It’s been an eventful summer for Gibraltar, the tiny British Overseas Territory in southern Spain. First came the Brexit referendum, with 96 percent of residents who voted remain now left wondering what the future holds. Then, domestic football champions Lincoln Red Imps stunned Brendan Rodgers’ Celtic with a 1-0 Champions League qualifying victory on home soil.
Although the latter was followed by a 3-0 away defeat and exit from Europe’s elite competition, it put the spotlight temporarily on Gibraltarian football. John Gontier, owner of the Gibraltar Premier Division’s newest club, Europa Point FC, is hoping that it proves to be more than just 15 minutes of fame.
As part of Watford’s youth team in the early 1980s, Gontier shared a pitch with a gifted winger by the name of John Barnes. Like most teenagers, both players had dreams of making it as a professional footballer. But their careers took divergent paths. While Barnes became a global star, first at Watford and then Liverpool, Gontier was released. He plummeted down the football pyramid and eventually fell out of the game.
His story is as common now as it was in the 1980s, every season the hopes of thousands of wannabe pros are dashed by clubs the world over. That is why Gontier set up Europa Point FC, a club dedicated to offering released players a second chance.
Having previously worked for League Football Education (LFE) – a partnership set up by the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA) and the English Football League – Gontier helped place young English players at lower tier Spanish clubs including Cadiz, Federico Mayo and Cordoba.
From the age of eight they have been told they will be big stars and earn millions. They give their lives to football and then football puts them out and the street.
But in 2014 he took things a step further, forming a club that was to be built on the promise of redemption for those who still wanted to have a career in football.
Since then, Europa Point FC has become a refuge for the released.
“I know how it feels for these boys,” Gontier tells Sport360. “Watford let me go at the age of 19. And in several years working with the LFE, I saw how players became depressed because they had been released.
“From the age of eight they have been told by everybody around them that they will be really big stars and they see that footballers earn millions.They give all their lives to football and then football suddenly puts them out and the street.
“We are creating a world of frustrated young men – thousands of them every year. I think big clubs would be better off having four youth teams instead of 10, then it would stop this bottleneck happening at 18. Football is destroying the lives of these lads who are left with nowhere to go.”
Gontier is trying to make Gibraltar that place to go. There are no contracts worth millions but sun, sand, and the promise of regular football is an attractive proposition.
“I’ve encountered many players and initially it seems that they don’t even want to live after being released. They come here and then of course the weather is good, so that helps a little bit.
“There are only released players here. From English clubs, Spanish clubs, Gibraltarian clubs. Other players want to join, too. There have been some really talented lads in Gibraltar who have wanted to come to us but I have to say, ‘no, sorry – but if your club releases you and you are not getting a chance, we will be here to give you that chance.’”
There is an extra special carrot being dangled in front of prospective players, too. With Europa Point FC recently promoted to Gibraltar’s Premier League, the opportunity to play Champions League is feasibly the stuff of reality rather than reverie.
“We were two matches away from qualifying for the Europa League through the Cup in our first season, and now we are a top-flight team. When we win the league, and I’m confident it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’, we will play in the Champions League qualifiers. Lincoln Red Imps received €500,000 when they got knocked out. If they’d got through to the play-offs it would have been €3 million!
“I’m looking for investors and I’m telling them, I guarantee that if in four years time we haven’t qualified for the Champions League, you can get your money back. I’m so confident that we will succeed.”
It’s a bold claim for a newly promoted side and Gontier recognises that an adaptation of his philosophy is needed if he is to achieve such a lofty goal.
“Young players are at the heart of Europa Point FC but in order to compete for trophies, we need more experience. Look at the Barcelona and Real Madrid B teams – they have the best young talent in the world but do you see them winning the Segunda every year? No, because they need experience.
“Every successful team across any level of football has a good blend of youth and experience. We want some older guys to come and join us too. If they’re coming to the end of their career and have been let go, we are telling them to come to us and have the opportunity to play in the Champions League – something they won’t have done in 15 years if playing football.”
Gontier’s approach to giving players a second chance is not a new one. In Andalusia, a three-hour drive away, sits a resort that was once used by the Glenn Hoddle Academy, set up by the former England and Tottenham managers. Hoddle’s academy was well-intentioned but, according to Gontier, poorly executed.
“Ours is a similar concept to Glenn’s, yes. Though the difference comes in that they gave too much and we give too little really. When they started they were throwing money at the project and the lads who were coming over were living a great life in a five-star resort. Instead of giving them rice, he was giving them caviar.
“Glenn thought that that his was the right way but I told him personally that I didn’t think it was the right way to do things. The lads playing for Europa Point FC are not pampered – they have to work, to pay for their own accommodation. We give them an allowance, of course, but it’s all about the football here – that’s the draw.”
Sebastian Osei-Obengo is one such player who was lured by Europa Point’s philosophy and after a season demonstrating his ability in Gibraltar, the 22-year-old attacker secured his first professional contract at Scottish Championship side Dumbarton in March.
“I lived in France when I was younger and was with Bastia SC but I left when I was a teenager,” Osei-Obengo explains to Sport360. “I was determined to make it as a professional footballer though and kept plugging away. I had trials at a lot of clubs, including Premier League ones, but never made it. Then I got the call about coming over to Gibraltar and decided to give it a go. I had nothing to lose.
“Things went really well and now I’m at Dumbarton, playing as a professional. I worked hard, trained at crazy hours and killed myself to get there, it means a lot. Europa Point FC really helped me – it’s thanks to them I’ve got to here and I really am grateful. They are helping players who really want to be helped and have great links to professional clubs – it’s a great approach.”
Having the best players regularly depart may not seem a recipe for long-term success, but Gontier is convinced that the talent pool of released players is deep enough to replenish Europa Point’s squad each year. Importantly, it is helping that talent rather than winning trophies that really motivates Europa Point’s ambitious owner.
“Yes we want to win things but more than that, we want to be a stepping stone for these players to get back into the bigger leagues and they know that. If our best player is wanted by another club tomorrow that is going to offer him a real future in the game, he can go. We want the players to progress. That’s what we’re all about.”
With the signing of Kevin Gameiro, Atletico Madrid have made the perfect addition to address their squad’s only deficiency: a reliable partner for Antoine Griezmann.
Manager Diego Simeone was frustrated by a range of options last season, which started with the arrival of Jackson Martinez in an ill-fated move which saw the Colombian last only a few months before being packed off to China.
Youngsters Lucian Vietto and Angel Correa also struggled to deliver on a consistent basis, and in the end Simeone was forced to fall back upon the declining powers of Fernando Torres.
Fortunately, the former club captain further enhanced his iconic status at the Vicente Calderon by reviving his career with a splendid final few months of the campaign, which ended so cruelly with a penalty shoot-out defeat in the Champions League final against Real Madrid.
But Torres, clearly, is not a longterm option and the aftermath of that devastating European final loss was dominated by suggestions that Simeone was threatening to quit unless the club’s board backed him in the transfer market with the recruitment of a world class striker.
For a long time, Diego Costa was the preferred option as Simeone licked his lips at the prospect of bringing back a barnstorming frontman who had terrorised La Liga’s defences en route to the securing an unlikely league title triumph in 2013/14.
Chelsea’s apparent reluctance to do a deal, although it now looks like he may be available, forced Atletico to look elsewhere, and ultimately they may have ended up with an even better option in the form of Gameiro.
Everything about the pocket dynamo’s arrival from Sevilla looks right. For starters, he is a proven goalscorer on the Spanish and European stages, having netted 29 goals last season as Sevilla lifted the Europa League for the third consecutive year.
Gameiro’s style of play perfectly suits his new club, with his relentless work ethic and lightening pace on the break fitting like a glove into the physically intense, counterattacking style employed by Simeone.
It certainly should help that Gameiro will team up with his fellow Frenchman Griezmann – whom he probably should also have partnered during the European Championships a few weeks ago.
The €32 million fee Atletico have paid also represents a very decent deal – especially considering they have invested roughly one third of the sum splashed out by Juventus on Gonzalo Higuain. And finally, despite everything he has achieved with Sevilla, Gameiro is hungry and has something to prove.
His only previous experience with a truly big club, PSG, went badly. And although winning the Europa League is very pleasant, Gameiro knows it does not compare with the major honours he can challenge for with his new club.
And challenging for major honours is certainly what Atletico will expect to do – once again -this season. This has been an excellent summer for Los Rojiblancos, starting when the threat of Simeone leaving was eventually averted.
Then, unlike previous recent summers which saw the departure of key players such as Arda Turan, Costa and Thibaut Courtois, Atletico succeeded in keeping their squad intact.
The fact that stars such as Griezmann, Saul Niguez, Koke and Jan Oblak have all pledged their futures to their current club rather than seeking their fortune elsewhere says an awful lot about how high the club’s reputation has risen under Simeone.
Even after winning La Liga a couple of years ago they were realistically not a big enough club to keep hold of a player like Costa, whose move to Chelsea came with a sense of inevitability.
That is no longer the case. Atletico have truly established themselves in world football’s elite, and superstars like Griezmann know they can achieve everything imaginable by staying under the stewardship of Simoeone.
And now, with Gameiro arriving to add his firepower, they possess a squad which cannot really be faulted. The days of Spain’s ‘big two’ are well and truly over. Atletico are here to stay.
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