ALMANCIL, Portugal (Reuters) - When Gibraltar coach Allen Bula enters the Algarve stadium for the team’s momentous UEFA debut on Tuesday, he will look back at a career built on the same principles that earned them an elusive court victory over Spain: persistence and grit.
Gibraltar, an economically self-reliant and mostly self-governing British Overseas Territory, became UEFA’s 54th member in May, following a 14-year court marathon against Spain’s objections to their football ambitions as a national side.
His career demanded similar nerve and sacrifice from Bula, a cheeky and confident coach who has set the bar high for the mostly amateur Gibraltarians.
“I was born in Gibraltar, that’s my nation. I left for England and there I started working semi-professionally as a coach,” the coach told Reuters in an interview at the squad’s training camp in Portugal’s southern region of the Algarve.
Like Gibraltar’s UEFA entry, Bula, 48, faced a bumpy road to success.
“I reached the under-21s in Gibraltar as a player but unfortunately had an accident in my leg so my career ended very soon”.
Most of Bula’s professional career was spent at Slovak side MFK Kosice, where he worked for more than seven years, first as an academy manager and then head coach.
“It was an offer I could not refuse,” he said. Fittingly, Gibraltar will take on Slovakia in their first full international.
Bula claims to have a penchant for spotting talent. Credited for grooming Serbia and Benfica dynamo Nemanja Matic while at Kosice, the coach was optimistic about a few talents under his wings.
“No one knew about Matic, and no one wanted to put their faith in him. I said many, many years ago he was going to be one of the top players in Europe and look where he is now,” said Bula.
”Seventeen-year-old Daylian Victor, Gibraltar’s youngest, he’s a player that has the same characteristics as Matic.
“Daylian reminds me exactly of him. He’s got great vision, composure. He will be snapped by a big club soon.”
It was a difficult family decision for Bula to take charge of Gibraltar in 2010 but he has no regrets.
“Gibraltar knocked on my door and when your country comes and knocks on your door you can’t say no,” he said.
He went back and forth between Slovakia and Gibraltar for a while but then realized it was hard to juggle the two jobs.
”I had to make a decision and that decision was to give up my paid job over there. At that time the Gibraltar position was unpaid.
“Looking back, it’s been a great joy, that’s the little sacrifice I did for my country, maybe not a sacrifice, I owed it to my country,” said Bula, who is a regular on Twitter and likes to watch TV show X-factor with his wife.
He is also the uncle of Gibraltar’s highest profile player, former Manchester United defender Danny Higginbotham, who plays for English fifth-tier side Chester FC.
Sharing jokes with players and staff in fluent English and Spanish, Bula tried to create a relaxed atmosphere ahead of the match, replacing Monday’s afternoon training with a stroll in the downtown of Faro, Portugal’s southernmost city.
The Gibraltar Football Association has not given him any targets but an ambitious Bula has set his sight on qualifying for Euro 2016 in France.
“Everything is possible in life, what I look as a manager is that I always set my own goals and have my targets very high,” he added.
Reporting by Daniel Alvarenga; editing by Amlan Chakraborty