Gibraltar: European Football’s Political Time bomb. Could the National Football Team Compete in the CAF instead?
For those of you have read my previous articles and are waiting for something on Seria A or the Premier League, then sorry to disappoint you and please be patient. Focus now turns to the issues surrounding Gibraltar and their attempts to gain full acceptance to FIFA and UEFA to become the latest team to compete in the World and European Cup internationally as well as European club competitions. In recent times UEFA is being forced to give some concessions to the GFA (Gibraltar Football Association) mapping out a ‘Road Map’ to membership which includes educational and financial support and a further vote due in 2013. However the phrase based around chicken counting applies here. If further events do not break the way of the GFA would an alternative route to FIFA membership through the Confederation of African Football (CAF)?
So you cannot say that fair warning has not been given, politics will be including in large amounts within the rest of this article, despite FIFA assertions and repeated attempts to keep football away from politics, there has been many an occasion where this has proved impossible. FIFA have acknowledged that due to political sensitivities, Gibraltar remain a low priority for membership[i].
Gibraltar have been represented by an official representative football team, but not quite a full national team since 1923 when they played Spanish club side Sevilla FC. They have since played at numerous tournaments and against various opponents. They have been mainstays since 1993 in the Island games tournament with the exception of the 2005 tournament and indeed won the 2007 tournament. They have also competed in the FIFI Wild cup and notably the 2008 Four Nations Tournament with the amateur/semi pro teams of England, Scotland and Wales, the biggest supporters of their cause. In addition to this they have a full independent league with two men’s divisions (including a league where you can see Lincoln V Manchester United a practice that anyone who has visited the magnificent Sincil Bank wishes was repeated in England!). They also have reserve and ladies leagues within their football set up.
The GFA first made an application on 8th January 1997. More than fifteen years later the federation are still fighting for their goals despite being constantly frustrated. On football grounds the Gibraltar federation cannot be blocked upon football grounds. Both FIFA and the Court of Arbitration Sport (CAS) have rulings that state that the facilities in Gibraltar are adequate for competition.
Now for all those shouting with furious anger and shaking your fist in fury stating that Gibraltar is not a country and there for surely should not be admitted, firstly brownie points for pointing out that they are not a country. Secondly UEFA agrees with you and in a 2001 ruling have stated that only full sovereign states can apply. Two major problems exist for UEFA in trying to block Gibraltar, first being precedence! Currently there are many non-countries competing in FIFA and indeed in UEFA. The South American Federation CONMEBOL is in fact the only federation not to include any non-sovereign nations in their ranks. The fact that UEFA have admitted England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and the Danish overseas territory of the Faroe Islands, makes this new position implausible, with technically none of these are full sovereign nations. The decision to allow non-sovereign nations or countries with liquid recognition has opened up a Pandora’s Box, opening all sorts of discussion on who could or should be allowed to gain FIFA membership (but that might be for another time!).
This is where international politics comes out from behind the curtains as the reason for Gibraltar being left out murky waters of non-FIFA football. After a ruling from FIFA that Gibraltar’s facilities are adequate, not to mention the ruling about statehood from the CAS, there is but one reason standing in their way, opposition from Spain.
The overriding issue is the on-going argument over sovereignty of Gibraltar. Since the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713 it has been and still remains a British overseas territory. This has sat uneasy with Spain who have a claim on the territory, but referendums in 1967 and 2002 have continued to frustrate the Spaniards on this issue. However while the issue of sovereignty seems for the time being to have been settled, the ramifications of this territorial claim still present themselves in other ways. The failure of the Gibraltar National Football Team or the Gibraltar Football Federation to thus far gain entry to FIFA or UEFA is just one of these.
Membership for Gibraltar was considered in 2007, but the vote overwhelmingly went against them. This was in very large part to lobbying and threats made from the Spanish that they would withdraw from any competition that included Gibraltar. The only support for ‘the Rock’ came from England, Scotland and Wales and while there were four abstentions, perhaps understandably there was an overwhelming no vote. Spain are such a force within European Football, and consequently within UEFA.
Despite judgements from the CAS and the initial support of FIFA the path to full membership through UEFA seemingly blocked, what are the possibilities for gaining and playing in the CAF? While the possibility is fraught with problems and further probably should they actually get admitted or would they be better of foraging around in Non-FIFA football tournaments?
First of all possibility of this happening may be doubtful, though certainly not impossible. Gibraltar is geographically within Europe. So again trying to find precedence there are countries that have moved federation when straddling two continents that have moved from one federation to another for instance Kazakhstan. There are also countries that have switched allegiance from their home continents federation, to compete at what they see as a stronger federation, for perceived better opportunities. The most notable of these is probably Australia who moved to and still competes in the Asian Football Federation AFC despite the country being located deep in the heart of Oceania. Perhaps the most bizarre ever was that Israel due to political circumstances once qualified through the Oceania Federation (OFC) for a World Cup. Perhaps Gibraltar could look to the example of the Northern Mariana Islands, who found little opportunity through the OFC as an associate member, have since moved to the AFC as they thought that this move would be beneficial.
While the precedence is well demonstrated the decision would ultimately fall to the CAF, as it has done with UEFA and whether again the decision would go the way of Gibraltar is more difficult to say. FIFA and the CAS would also find it a lot more difficult to put any pressure upon the CAF as Gibraltar is defiantly not in Europe. FIFA and the CAF are more likely to back Gibraltar if they continue to go through the UEFA route.
However it is questionable that would a move to the CAF be at all beneficial to Gibraltar. Firstly the travel will be more problematic and certainly longer. Not to mention the general infrastructure transport infrastructure within the vast majority of countries, not to mention various unresolved issues within the continent. In addition to this they may not meet opposition with the same prestige as they would in Europe. Without being derogatory towards the nations that compete in the CAF, Gibraltar themselves would surely be more interested in playing their joint imperial masters England, Northern Ireland, Scotland or Wales or facing great rivals Spain (obviously stifling the talents of various Spanish talents to pull off a fine 1-0 victory!, on the way to World Cup qualification!). Even though Gibraltar would gain support with funding through FIFA, especially at development and grass roots level as all members do, Gibraltar would certainly need to weigh up the full ramifications.
Format of qualification for major competitions differs in CAF and UEFA differs significantly and almost certainly would Gibraltar would benefit from the latter. In UEFA’s qualifying for competitions Gibraltar as a smaller nation would not as it stands face a qualifier against another smaller nation for the right to be thrashed by the larger nations in qualifying. But whatever the score much needed funds will be generated by the GFA, and the guarantee of these matches would be a greater fillet to them, rather than having to face a tough two-leg qualification process against for example Equatorial Guinea and be knocked out early. Again no disrespect is intended toward the Equatorial Guinea National Football Team, the greater gain for Gibraltar would probably rather face the likes of England at Wembley and of course face them in the far superior Victoria Stadium, the main stadium in Gibraltar and home to the National Football Team approximate capacity 5000.
Unless UEFA shows teeth, allowing Gibraltar to become a member or is forced by legal action that forces Gibraltan membership upon them, the GFA would have the one option through which to join FIFA, and that is through the CAF. Whether this is likely or desirable for Gibraltar is another matter. If is extremely doubtful whether it would be likely or beneficial for them to do so, but is still possible. The real issue here is blocking on political issues, rather than any footballing reason, which something FIFA says should not be involved in decision making of this kind! Though the sentiment and effort of this policy is appreciated football and politics (either national or international) will never have been are not now and never be devoid of each other. Time will finally tell with a vote on Gibraltan membership set for 2013 (although knowing how this saga has played out it will probably not be the end of the story). Whatever the outcome of this and the reaction of Spain, more issues will raise their heads. Wait until the Falkland Islands apply for FIFA membership!