After a 15 year struggle, Gibraltar has finally won its battle with UEFA and been accepted into international competitions as of next season. Despite heavy protest from Spain, who argue that the tiny British run country is actually part of Spain and have made several references to the Treaty of Utrecht of 1713, which marked Gibraltar as such. However under the actual terms of the treaty, Gibraltar was ceded to Britain in perpetuity. Spain unsuccessfully attempted to regain control in the siege of 1727 and again during the extended Great Siege of Gibraltar, which lasted from 1779 to 1783 and to this day have continued their argument of ownership of the territory. Indeed Spain has twice attempted to persuade Gibraltarian voters to change to a spanish sovereignty but have rejected this both times, first in 1967 then again in 2002. Gibraltarian’s see themselves as British and are ruled by the Queen, despite its only border being with Spain.
Despite the political situation that exists, Gibraltar was keen to take part in international football and its FA have spent the best part of two decades trying to persuade UEFA and FIFA to recognise their existence. The break came in October when UEFA granted them a provisional member status by the organisation’s executive committee. A decision on full membership will be decided in May 2013 which if successful could see the tiny nation become the 54th national team recognised by UEFA. With a population of 28,000, Gibraltar would be the smallest nation, just behind San Marino and Liechtenstein who have only a few thousand more in their populations.
Spain continues to argue and protest at the decision, but mostly due to fear about smaller sub sections of their own country following Gibraltar’s lead and applying for UEFA membership. The Basque Country and Catalonia are two areas in Spain with rich footballing histories. They have been recognised for a while by the spanish people and have even played a few international games but more concerning for Spain, is that if they are recognised by UEFA and then FIFA, they could look for independence. This would spell disaster for Spain as both areas contain large cities that are steeped in footballing history – Bilbao and Barcelona.
Regardless of what happens over the border, Gibraltar’s FA head, Gareth Latin is delighted to see their Under-19 and Under-17 teams placed in qualifying groups for their 2014 European Championships. He looks at the ruling as a major victory and the first step in persuading FIFA of its legitimacy. Gibraltar was drawn with an asterisk by its name in an Under-17 pool with England, Ireland and Armenia, and an Under-19 group with the Czech Republic, Croatia and Cyprus. The games will be played started next October, on the grounds that full membership be approved. Spain will continue to protest up until that decision is made but Latin believes they are wrong to make this about politics:
“This is nothing at all to do with politics and we have said it from day one. We should think of football and work in unity”.
The people of Gibraltar have been celebrating the decision and are looking optimistically towards the May 2013 decision. But Latin and Gibraltar will be keeping a keen eye on Sepp Blatter’s health between now and then. As FIFA president, he has the ability to reverse the decision made by UEFA and send Gibraltar back to the drawing board. He is unlikely to do this, but if he is to step down or is forced to for medical reasons between now and May, his replacement could well be Spanish FA president, Angel María Villar, a favourite to take over. That could spell disaster for Latin and the Gibraltar FA’s bid for membership even before a ball is kicked.