The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) has been granted an exemption by UEFA to continue playing international matches at Victoria Stadium, with plans for a new home having been delayed by COVID-19.
European football’s governing body has approved the GFA’s application for the forthcoming 2022 FIFA World Cup qualifying competition, with Gibraltar set to host its first home match against Norway on March 24.
UEFA had previously confirmed to the GFA that it would not grant any further exemptions after the 2020 Nations League campaign due to Victoria Stadium falling short of the governing body’s minimum criteria for official international competition.
In April 2017, it was announced that Gibraltar’s matches would be held on the British territory’s home soil following a deal for Victoria Stadium to be upgraded. Since its admission into UEFA in 2014, the Gibraltar national team had played its home fixtures in Faro, Portugal due to a lack of suitable facilities.
The GFA agreed to upgrade the stadium to an 8,000-seat ground using UEFA and FIFA infrastructure funding. The GFA now owns Victoria Stadium and in September 2018 it was granted outline planning permission to build a new 8,000-capacity stadium on the same site by the country’s Development & Planning Commission.
The GFA appointed Ramboll to provide multi-disciplinary engineering services for the project, in association with The Stadium Consultancy. In a statement yesterday (Thursday), the GFA said that pre COVID-19 it had intended to commence construction of the New National Stadium in the third quarter of 2020, rendering Victoria Stadium unavailable for at least 18-24 months.
The global pandemic has delayed this original timeline, freeing up Victoria Stadium. This delay prompted a senior GFA delegation to make written and oral representations to UEFA last month, asking for further dispensation to allow Victoria Stadium to be used once again.
After what the GFA said were “lengthy discussions”, UEFA has granted the request, on certain conditions similar to those imposed for the Euro 2020 qualifiers. One of the conditions is that Victoria Stadium be used for all home matches, meaning that the construction of the New Stadium cannot commence until after the final scheduled World Cup qualifier on November 16. The GFA said it is now working towards this date, and will provide more information in the near future.
The other conditions relate to several upgrades which need to be made to Victoria Stadium. As such, the GFA will shortly commence works onsite in order to meet UEFA’s conditions ahead of the Norway game.
GFA general secretary, Ivan Robba, said: “This is great news for the Gibraltar FA and for Gibraltar as a whole. We have been working hard with UEFA to get this exemption, as we strongly believe that this was the most sensible way forward given the difficulties that COVID-19 is causing everywhere.
“The idea of having to play our home matches in another country was very worrying for us, so we are extremely grateful to UEFA for understanding us and facilitating matters for us. This now means that, COVID permitting, Gibraltar will again play world class international teams in the most prestigious international competitions on home soil.
“In this regard, we are very conscious of the pandemic and the current restrictions imposed in Gibraltar as a result, so we are working and will continue to work closely with all relevant authorities to ensure that all measures are complied with accordingly.
“Though it is too soon to tell, we sincerely hope, especially with the recently implemented vaccination program, that Gibraltar will be in a position to allow spectators into the Victoria Stadium to witness and experience such matches, as playing the UEFA Nations League without our supporters did not feel right at all.”