Gibraltar is best known for its monkeys, its reputation as somewhat of a tax haven and possibly for its role in the pre-credit scene in the 1987 James Bond film, The Living Daylights. However, whichever way you look at it, it is not known for footballing reasons.
It is not for the sake of trying though. Run by one of football’s oldest governing bodies established way back in 1895, Gibraltar has been involved in a bitter dispute with UEFA over membership. The dispute has been running for almost 15 years now.
The Gibraltarian Football Association first applied for membership of UEFA back in 1997, buoyed by the recent acceptance of the Faroe Islands seven years previously. The Faroe Islands make up a small Danish province of just under 50,000 people, but as Denmark had no objections, UEFA permitted them to become an independent member and hence take part in UEFA-sanctioned competitions.
With this previous ruling in their favour, Gibraltar announced their bid to gain membership of UEFA 15 years ago—but immediately faced opposition from their larger neighbours and European footballing superpower, Spain.
Spain is fundamentally against Gibraltar gaining any form of international recognition as an independent entity. Not only do they feel that they have a sovereign right to govern the territory, but they also harbour the worry that were Gibraltar to gain a national team, it may inspire similar ambitions in the fiercely independent Basque Country and Catalonia.
Spain went so far as to threaten to withdraw from all UEFA competitions should Gibraltar be accepted, including the European Championships, the Champions League and the UEFA Cup.
Spain based their complaint on the fact that they felt that Gibraltar’s sporting facilities were located on disputed land. It is their contention that part of the territory was illegally taken by the British at the end of World War II. Thus, they argued that as the Spanish state is charged with the task of defending its interests, they had to stand in opposition to the Gibraltarian bid.
Against this background of discontent and extortion, UEFA introduced a new ruling in 1999, changing the entry parameters to restrict entry to countries that are officially recognised by the United Nations as independent countries. This new regulation blocked Gibraltar’s bid and was used as the reason for rejecting their application.
However, the story does not end there. The Gibraltarian FA continued to fight the decision and won a major decision in the mid-2000s, when the Court of Arbitration for Sport ruled that UEFA must consider Gibraltar’s application under the rules governing membership at the time of the application—rules under which Gibraltar qualifies for provisional membership.
UEFA refused to budge in their stand and continued to reject Gibraltar’s application.
In 2007, a vote was taken in the UEFA congress as to whether Gibraltar should be admitted, but only England, Wales and Scotland voted in favour. The other 49 nations, led by the powerful Spanish, voted against the proposal.
Gibraltar still maintains that it will not give up its fight. They feel that they can prove that their membership is only being rejected on political grounds, rather than on sporting grounds—a distinction that is not permissible under the terms of UEFA’s regulations.
Indeed, only recently when talking about the incidents surrounding the Celtic’s Neil Lennon, Michel Platini announced via The Guardian that “we have to keep politics and religion out of football and sport.” It therefore seems somewhat hypocritical that he is hailing the need to keep politics separate from the sport, but then blocking Gibraltar’s entry on political grounds.
Football is a major part of life in Gibraltar. Despite having only 30,000 inhabitants, it has over 100 registered football teams and a FIFA-approved stadium. Earlier this year, the Gibraltarian national team picked up an impressive 3-0 victory against a full-strength Faroe Islands side—the same side that had recently drawn with Northern Ireland and went on to beat Estonia only three months later.
Furthermore, it is only UEFA that is seemingly blocking Gibraltar’s sporting interests. Gibraltar has a national cricket team, which is an associate member of the ICC; it has a national hockey side that plays regularly in major European competitions; it has swimming and water polo teams that play in World Cups. It is even recognised as an official member of the IAAF, the official board governing athletics.
However, while the Spanish continue to oppose Gibraltar’s introduction into UEFA, it will continue to be an uphill struggle. Particularly now, given Spain’s status as World and European champions, football’s governing bodies are loath to upset their new poster boys.
But the battle will continue to be waged in the courts and backrooms of the governing bodies. In the words of Allen Bula, the national coach of Gibraltar, as reported by SkySports.com: “to UEFA and FIFA, don’t think for a minute that this storm will just gradually die down so you can eat your tapas in peace, because for sure the case of Gibraltar will be in your face every day for as long as it takes until you remove politics from football.”
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