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Football: The current state of junior football facilities in Gibraltar

In the gathering autumn dusk two lines of young boys race along the empty stretch of tarmac between rows of parked cars, Coloured plastic cones line the route of their warm-up exercises and, after a few minutes, day-time banker and spare-time soccer coach Ivan Olivera shifts the cones for a new set of exercises and 13 pairs of young legs - many wearing shin-guards - dance in double lines between them. The Under-seven squad of Gibraltar’s Lions FC has begun its twice-weekly training session...

There are shouts and laughter and mocking encouragement as two small boys scramble beneath a parked camper van to retrieve a large orange practice ball under the watchful eye of Tyrone Davis, another adult footballer who gives unstintingly of his time to help coach the youngsters. And more good-natured jeers greet a latecomer who arrives, helmeted, on the back of his father’s motor scooter. But under the joking and tomfoolery there’s also a sense of latent discipline unusual among most of the Rock’s youngsters.

The scene is repeated on most weekday evenings, not just on the Queensway parking lot beneath Wellington Front but on many of the Rock’s other flat “empty” spaces which Olivera and his fellow coaches adapt as training pitches for their young charges. For they – and others like them who attempt to help develop youth activities and, ironically, try to “keep Gibraltar’s kids off the streets” – face a problem…Gibraltar’s chronic lack of parks or playing fields.

And, in spite of the new sports arena and complex at Victoria Stadium - opened amid a trumpeting of Caruana propaganda by HRH Princess Anne – the problem is worsening as the Government disposes of more of the Rock’s remaining empty spaces to the bulldozers and concrete of developers.

“There’s only one big pitch available for all of the Rock’s football teams and it is allocated to the Lions FC from 6p.m. to 8p.m. and only on Wednesdays,” Olivera explains.” And those two hours are meant to provide practice time for all the club’s teams – the seniors, the juniors and the kids – so one makes do with this,” he shrugs his shoulders resignedly as he points to the stretch of tarmac.

There are hundreds of youngsters affiliated to, or members of, Gibraltar’s string of senior soccer clubs and – unless a coach is free to queue at 9 o’clock on Tuesday mornings to scrounge an allocation of practice time “behind the goals” at the stadium – they face the same problems as Olivera’s 13-strong squad of Under-sevens.

“We have a single Under-seven squad – and three youngsters who come to train with them – but there are also two Under-11 teams, two Under-9 teams and two Under-13e teams…and that’s just for one football club,” Olivera says.

In fact, on any autumn evening there are probably at least 30 or 40 youngsters attending practice sessions on some or other car park…to say nothing of the non-organised groups who gather just to kick a ball about. And it is a problem that is going to grow rather than go away,” Olivera says.

“I know that the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) is pressing the Government to do something, but they do not seem to be making much progress. I suppose the Government is satisfied that by building the new sports complex at the Victoria Stadium that it has done enough…though, of course, that’s not the case. We need more parks, more playing fields,” he adds with passion.

Olivera, who each week devotes the equivalent of more that two working days to coaching and other junior team activities, is one of several players and former players involved in encouraging youth sport. And, more often than not, their efforts go largely unappreciated not only by the public – and motorists who at times actively protest about ‘ball playing’ on ‘their’ parking lots - but by parents who blame the coaches if their son’s team loses a match.

“Certainly most of us tend to get more brickbats than bouquets,’ Olivera admits. “But, what the hell, we’re not doing it for glory but for the love of the game and the sake of the kids who will make up the senior teams of the future.”

Olivera - a banking executive for the past 20 years - has been a football enthusiast “for as long as I can remember” eventually playing for the local team Lincoln Sheffield Blades. He was also a keen five-a-side player for his employer’s Jyske Bank side and later also became the team’s manager and trainer.

“Though after my marriage I left football for a few years, I kept up my other interest target shooting”, he says, modestly adding – though only under VOX’s prompting – that he has represented Gibraltar internationally in this sporting discipline. He still shoots occasionally, but admits he has little time for target practice.

Youth Activities
A keen scout when himself a youngster, Olivera has always been involved in youth activities and their development, he told VOX. And he added with patent sincerity: “Everyone – he stresses the word – should give something back to youth.”

He returned to serious commitment in what has been described as “the beautiful game” three years ago when his son expressed an interest in playing for the Lions FC but the club had no coaches available to train young players.

Learning to Lose
“It was the first time that the club considered junior football as part of its activities,” Olivera recalls. That was three years ago and there are now seven squads of juniors. “As well as giving them two training sessions a week, there are matches on Saturdays and we stay on after our own games to referee or as time-keepers. And we try to maintain their high levels of enthusiasm in other ways – we organise parties at the clubhouse every few moths and arrange trips away fromn Gibraltar to play other teams in Spain.

“And if we can get them up to a high enough standard we hope to take teams to competitions further a-field next year…possibly in Holland or the UK.”

But, he believes, the most important aspect of the ‘work’ to which he and others – devote so much of their spare time, is to encourage the development of the children in their temporary charge.

“We try to teach them to think and play as a team – not as individuals,” he says. “And even more important is that they learn to lose as well…and to be good about losing when they do. Though of course we all like our teams to win,” he adds with a smile.

As part of his commitment to coaching, Olivera has taken several UEFA courses, reaching Level 2 in its junior training manager structure and is due to take further courses with a representative of the Welsh Football Association who will visit Gibraltar next February.

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