FARO, Portugal (Reuters) - Gibraltar celebrated their first match as a UEFA member with an impressive defensive performance to hold Slovakia to a goalless draw on Tuesday.
The stands at the 30,000-seater Algarve stadium were big enough to fit in the whole population of Gibraltar but the 500 fans who traveled from the rocky enclave celebrated as if they had won.
It was Gibraltar’s first full international after the rocky territory became UEFA’s 54th member in May following a 14-year court battle against Spanish objections to their football ambitions as a national side.
Waving red and white flags and some Union Jacks, the Gibraltarian supporters watched a display of nervy but brave defending by their mainly amateur side throughout the match.
After hearing their national anthem for the first time at the highest level, Gibraltar captain Roy Chipolina gave a pre-match motivational speech to his team which seemed to work.
He combined with former Manchester United, Stoke City and Sunderland defender Danny Higginbotham to clear wave after wave of Slovakian attack.
Halfway through the first period, Gibraltar goalkeeper Jordan Perez denied the Slovaks with a good reflex save from the visitors’ main threat on the night, midfielder Karim Guede.
Slovakia were without their two leading players, Napoli striker Marek Hamsik and Liverpool defender Martin Skrtel.
Midfielder Daniel Duarte also cleared a ball off the line as the Gibraltarians held firm to halftime.
The visitors pressed in the second period as Gibraltar rarely came out of their own half but continued to defend strongly.
Man-of-the match Higginbotham, 34, slide-tackled, headed and cleared his lines time and time again to inspire his team mates with a textbook defensive performance.
Slovakia almost spoiled Gibralta’s night in stoppage but their late effort hit bar.
Gibraltar striker Al Greene wasted a rare chance late on to make it a fairytale start, although his team mates and coach Allen Bula did not seem to care as they celebrated on the pitch.
The match was Gibraltar’s first at their temporary home at the Algarve Stadium, situated midway between Faro and Loule, which they will also use for their Euro 2016 qualifiers because the 2,000-seater Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar is not big enough to meet UEFA’s minimum standards for official games.
Writing by Daniel Alvarenga in Lisbon, editing by Ed Osmond