greece game. Our car fell into the sea when I swerved to avoid a car and we started sinking,” the 26-year-old told the Olive Press.
“All I could think was, ‘I am not dying on a beach in Faro’. I realised I was under water and knew I had to react. I took my seatbelt off calmly and scrambled out of the window as the car sank.”
Both men survived the horrific ordeal, although Williams, who is about to start a new job at an Indian football academy, is not deterred from travelling to cheer on the boys again.
“If I had to travel to Faro again, I would. Gibraltar is my country and I want to support the team,” he said.
“But it is irritating to go there every single time. It’s a strenuous trip.”
For the players, travelling to Faro has meant taking time off work. Gibraltar Defence Police officer Lee Casciaro, whose wife gave birth to their first child in August, had to use valuable family time to travel for Monday’s match with Belgium
“I’ve had to use my paternity leave. Most of us have to take paid or unpaid leave to travel for the international games in Faro, although the GFA compensate us,” striker Casciaro told the Olive Press.
“It would be great if we could play the home games in Gibraltar. But we can’t complain. We love playing for Gibraltar.”
The hope is that when the boys run out against Cyprus, they can recapture some of the spirit that saw Lincoln defeat Celtic in a true David V Goliath moment. To do so, they need to be at home.