By Ian Felice, Hassans, Gibraltar
That Gibraltar was beaten 7-0 at home by The Netherlands last week in a World Cup Qualifier is not news.
After all, 181 places separate these countries in the FIFA rankings. The Netherlands has a well-earned pedigree in world football. Gibraltar are minnows, having only joined FIFA in 2016 - and after a 20-year CAS battle. Yet the world’s media took a keen interest in this otherwise uneventful game, played in un-Mediterranean blustery wind conditions before a crowd of around 500 people.
Wait….crowd? 500 people? At a sporting event? In 2021? Exactly! The Gibraltar v Netherlands World Cup qualifier that would otherwise be but a statistical reference point in the record books was, to all intents and purposes, a social experiment of what the organisation of sporting events might look like in a post-Covid world. Days after Gibraltar hosted the heavyweight boxing re-match between Dillian White and Alexander Povetkin - also in controlled conditions - international football returned to the Rock amidst great expectations and cautious optimism.
For starters, however, some context. Almost every adult in Gibraltar has now received both doses of the Pfizer vaccine. Lockdowns and restrictions have been eased for over a month now - restaurants, bars and cafeterias are open, shops are back in business, schools bustle with children and masks do not have to be worn outdoors. There are 8 active Covid cases in the country. There have been less than a handful of new infections in the last fortnight.
With this backdrop, and life slowly returning to ‘normal’, Gibraltar’s next step was to consider how to properly and responsibly permit larger gatherings. International boxing and football provided the perfect setting. The conditions? No under 18s allowed. Tickets could only be purchased by persons who had received their second vaccine dose over a week before the match. Tickets were validated only after a negative test result a few hours before the event. Everyone who attended has to be tested again next week. No ‘ifs’, no ‘buts’.
The success or otherwise of this initiative might provide a blueprint. As vaccination rates increase globally, health authorities can look at the data stemming from Gibraltar’s sporting experiments to determine if this is the shape of things to come.
The Gibraltar v Netherlands World Cup qualifier certainly did not set the world on fire in the footballing sense, but many a public health eye was firmly affixed on it. After all, this could be the only way in which a sporting event can be organised with crowds in the world’s new normal.
Ian Felice may be contacted by e=mail at ‘ian.felice@hassans@gi’