This article also appears at worldsoccer.com
Spain’s threat to quit world football if forced to take part in the same tournaments as the British colony of Gibraltar has been exposed as meaningless.
After the Gibraltar Football Association applied to join UEFA in the late 1990s, the Spanish FA, the RFEF, wrote to the European body that Spain would refuse to ‘take part in, or organise, any competition in which Gibraltar participates.”
UEFA belatedly changed its statutes so that all new members are recognised as countries by the United Nations. This was done to accommodate Spain, forcing the GFA into a lengthy appeal that finally saw Gibraltar included in this week’s draws for UEFA’s futsal, Under-17 and Under-19 competitions – along with Spanish teams.
In October, Spain’s sports minister had vowed to ‘exhaust all legal means’ to stop Gibraltar securing full UEFA membership. That intimidation followed Gibraltar’s acceptance as a provisional UEFA member prior to their application going to a vote at the European body’s congress in May 2013. Spanish bluster was tested again on Tuesday with the draw for the qualifiers to the 2014 futsal European championships in Belgium.
UEFA ensured that even if Gibraltar progressed from a group featuring France, Montenegro and San Marino, there would be no possibility of a potentially embarrassing clash with Spain. If they qualify, Gibraltar go directly into a group with Italy, Hungary and Finland.
UEFA again artificially ensured that Spain would not face Gibraltar in the Under-17 qualifiers, which have thrown up an intriguing clash with England. The other sides in group seven are the Republic of Ireland and Armenia.
In the Under-19 draw, there was no need for UEFA meddling as the top seeded country gets a bye to the elite round. That happens to be Spain. Gibraltar would need to qualify from a tough group including Croatia, the Czech Republic and Cyprus to have any chance of playing their northerly neighbours.
Simply being included in the same competition as Gibraltar is humiliating for the RFEF, who now also face the prospect of Catalonia seceding if a growing move for independence succeeds. That should surely occupy the RFEF more than Gibraltar’s efforts but Spain’s sporting bodies are bound by the country’s politicians to suppress Gibraltarian attempts to assert sporting independence.
At next May’s congress in London, the GFA’s membership bid may fail as it did in Frankfurt in 2007. Then, the RFEF’s longstanding president Ángel María Villar Llona could coerce any associations sympathetic to Gibraltar’s cause with the threat of Spanish withdrawal. This week’s draw proved that threat to be nothing more than Spanish aire caliente.
What makes matters worse for Spain and UEFA is that Gibraltar are legally in the right. When the GFA first applied to UEFA, the colony was then eligible under the old rules, which had allowed the Danish controlled territory of the Faroe Islands to join a few years earlier.
Isolated by a closed border with Spain, Gibraltar wanted to emulate the Faroese, who have rarely been embarrassed since joining the international scene in 1988. UEFA’s criteria change and years of filibustering stifled that ambition.
Gibraltar have been stuck in international limbo. The only serious ‘international competition’ comes every two years in the Island Games, a tournament the Faroese won in 1989 and 1991 before focusing on senior internationals.
Gibraltar won the Island Games title in 2007 but an association that dates back to 1895 wants more for its footballers than playing together as a club in the lower Spanish leagues. That is the only offer on the table from the RFEF.
Supported by two separate rulings from the Court of Arbitration for Sport that UEFA’s exclusion of Gibraltar was akin to moving the goalposts, the colony’s footballers want better and are emboldened.
As provisional members, Gibraltar are entitled to be included in all UEFA draws right up to the vote. If Villar Llona – who will be influential in UEFA president Michel Platini’s bid to succeed Sepp Blatter as FIFA president in 2015 – again manages to spike Gibraltar’s ambitions, what happens to the colony’s teams already included in UEFA competitions?
Gibraltar will definitely compete in UEFA competition for the first time as the preliminary qualifiers for the futsal are scheduled for next month in Nice. The Under-17 and Under-19 qualifiers in Armenia and the Czech Republic respectively will be staged after the May congress. UEFA is also scheduled to play in an Under-16 development tournament in Albania a month after the vote.
Gibraltar will only take up their places in these tournaments if accepted as full members; something that not been communicated directly by UEFA to the Gibraltarians before the draws. Gibraltar’s potential opponents would appear to be wasting their time making arrangements until the UEFA Congress, but can hardly leave important details like scheduling and travel arrangements until then.
Even if Gibraltar loses the vote, the GFA will return as they have the backing of two CAS rulings over an issue that has rumbled on for 15 years and is about to come to a head.
A possible solution for UEFA is a form of junior membership. Other confederations have members that have not gone onto full FIFA membership for a whole variety of reasons. In Africa, there is Reunion and Zanzibar; in CONCACAF, the French colonies of Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana; in Oceania, Kiribati and Tuvalu. Martinique and French Guiana have even qualified for this weekend’s Caribbean Cup finals.
That gives these places far more options than Gibraltar had until this week. But some form of junior membership would create yet more problems for Platini, as other aspiring members from Greenland and Kosovo to Jersey and Kurdistan, would all be interested too.
No-one would surely object to helping the isolated, impoverished Greenlanders but Kosovo are already proving painful to Platini on another flank. Blatter has over-ruled his would be successor and wants Kosovo to play international friendlies. That proposal inflamed the Serbs and their Russian allies and remains in stasis.
For Platini, this week’s draws are the start of a problem that will surely only get bigger and more complicated.