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Wednesday, October 10, 2012


One of European football's longest-running sagas may soon be coming to an end, following the 2012 UEFA Executive Committee meeting, which was held in the Russian city of St. Petersburg on 1/10/12. The Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) was - for the second time in its history - granted provisional membership of UEFA at said gathering and will be hopeful of achieving full membership when the UEFA Congress takes place in London next May.

The GFA, which was founded in 1895, first applied for membership of both FIFA and UEFA in the late 1990s; for membership of the former organisation in January 1997 and for the latter two years later. After the GFA's original request was received by both UEFA and FIFA, the Spanish government and the country's footballing authority, the RFEF (Real Federación Española de Fútbol) began raising merry hell, and eventually persuaded both international governing bodies to change their statutes in 2001 to the effect that only independent countries which were recognised by the United Nations were eligible for membership, thus excluding Gibraltar. 

The RFEF and the Spanish government reasoned that if Gibraltar were to be granted full membership of FIFA and UEFA, then Catalonia and Euskara (the Basque Country) would, at sometime in the future, also be welcomed into the fold. Neither the Spanish government nor the RFEF found this to be palatable, so they approached both FIFA and UEFA to try and head the GFA off at the pass.

The GFA went to the CAS in 2002, who more or less found in their favour. They made another attempt at achieving UEFA and FIFA membership via the CAS, who found in the GFA's favour in 2006, by informing UEFA that the Gibraltarian football authorities had submitted their original application before both UEFA and FIFA changed their statutes, and instructed UEFA to grant the GFA provisional membership.

Full membership was to then be discussed at the 2007 UEFA Congress which was to be held in the German city of Düsseldorf in January of that year. In the run-up to the 2007 UEFA Congress, the Spanish government claimed that Gibraltar's 3000-capacity Victoria Stadium lay on "disputed" land close to the border between Spain and the British territory. 

This rather contradicted the Spanish government's position on the sovereignity of the Rock; did this mean that there was no dispute of the UK's possession of the rest of Gibraltar? (After all, the United Kingdom's occupation, conquest and permanent possession of Gibraltar in 1704 was accepted by Spain, who did so by way of signing the Treaty of Utrecht, which was signed in 1713.) Gibraltar's Panorama website claimed in 2006 that the then Spanish ambassador to Belgrade visited the Serbian football authorities to lobby for their vote at the 2007 UEFA Congress.

The 2007 UEFA Congress in January 2007 debated not only Gibraltar's acceding to full membership, but also whether Montenegro be granted full membership. That was done and dusted in unanimous fashion. Gibraltar, however, saw their membership application turned down in emphatic fashion; 45 UEFA member associations voted against, with only 3 voting to accept Gibraltar into the UEFA family. Four member associations abstained. The GFA president at the time, Joe Nunez, was scathing at the outcome of the vote.

Many observers have tried to figure out who voted for and against Gibraltar's membership application, but no-one seems to know for sure, certainly not yours truly. It has been claimed that England did not vote in favour, but Steve Menary's book "Outcasts! The Lands That FIFA Forgot" featured Gibraltar's travails and stated that England, Scotland and Wales voted for Gibraltar's inclusion. 

As mentioned before in the annals of this blog, Northern Ireland did not do likewise, and this may have been in part because Northern Ireland were in the same Euro 2008 qualifying group as Spain. It may also have been because IFA president Jim Boyce had his eye on a seat at FIFA's top-table, something Boyce eventually achieved in 2011. Who abstained, though? Were the IFA and the Fotbollsamband Foroya among them, perchance? After all, the FSF, like the GFA, were members of the IGA (Island Games Association) before they joined UEFA. Who knows?
Five years later, following the UEFA Executive Committee's decision to grant the GFA provisional membership last week, the GFA issued the following press-release:

"The Gibraltar FA is pleased to announce that it has today been granted provisional membership of UEFA at a meeting of the European football governing body's Executive Committee in St.Petersburg, Russia."

The vote on the Gibraltar FA's full membership of UEFA will take place on the 24th May 2013 during the XXXVII Congress to be held in London, England."

The Gibraltar FA thanks the UEFA Executive Committee and reiterates its steadfast commitment to working with UEFA on the "roadmap" towards full membership and to building relationships with the 53 fellow member associations." 

UEFA, meanwhile, shoved the news of the GFA's becoming a provisional member of the organisation towards the bottom of a press-release detailing its Executive Committee's ratification of the regulations covering the 2013-15 UEFA Under 21-Championship and the European qualifiers for the 2015 Women's World Cup, and the updating of the UEFA Referees' Convention, amongst other things. This is what they had to say - in somewhat cursory fashion - on the question of the Gibraltar FA's application for full membership:

"The committee has admitted Gibraltar as a provisional member of UEFA as from today, 1 October 2012. This follows a ruling by the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) in August 2011. A decision on the admission of the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) as a full member of UEFA will be taken by the XXXVII Ordinary UEFA Congress in London in May 2013."

The Spanish newspaper El País reported the day after the UEFA Executive Committee's decision that the country's Minister of Education, Culture and Sport, José Ignacio Wert, stated in an interview broadcast on the Telemadrid television station that he did not expect that the Gibraltar Football Association would become a full member of UEFA, and that his ministry and the Ministry for Foreign Affairs would "exhaust all legal means" to ensure that the GFA's application would fail.

Wert did not explain what these "legal means" would entail, saying only that that would "be inconsistent with the strategy" currently being followed by the Spanish government. He also said that "The Spanish position is well-known [and] Spain has not been heard and Spain is a relevant part."

The question is: Just what will the Spanish government and the RFEF do to try and halt the GFA's application for membership in its tracks? Last time out, the RFEF threatened to leave UEFA, and there was a lot of lobbying for the votes of the other UEFA member states, not to mention the alleged dropping-in of the Spanish ambassador to the Serbian FA HQ.

This time round, just as in 2007, it will be hard for the Spanish FA to leave UEFA, should the GFA be accepted as a member association, of course. (Maybe much harder, thanks to the current economic situation.) If they were to do so, clubs such as Real Madrid and Barcelona would lose out on UEFA prize-money as a result of their regular participation in the Champions League. Spanish clubs - and the national team - would be barred from entering international competition. 

If the GFA had been accepted in 2007, dear reader, do you really think that the RFEF would have upped sticks and disappeared off the UEFA radar? Think about it; there would have been no European Championship triumphs for Spain in 2008 or 2012, nor a successful World Cup campaign in 2010. The names of neither Barcelona, Real Madrid nor Atlético Madrid would have appeared on the European club competitions honours-lists after 2007. Hundreds of millions of Euros' worth of prize and participation money earned from international competition would have been lost. The history of world football would have become a different thing than what we now know it as being.

Fast forward, then, to June 2013, and imagine, first of all, that the GFA's application for UEFA membership had been turned down. The status quo would remain, although the reputations of UEFA, the Spanish FA and the Spanish government would be tarnished. Severely. They might not care, but the fallacy of Michel Platini's stated intention to help out the smaller nations in European football would have been confirmed, once and for all. (What of an open draw in both European club competitions from the very start, Michel? What of the traditional two-legged format all the way through instead of the fatally-flawed group stages? What of a more equitable distribution of the prize-money on offer for both competitions?)

However, imagine that the GFA's application for UEFA membership had been accepted and the RFEF then decided to leave UEFA. All Spanish clubs, and the national side, would instantly be thrown out of all international competitions. There would be no more technical assistance or financial assistance/handouts from UEFA. The level of football in Spain would suffer.

The Spanish economy is currently in a desperate situation, and there is no sign of a miracle taking place any time in the next 7 to 8 months that would enable things to turn it round. The banks are currently being held up by the European Central Bank and the EU. Spanish football clubs are, at least in part, still being helped along by the Spanish banking-system. If that were to utterly collapse, then Spanish football would have nowhere to turn, and the monies gained by participation in UEFA competition in former years would have long disappeared. The star turns currently appearing in La Liga would be high-tailing it out of town. Clubs would fold and many jobs - in all sorts of sectors - would be lost, and perhaps not only in Spain. Does anybody think that any of this would be in the best interests of Spanish, European or world football or, indeed, Spain itself? 

Also, calls have been increasing for independence for Catalonia - home, of course, to Barcelona Football Club - which is Spain's richest region and which accounts for some 20% of Spain's national GDP. The state of Spain's economy and the possibility of Catalonia breaking away from Spain is something which should be worrying the average Spaniard more than whether Gibraltar achieves full membership of UEFA.

Sure, the RFEF could always join one of the other continental organisations, but there are pitfalls here, too. The OFC, which covers the Pacific nations, would be too small, too far away and not competitive enough. The AFC, the Asian organisation, might be a better option, but many of the member nations are poverty-stricken and their teams would not be able to afford to travel to Europe for an away game in an Asian Cup qualifier, for instance. Ticket-prices would be drastically hiked should Spain come to town. 

The same situation would apply should Spain apply to join the CAF; it is already enough of a strain for many African national associations to take part in African competition, although Spain would find the level of competition to be higher than in Asia.

CONMEBOL or CONCACAF would perhaps be the best two options for Spain; distance and cost would, however, be a problem, especially for the smaller, and poorer, CONCACAF countries, not to mention ticket-prices.

All of this is, of course, merely hypothetical; your correspondent does not have a crystal-ball, but at least one or two of the above scenarios might, just might, come to pass. 

Back to the present; Pat's Football Blog has attemped to contact the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport for a reaction to the UEFA Executive Committee's decision, though no reply has yet been received. Last year, a similar request was sent to all sides involved (including FIFA) when it became known that the Executive Committee would be discussing the matter; no response was forthcoming then, either. 

The Spanish government's position on Gibraltar is somewhat hypocritical when one considers that the country counts two very small pieces of mainland North Africa as part of its sovereign territory - Ceuta and Melilla, situated on the northern coast of Morocco, and was also not so long ago in dispute with Morocco over the uninhabited Parsley Islands, which also lie of Morocco's northern coast. 

Spanish football might not gain much if Gibraltar were to be accepted into the UEFA fold, but the RFEF and the Spanish government are appearing rather small by sticking to their present position on the matter. The Gibraltar FA's position has always been clear; they are interested in joining UEFA to help lift the standard of football in the British overseas territory, and for their teams to play football against opponents from other countries on a regular basis. Rubbing the Spanish government's face in it is not, it would seem, part of their master-plan. 

Many people who have followed this story ask why it is that the Faroe Islands are able to compete in UEFA and FIFA-sanctioned competition, whilst Gibraltar remain excluded. The Faroes joined FIFA in 1998 and UEFA in 1990, seven years before the question of Gibraltar - and the still more unfortunate GBU (Grønlands Boldspil-Union - the Greenland FA - also known in Inuit as the Kalaallit Nunaanni Isikkamik Arsaattartut Kattuffiat), whose attempts at obtaining membership floundered but were fobbed off by FIFA who helped fund an artificial pitch at Qaqartoq in southern Greenland, which opened for business in 2009 - applying for membership ever came up. The Faroe Islands and Greenland are both self-governing entities within the Kingdom of Denmark.

UEFA's current mantra is "Respect." It is high time that they, the Spanish government and the RFEF started showing some to the football-lovers of Gibraltar - in fact, more than one Gibratarian sporting body, from badminton to athletics to ten-pin bowling, could claim that their Spanish counterparts have been less than decent towards them in the past. Should the GFA be admitted to UEFA, if push comes to shove, Spain could ask UEFA to ensure that La Roja be kept apart from Gibraltar in any future European Championship or World Cup qualifying draw. No Gibraltarian club would be likely to qualify for the Champions League, for a number of years, at least, so that should help keep the collective Spanish brow sweat-free as well.

One should ask the Spanish government and the RFEF: is the whole brouhaha really about politics (it certainly doesn't seem to be about football), or just all about losing face, because that already happened more than five years ago? The current position of both bodies certainly doesn't appear to be concerned with matters of a sporting nature. It should be. Both the Spanish government and the RFEF will have to realise that, thanks to - amongst other things - the rise of the social media, this matter will not just disappear overnight, as they thought it would after the UEFA Congress vote in 2007. 

It would be a pity if the GFA's attempts to gain full membership of FIFA were to be, once again, blown out of the water. By the way, one irony of the situation involving the RFEF, the Spanish government, UEFA and the GFA is that Barcelona and Real Madrid are the two most popular clubs in Gibraltar. Who would have thought it?

Those who have tried to improve the status of the GFA, not just locally but internationally, such as Adolfo Ramirez, who helped kick-start the whole process back in the late 1990s, through Joseph Nunez, who, in some quarters, was scandalously and unfairly blamed for wasting the GFA's financial resources by taking the association's case to the CAS in 2006 (and for the subsequent failure to have the GFA admitted to UEFA), to the current administration, including the Gibraltar team manager Allen Bula, who, by all accounts, has remained steadfast and dignified, deserve to have the Gibraltar Football Association finally embraced by UEFA as part of its family. 

Will UEFA and its member associations finally show a little courage and admit the Gibraltar Football Association as the organisation's 54th member (and, perish the thought, sometime in the near future, finally admit the GBU as its 55th)? That decision will be made in May next year; it would be more than unseemly if that were not to happen. It would lay bare to ridicule Michel Platini's claims that the organisation is there for every footballing body in Europe, no matter how large, no matter how small. More than that; any decision other than to award full membership status to the Gibraltar Football Association would be inexcusable. The world is watching. And waiting.

UPDATE: A short reply was received, the day after the above article was published, from the Spanish Ministry of Education, Culture and Sport stating their opposition to the Gibraltar Football Association obtaining provisional UEFA membership, and confirmed that "Spain is going to resort to the courts."
AUTHOR'S NOTE: Any errors, chronological or otherwise, are made in good faith and are the author's and the author's alone. They shall, as always, be corrected upon receipt of request to do so. 

Link to UEFA article regarding the UEFA Executive Committee's meeting in Saint Petersburg:

Link to UEFA press-release containing statement on its admittance of the Gibraltar FA as a provisional member of the organisation: