UEFA & The Rock

We've looked at Gibraltar's league system & it's various namesake clubs but what of it's national team? Welcome to IBWM Jon Allison.

When I signed up to write for In Bed With Maradona, I was told something fairly simple, that this website prefers to cover topics not usually seen on other websites, that perhaps an eclectic approach would work well. With that advice ringing in my ears, or rather burning an image on my screen, I set about looking into my own personal interests. For the sake of my eyesight, I settled on travel and looked back on places I have been lucky enough to visit in my time so far.

To many, Gibraltar is some rock sticking out of the south of Spain, characterised by the unmistakeable silhouette of its largest feature, the Rock itself. It is known to some only through old news bulletins describing the wrangling over her sovereignty, of Operation Algeciras and old footage of Judith Chalmers and other travel presenters walking along the High Street and seeing the Barbary monkeys living wild on the island. Behind this picturesque backdrop however, lies a passion for football to match many around the world, one which could have led, Sliding Doors style, to an entirely different footballing landscape today. One without Spain as European and World Champions, without Barcelona, Real Madrid and company playing the other leading lights in European football.

The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) was established in 1895, making it one of the ten oldest football associations anywhere in the world. The first ever cup final on the Rock, between Gibraltar F.C. and Jubilee F.C. was watched by 1,500 people, which was about 8% of the estimated total population of the peninsula at that time. A similar proportion of interest in England would make the FA Cup final attended by around 4 million people every year.

The mens’ league system on the Rock is made up of two main divisions of 7 and 14 teams respectively, as well as a reserve league of 11 teams. There are also three womens’ teams, several junior divisions and futsal teams to cater for all football passions. It is at the international level though, where matters get a little complicated and controversial even. In the aftermath of the Second World War, the national team played prestige friendlies against top Spanish clubs, such as Real Madrid, as well as against teams of touring servicemen from the UK.

Gibraltar has been trying to attain FIFA and UEFA status since 1997 and 1999 respectively. FIFA approved the GFA’s application quickly, as there is a stadium on the peninsula with an approved level artificial pitch, basic facilities at the ground, and a functioning league system. The application was therefore passed over 11 years ago to UEFA for approval. This could have led to Gibraltar entering teams into European Championship and World Cup qualifying, as well as sending club teams into European competitions.

As most of us know, the sovereignty of Gibraltar is contested between the UK and Spain, both of whom see the Rock as part of their territory. Spain vehemently opposes any suggestion that Gibraltar is either a UK protectorate or of its own independence, and as such, the RFEF, Spain’s FA, opposed Gibraltar’s application. In 2002, UEFA rejected Gibraltar’s application to join their federation on the grounds of not meeting certain criteria, and hastily attempted to close the situation by stipulating that all future applications must come from sovereign states.

The GFA, which has run its own online petition for several years, appealed to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, and had their appeal upheld in 2006. Gibraltar now had to be treated the same as any other sovereign nation, in other words. The Rock’s national team was granted Associate status along with Montenegro, and a final vote on their membership was arranged for 2007.

The RFEF decided to fight tooth and nail over the vote, with every tool at their disposal. They threatened to withdraw its national team from all international competition and refuse to enter club teams into European competitions at what they perceived as a sleight on their unquestionable sovereignty over the 2.6 square mile territory. Rather unsurprisingly, on the back of these threats, the application was rejected 45 to 3, with 5 abstentions. Montenegro was admitted unanimously to full membership.

Where now for the GFA then? It is worth noting that the RFEF was formed in 1909, a full 14 years after Gibraltar’s FA. It is clear however, that for as long as Spain and her clubs hold such sway among UEFA’s members and delegates, the tiny peninsula of Gibraltar will never be accepted to the European top tables no matter what her history may be. Some people may be glad about this, as there is a growing sensation that Europe’s qualification groups are already too diluted with “minnows”. The counterargument is that nations such as Andorra have as much right as The Netherlands or Germany to play international football, that neither England or Gibraltar are sovereign nations, yet one is openly regarded as one of the bigger teams in world football, and little Gibraltar is left out in the cold.

It has been suggested that Gibraltar apply to the African federation, the CAF. It would remove Spain’s virtual power of veto, it would potentially allow an easier route to the finals, and it is not as far from Africa as Israel is from other UEFA nations, or Australia from other Asian nations whose federation the Socceroos represent. It remains to be seen whether that route will be taken, and it is far from this author or website to get into complex debates of sovereignty, but we are all joined by a common passion for the beautiful game, much like the Gibraltarians are driven by their desire to express their passion on the field of play, rather than the courtrooms and boardrooms of world football.

More information on Gibraltar’s application, and background information can be found in the brochure the GFA sent to UEFA: http://www2.gfa.gi/GIBUEFA_Brochure.pdf (PDF format).