Gibraltar has become UEFA’s 54th member nation after the European ruling body voted for its inclusion at last Friday’s congress in London. However, it is an application that has twice been strongly opposed by Spain, with the country’s Football Federation (RFEF) previously threatening to withdraw Real Madrid and Barcelona from the Champions League in retaliation.
Spain have always been vehemently unsympathetic to the British overseas territory joining UEFA and being allowed to participate in official tournaments, fearing that if Gibraltar gained admission then it could spark off similar claims from the Basque Country and Catalonia regions. Nonetheless, UEFA President Michel Platini has sought to appease the Spanish by maintaining they will be kept apart from Gibraltar in qualifying tournaments.
“Gibraltar will not play qualifying matches with Spain. We also have this situation with Armenia and Azerbaijan,” said Platini.
Gibraltar’s first application to UEFA in 1999 was rejected, as Spain still claims sovereignty over the 6.5 square kilometre outpost where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Mediterranean Sea. In addition, Spain has never formally acknowledged British control of the Rock, despite it being ceded under the terms of the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, and football’s world governing body FIFA insists matches cannot be played on disputed territory.
In 2007 the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) took its case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) and was given a chance to present its petition to a UEFA congress in Frankfurt. This ultimately proved unsuccessful after the President of RFEF, Angel Maria Villar Llona, furiously opposed it and the GFA received little support, with only Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland in favour.
Even so, following a 2011 CAS ruling, Gibraltar was admitted as a provisional member and allowed to compete in UEFA’s Under-17 and Under-19 futsal competitions. It was just the encouragement needed and now, two years later, the long wait is over for the GFA, one of the world’s oldest football associations that dates back to 1895.
So what will this mean for the 30,000 population of what is now UEFA’s smallest member behind San Marino, Liechtenstein and the Faroe Islands? For a start, it will produce a multi-million euro windfall with entry into the Euro 2016 qualifying campaign and will facilitate the construction of a new 8,000 capacity stadium at Europa Point, the southern-most point of the Rock. In the past this has mainly been used as a cricket ground and at present Gibraltar possesses just one football venue, the Victoria Stadium which is situated next to the airport and has an artificial pitch.
UEFA entry will also give the Gibraltarians a chance to show other countries in Europe they can match them with their standard of their football, even though they possess just one professional player in Portsmouth midfielder Liam Walker. There has already been a famous 3-0 victory over the Faroe Islands in March 2011, played in front of just 1,000 spectators, but Gareth Latin, President of the GFA, believes there is now the opportunity to go on to even bigger and better things.
“This is a momentous occasion for football in Gibraltar. It will open up a whole new world of opportunities for our highly skilled young footballers. This is one of our greatest sporting moments,” he beamed.
It will be interesting to see what Spain’s stance on the matter from this point onwards will be, although its government forcing both Real Madrid and Barcelona to withdraw from European tournaments or La Roja from international competition, with all the resultant financial benefits, appears a highly unlikely scenario.