Part Three of our three-part series with ex-Lincoln Red Imps and Gibraltar national team captain Daniel Duarte sees us talk about how it felt representing his country, winning Gold in 2007, and more.
1) How did it feel representing your country for the first time?
I remember the first time I represented Gibraltar, we were playing away in Malaga and I came on as a sub for Colin Ramirez. Those few seconds before getting onto the pitch felt like an eternity; I was so anxious and just wanted to get on the pitch and play. But I don’t remember much else if I’m honest. I was very young at the time and was very excited and extremely happy to be playing for the national team.
Playing for the national side is every kid’s dream and growing up I’d heard stories of different players explaining how honoured and privileged they felt whilst playing for Gibraltar. As my career progressed and I played more games with the senior side, I started feeling something different: the more I played for the national side, the more special it became. Representing my country at different levels always felt special, no matter if it was a friendly or an official international game – wearing that shirt always brought up your emotion.
2) At what age did you make your senior national team debut and how did it feel?
At the time, a number of the U21 national team players played against the senior side every Thursday and three or four players from the U21s, including myself, were selected to travel with the senior team to Malaga.
I can still remember the moment when I told my mum and grandparents that I had been selected to play for Gibraltar, I was very excited and happy. But I was also very young – only 16 – and the match was in Malaga, so I had to check that I was allowed to travel and play away.
3) Coming up through the national team as a youngster, how beneficial was it for you to have been surrounded by those senior players at the time?
Prior to joining the national team, I was already playing for Lincoln’s senior team, which exposed me to other senior players. I believe that it is always beneficial to play with older and better players than yourself when you are young. Playing for the U21s and training with the senior side helped me tremendously: I was able to play with the best players in Gibraltar, players that had a lot of talent and experience, such as Colin Ramirez, Peter Moreno, Jerry Aguilera, Adrian Olivero and Ivan de Haro.
These guys were not only excellent footballers, but they also gave me a lot of advice and helped me to stay mentally focused on football and my career. Coming up through the national team, I was fortunate to have played for two of the best managers in Gibraltar at the time, Adolfo Ramirez and Charlie Cumbo.
4) You were part of that 2007 team which won Gold, how did it feel being part of that team?
It was very hard for Gibraltar losing the final back in 1995, but winning gold in 2007 was probably one of Gibraltar’s most outstanding performances.
The squad for 2007 final had played together in previous Island Games and I can honestly say that we were in the best shape of our lives: we were extremely fit and very well prepared for Rhodes. Albert Buhagiar (Bubi), who was the coach at the time, really improved the physical and mental strength of the team. We were a team on a mission; we wanted to bring home the gold medal, the gold medal that we gave away in Gibraltar in 1995. We wanted to win for Gibraltar, but also for the players that lost in 1995 and were playing in 2007 final, we couldn’t let them lose another gold medal.
The team was extremely close, we were good friends that worked hard and played for each other. We had a very well-balanced technical team and a very determined coach, Bubi. It was truly an honour to play for that squad and being the team captain – winning the gold medal was probably one of the proudest moment in my football career.
5) Who was the toughest opponent you came across at the international level?
UEFA membership came a little late for me; it was at the very end of my career when I had the opportunity of facing top nations for the European qualifiers. During the qualifying rounds, I had the privilege of playing against Scotland in Hampden Park and I would say that the entire team were outstanding and the best players that I had ever faced. The Scottish fans were also unbelievable: 50,000 people singing the Scottish national anthem was an incredible experience.
Despite Scotland being such a tough opponent, the Gibraltar team played very well – we all remember what happened after that excellent through-ball by Aaron Payas to Lee Casciaro. Football can’t get any better than that, the first goal for Gibraltar at the European qualifiers was very emotional.
6) Pre-UEFA, what was the toughest team you came across at the international level?
Pre-UEFA, I played against top sides like Charlton, Birmingham, Portsmouth and many others, but I would say that my toughest opponent was always La Balona. Not only for the quality of play but also for the incredible rivalry we’ve always had. Those games were extremely special and tough.
7) Who is the best manager you worked with at the international level and why?
I’ve been very fortunate with managers in my career, not only at Lincoln but also at the national level. I started off playing for Adolfo Ramirez, then for Charlie Cumbo. I also played under Bubi, Allen Bula, Dave Wilson and Jeff Wood. It’s extremely difficult to say who was the best manager, they were very different and different doesn’t mean that one is better than the other.
Each manager had different philosophies of football and their own ways of preparing the team. Bubi was the manager I played for the most; I played over 70 games under him and his leadership undoubtedly influenced and shaped me as a player. Adolfo gave me my debut for the national side and he directed me on the right path for my career. Charlie was my manager at Lincoln and at international level and he also helped form me as a player. It was with Dave that I played in Hampden Park and experienced UEFA international football. Jeff Wood was part of the technical team that won the gold medal in the Island Games, and it was under him that I retired (against Scotland in Faro).
All of these men have been very influential in my football career and wouldn’t like to name one in particular manager as my favourite. I have learnt a great deal from all of them and have many treasured memories from my time working under them.
8) How did it feel whilst being captain to pass on advice to the younger players who were in the same position as you when you first started?
It was very satisfying to be able to pass on my experience, including a lot of the advice that senior players gave to me when I first started playing football. My aim was to always try to give young players confidence and support, letting them know that I had been through what they were experiencing and understood the pressures and difficulties they faced. I was there to help them on and off the pitch, just like past captains did for me.
9) Looking back at your career – are you happy with everything you did?
I am extremely happy with my career; I started playing football when I was 12 years old, four years later I was playing in the first division for Lincoln, and had my debut for the national side at 16 years old. At 20 years old, I won my first league title and then managed to break every single record in Gibraltar football history with Lincoln. At one time, I was one of the youngest (at 16) and the oldest (at 35) player to play for the national side. I also had the honour of being captain for Lincoln as well as the national side for many years.
Although UEFA membership came late for me, I had the privilege of playing in the first UEFA official friendly against Slovakia and playing in Gibraltar’s match against Scotland where we scored our first goal in a European qualifier. I was also the Futsal team captain and represented Gibraltar in the first UEFA European qualifiers in Nice, getting our first win. Honestly, I cannot complain about anything in my career. Apart from all of my achievements, I’ve also made lots of friends, many of whom I probably wouldn’t have met if it wasn’t for football. I’ve enjoyed every second of my career and wouldn’t change anything.
I would like to thank everyone who has supported me and helped me along the way – especially all of my teammates, without them I wouldn’t have achieved anything and wouldn’t be the person I am today. But, most importantly, I wouldn’t have been able to achieve any of this without the support of my wife, she has been extremely supportive and motivated me in difficult times and I thank her for everything.