1 July 2014 18:22
While most eyes remain locked on the FIFA World Cup in Brazil, footballing history will be made in Gibraltar on Wednesday.
The British overseas territory off the coast of Spain was accepted as a full member of UEFA in May 2013, with the national team having picked up their first friendly win against Malta in Portugal last month.
Now it is the turn of domestic champions Lincoln Red Imps to make their bow on the European stage, as they become the nation’s first UEFA Champions League entrants.
Lincoln, who only gained semi-professional status last season, meet HB Torshavn of the Faroe Islands in the opening leg of their first qualifying round tie this week – just reward for a club who have topped the Gibraltarian Premier Division for the last 12 seasons in succession.
And manager Mick McElwee, who has been at the helm for a decade and led the club to seven trebles, said it would be a proud day for his side, who share their Victoria Stadium home with the rest of the Gibraltarian top flight.
“I’m very proud of the situation, mainly because I’m happy for the club and the supporters,” he told Perform. “We’ve been at the top of Gibraltarian football for quite some time now. Not just the 12 years that we’ve won the league in a row, but before that.
“Spreading over the last 20-25 years, we’ve been the dominant force in Gibraltarian football.
“It would have been unfortunate if we hadn’t won the league last year to go through to the Champions League. There was quite a lot of relief in the club once that had been achieved, so now we’re just looking forward.
“There’s a good family ethic around the club and they’ve got quite strong connections, the players.
“It’s not like at some clubs where people come and go quite frequently, the core of our club has stuck together for the last 15 or 16 years really.”
The prize for the winner of the two-legged clash is a clash with Partizan, whose stadium in Belgrade could accommodate the entire population of Gibraltar, but McElwee is quick to temper the hopes of fans and players alike.
“It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve for us, but we’ll give it our best shot and we’ll see where that takes us,” he continued. “I expect our team to be competitive, but I do think we need to be realistic and keep a lid on the expectations.
“We don’t have any experience at this level as a club. When you get into a competition like this, experience can count for an awful lot.
“I know the players are extremely motivated to go and do something special, but it’s going to be (a case of) which team can produce the best performance over the two legs.
“We’re the underdogs, and rightly so, but we’ll try and give 100 per cent.”
Some aspects of Lincoln’s build-up are a far cry from the glamour ties normally associated with the Champions League.
“For the away leg, many of them have had to ask for special leave [from work],” McElwee revealed. “If they work for government, I think they will probably get special leave granted, otherwise they’ll have to take annual leave for the three or four days that we’ll be away for the return leg.
And McElwee, who works for a global vehicle manufacturer when he isn’t issuing instructions from the touchline, is no different.
“I have to take annual leave as well,” he added. “For example, I’ll be taking time off to leave myself free on Wednesday and then the following week I’ll have to take three days off for the return leg as well.”
Real Madrid won last season’s competition with an extra-time victory over city rivals Atletico at Benfica’s Estadio da Luz.
While there is a lot of football to be played before the 2014-15 final in Berlin, there is no question Wednesday’s clash with HB will carry as much – if not more – significance for the players, staff and officials at Lincoln Red Imps.