OPINION
i

My Gibraltar granny

Could the British press be suggesting that a Spanish relative allows you to play soccer for the Rock? Surely not…

A few days ago in The Daily Telegraph — a rightwing newspaper that yearns for the days of Empire — we learned that the soccer player Danny Higginbotham is qualified to play on the Gibraltar team "because he has a Spanish grandmother."

Your first urge is to jump to the front page, to see if the logic of geography has finally prevailed, and Gibraltar at last belongs to the Crown of Spain. But no, it remains in the grip of perfidious Albion. The prime minister of Spain confirmed this fact in the UN. Amid the debate about real problems such as Syria and Iran, he remarked that "this anachronism is still causing annoyance to the people of Gibraltar and the adjacent area."

Perhaps, like Obama, he will solve the problem with a phone call. Meanwhile, it is a fact that The Telegraph, the newspaper most stubbornly assertive of the principle of British sovereignty over Gibraltar, actually said that Higginbotham, who plays in a regional league in the north of England, might be called to play on the Gibraltar team thanks to a Spanish connection. But, one thinks, this ought to be the business of the Spanish coach, not his Gibraltarian counterpart.

A close reading of the Treaty of Utrecht fails to shed any light on the problem. It appears that, while the articles of the text give Great Britain the right to sell slaves in Spanish America, and to occupy Menorca (given back under a later treaty), no one had given any consideration to the legal criteria governing what soccer players might play on what national team. So we are left with the Higginbotham conundrum.

The Treaty of Utrecht gives Britain the right to sell slaves in Spanish America, and to occupy Menorca but there is nothing to govern what soccer players might play where

In search of clarification we called up the Gibraltar coach, Allen Bula, a person even less known in Spain than Tata Martino was before he took charge of Barcelona three months ago, and, it turns out, an uncle of Higginbotham, who in younger days trained with the Manchester United feeder team.

Bula, whose highest flight as a coach has been in Slovakian soccer, has been coaching full time on his native Rock since May, when, to the disgust of Spanish nationalism, Gibraltar was designated by the UEFA as a nation fit to compete in the European arena. He is presently preparing for the big day, a year from now, when his team will take the field for the first time in the qualification stage of the European Championship, the finals of which will be held in France in 2016.

Unfortunately, he said, the only — and remote — possibility that Gibraltar might come up against Spain would be in France as the Spanish soccer federation has declared that the two teams will never appear together in the same qualifying group for any official competition. But the pressing problem, he admitted, is finding players in a town of 30,000 people. This is why, he confirmed, he turned to his nephew Higginbotham.

But... the Spanish grandmother? No such thing, he explained. He himself is the descendant of Icelanders and Italians, but Higginbotham's grandmother, who also turns out to be Bula's mother, was born in Gibraltar. The Telegraph simply got it wrong. This may be, but perhaps there is another explanation. Perhaps it was a slip of the British imperial subconscious, a sort of guilt-driven Freudian admission that being born in Gibraltar and being born in Spain are one and the same thing.

In any case, Rajoy is now suddenly presented with a new opportunity. Now that the summer's concrete-blocks-in-the-bay campaign is running out of steam, he might work up Danny Higginbotham's nationality into a new flag-waving issue. And in passing, especially now that the matter is further complicated by the appearance of Iceland and Italy on the scene, tear up the old treaty and propose another one, better adapted to the realities of the 21st century, thus avoiding new "annoyances" in a world that has enough to worry about.