The XXXVII Ordinary Uefa Conference on Friday may be the scene of a quite extraordinary decision. The 53 member nations of the continent’s governing body for soccer are to vote on whether to clear the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) to take part in European competition.
Representatives of the GFA flew to London ahead of the conference at the Grosvenor House Hotel in bullish mood after the British colony was admitted as a provisional member last year following a Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) ruling. “I sincerely hope the people of Gibraltar will not be denied their ability to support their team in European competitions as they have up to now. I am not telling you that as chief minister of Gibraltar, I am telling you that as a football fan,” the colony’s leader, Fabian Picardo, told news agency AFP.
Gibraltar’s aspirations are purely sporting, but Spain vociferously objects to the disputed territory’s claim to full Uefa recognition. The Spanish government has threatened to withdraw its teams from any competition that features a Gibraltarian side, although in practice this is extremely unlikely to occur.
A Foreign Ministry spokesman warned when Gibraltar was admitted as a provisional member that Spain would use “all legal means available” to block its path to full membership. Spanish authorities are also aware of the potential knock-on effect of Gibraltar’s membership of Uefa: similar requests from the Basque Country and Catalonia to have their national teams, who play regular international friendlies , admitted to the governing body. The governing CiU nationalist coalition in Catalonia has given its full backing to Gibraltar’s crusade.
Spain fears similar requests from the Basque Country and Catalonia
But the CAS ruling and the apparent backing of most of the 53 national associations has made the GFA quietly confident of making the cut this time after being voted down in 2006, when after being granted provisional status full membership was turned down at a Uefa congress in Germany.
“We are in a rather good position going into the vote Friday because we have been assisted by Uefa in the lobbying process and we have engaged with the other 53 members,” said GFA head of communications Dennis Beiso. “I think realistically we are looking to be competitive. We are a small country but we are aiming to be among the pool of small countries that are competitive, if not the most competitive in that pool.”
It is not a fanciful statement. In friendly matches over the past two years Gibraltar has beaten San Marino, currently Europe’s lowest-ranked team, 7-5 and the Faroe Islands, which holds its own against the European elite, 3-0. Gibraltar has also taken on England C and Football Association league sides Bury, Notts County and Portsmouth – for which the side’s only full professional, Liam Walker, plays – and beaten them all.
“When I took over, there was only one purpose,” Gibraltar coach Allen Bula told The New York Times. “To show Europe and the world that what Spain was saying – that we only wanted to join Uefa for political reasons, and that we didn’t have any quality – was a load of rubbish.”