When the UEFA Congress comes to London in May this year it will decide on the future of Gibraltan football and whether the 30,000 inhabitants would be able to represent their country in European competition. In 2007 the question was raised at a previous Congress and only the English, Scottish and Welsh FA supported their inclusion, with the rest of the UEFA members supporting Spanish objections.
The Gibraltan FA took the issue to the Court of Arbitration for Sport in 2011 who decided that there were no grounds on which to exclude the British Overseas Territory and they were rightly made UEFA provisional members in 2012 and allowed to compete in continental futsal tournaments. After they were admitted provisionally the GFA and UEFA set out a plan for eventual membership by pledging funds for improvements to Victoria Stadium, setting up courses in coaching and refereeing, creating a grassroots system and acquiring equipment.
The national team manager Allen Bula became the first Gibraltan representative to be invited to UEFA to take part in a coaching seminar held in Brussels. So far the national squad have been limited to playing non-FIFA affiliated nations and clubs who are willing to accept fixtures, most notably in England. The Gibraltan team have beaten Notts County and Portsmouth as well as Jersey, Isle of Man and the England C team.
In March 2011 they took on FIFA and UEFA member Faroe Islands and nearly 1,000 fans watched the team defeat the Islanders 3-0, a game regularly held up as evidence that they would become competitive and valuable members in European Championship qualifying. Under its provisional membership the Gibraltan under-19 team have been included in 2013/2014 qualifying for the European Championships in Hungary next summer (drawn in a group with Croatia, Czech Republic and Cyprus) which will also act as the qualification process for the FIFA U-20 World Cup in New Zealand.
The heritage of football in Gibraltar is a long one which stretches back to the 19th century in which British merchants brought the sport to the island. The GFA was set up in 1895 and also began the Gibraltan Football League, both of which are still alive and kicking today.
Spanish opposition towards Gibraltar is more concerned with the wider issue over territorial control. Since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 Spain had ceded the island to Britain and ever since has been fighting to get back control over the population, especially under the leadership of General Franco. Britain has continually reiterated its position that it will allow the Gibraltans decide their future and will not consider giving up its union unless a local referendum votes in favour.
The Spanish FA has warned through the entire process of Gibraltan UEFA membership that it will boycott European competitions if the request isn’t rejected, effectively trying to bully the European authority. The Spanish government is using the forum of football as just another front to political protest. Article 3 of the FIFA statutes states that there will be no “discrimination of any kind against a country, private person or group of people on account of ethnic origin, gender, language, religion, politics or any other reason is strictly prohibited and punishable by suspension or expulsion”.
Gibraltar may not be under the stewardship of FIFA but the World Cup and European champions are and have a responsibility to uphold the integrity of football and support its independence from the messy world of politics.
It is hoped that UEFA will stick by its principles and uphold its own laws by allowing Gibraltar to join and call the Spanish FA bluff. If they do pull the greatest team of Spanish players in many generations out of all European competition then the Spanish government will have more problems than just Gibraltar to deal with from its own countrymen and women.