The Spanish aren't happy, but UEFA could soon have another member if the British territory can see off some last-minute objections. Tim Stannard reports from the sunny Mediterranean
The British territory of Gibraltar is famous for a number of things – purse-snatching monkeys, tax-dodging businessmen and a giant rock, for starters – but certainly not football. All that is about to change, as UEFA are on the brink of making the pint-sized peninsula their 53rd member, enabling a team to join the 2010 World Cup qualifying campaign.
For those who are already fed up with Europe’s tiniest territories clogging up the international schedule, the notion of Gibraltar joining in, too, must seem like complete madness. After all, Gibraltar were beaten 2‑0 by the might of Northern Cyprus in an “alternative World Cup” tournament held in Hamburg just before Germany 2006 – although they once gave Sark a 19-goal drubbing. More important, Gibraltar isn’t even a proper country.
Nevertheless, this minor nationalistic detail is not necessarily a show-stopper for Gibraltar’s FA, which first submitted a request for full membership to Europe’s governing body in 1997. UEFA already include England and Wales in their fold – which aren’t independent states but parts of a larger one, so not “proper countries”, either – and the Faroe Islands, an autonomous region of Denmark.
Although the organisation changed their entry parameters in 1999 so that only those who were also members of the United Nations could apply (and subsequently used this ruling to reject Gibraltar’s request), the campaign team has not given up its battle. “It’s our right,” said Peter Caruana, the territory’s chief minister, in September.
The bid’s supporters claim that under the original UEFA statues, territories of Gibraltar’s nature were permitted to join the organisation – as in the Faroes’ case – so the rejection of their request was unjust and discriminatory. “You can’t have one rule for one and one for the other,” says Robert Azopardi of SportGibraltar.com, pointing out that the territory has been a member of other leading sporting bodies for some time, including athletics’ IAAF.
It is an argument that the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in Lausanne backed in September, when it declared that UEFA should award Gibraltar provisional membership status at their meeting in October. With this breakthrough, the end of Gibraltar’s long journey for recognition seemed over. However, there was one last obstacle to be overcome – the neighbour to the north.
For nearly three centuries, Gibraltar has been a two-kilometre-long thorn in the side of Spain, ever since it was ceded to Great Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. Throughout this period, the mainland has steadfastly refused to give up its claims on the territory, so it’s no real surprise that the current government is apoplectic at the thought of Gibraltar joining UEFA. They perceive such an event as a blow to their sovereignty aspirations, as well being a dangerous fillip to the independence campaigns of the Basque country and Catalunya.
Days after the CAS made its ruling, Angel Villar, the president of the Spanish FA and a UEFA vice-president, forced the latter to postpone their deliberations until January with a last-minute appeal, which claimed that Gibraltar’s footballing facilities were located on disputed land – “the Spanish state is charged with the task of defending its interests”, said Villar to El País.
Gibraltar’s supporters fear that UEFA could eventually reject their claim for fear of upsetting one of their key members – an attitude that has infuriated Joey Nuñez, the president of the territory’s FA. “It’s a scandalous way of behaving,” Nuñez said on UEFA’s decision to delay their discussions. He was supported in his protests by Gibraltar’s MEP, Neil Parish, who wrote to UEFA’s chief executive, Lars-Christer Olsson, to “urge UEFA not to succumb to these petty Spanish efforts to deprive Gibraltar of its rightful place”.
The opportunity of joining the elite ranks of European football is seen by Gibraltar’s 27,000-strong population as a way of carrying on what they consider to be a proud footballing tradition, stretching as far back as 1895 with the creation of the FA. The island’s official bid petition claims there is Gibraltarian playing talent scattered all over the world, though the colony hasn’t produced a well known footballer since goalkeeper Tony Macedo, who played more than 300 League games for Fulham in the 1960s before ending his career in South Africa.
Although the players of the territory’s three divisions will be of a completely different class to those they may well face in the years to come, they are hoping that their bid to join UEFA’s ranks is judged on its own merits and not on political expediency.
From WSC 238 December 2006. What was happening this month