Blatter opens a door for Kosovo… will Gibraltar be next?

Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini

At the recent FIFA Congress in Budapest, amidst his usual bungling, and a strange statement calling for Franz Beckenbauer to look for an alternative to penalty shootouts, despite him calling for penalty shootouts to be used to decide tied group games at the World Cup a few years ago; Sepp Blatter pushed through his executive permission, much to the chagrin of Serbia and their close political ally Russia, for Kosovo to start playing friendlies against FIFA teams.

Kosovo is a region that seceded from Serbia, after years of warfare and ethnic tensions and declared its independence in 2008. It is officially recognised by more than 90 nations worldwide, including nearly all of the members of the European Union. However, Serbia does not recognise Kosovo, and crucially, neither does Russia. This is a problem, because Russia’s position on the UN Security Council makes it almost impossible at present for Kosovo to become a member of the UN.

Membership of the UN is a prerequisite for membership of UEFA, and UEFA President Michel Platini has persistently refused to allow Kosovo to play even friendly matches against UEFA teams. Sepp Blatter evidently lost patience and got the ExCo to overrule UEFA and allow Kosovo to play, despite there being little chance of them being admitted to a regional confederation, which teams usually have to be members of for two years before being considered for FIFA membership.

FIFA have invited a furious Serbian federation and the Kosovar federation to a meeting in Zurich to further discuss this decision; but Blatter insists that it is only the practicalities which now need to be worked out, such as can they play home games in Kosovo or have to play them somewhere else, rather than the issue of Kosovo being allowed to play or not.

This is an interesting story in itself; but what is really interesting is what this decision could potentially mean to some of the other nations who are trying to get into international football.

One of those nations is Gibraltar, who have been battling for years for the right to play international football.

Gibraltar is somewhat of an anachronism in a modern Europe. It is a tiny, self-governing British colony of about 28,000 people on a peninsula in the south of Spain, famous for the Rock of Gibraltar and the Barbary Apes that live on it, which was ceded to British rule as a result of the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713. The future of Gibraltar has long been a bone of contention between Britain and Spain. Spain wants it back. The Gibraltarians want to stay under British rule. Britain wants to keep it (though most Brits couldn’t care less whether or not it stays British). The issue of whether or not Gibraltar should be given back to Spain, or not, is for others to decide, but UEFA are going to be forced into a decision as to whether or not to accept their football team very soon.

There is a long history of football in Gibraltar. Gibraltar has one of the ten oldest football associations in the world, the GFA was founded in 1895, and has had a league since 1907.

After seeing that other small nations such as San Marino, Andorra and Liechtenstein were accepted into UEFA, Gibraltar decided to apply, first applying to FIFA in 1997. FIFA decided Gibraltar met all of the conditions in their statutes regarding new members, and passed their file onto UEFA. Gibraltar formally applied to UEFA in 1999, and UEFA’s executive committee recommended Gibraltar be admitted into UEFA.

News of Gibraltar’s efforts for UEFA admission went down like a lead balloon in Spain. RFEF, the Spanish FA, furiously protested, and the UEFA Executive Committee indefinitely postponed a decision on Gibraltar’s application, despite having been told by an independent legal panel who ruled on Gibraltar’s application and Spain’s objections to that application, that Spain didn’t have any legitimate grounds for protest and that “Gibraltar was entitled to provisional admission as a member of UEFA”.

Spain’s objections are purely political; there is no reason, on a sporting level, why Gibraltar should not be admitted into UEFA, as UEFA statues clearly states that its members cannot discriminate on political grounds. Spain are reluctant to allow Gibraltar to show any sign of independence for fear that it would weaken their claims on the colony, and that it may give Catalonia and the Basque Country added incentive to try and apply to become full international teams themselves, which would severely weaken the Spanish team.

While this manoeuvring was going on, UEFA passed a rule in 2002 requiring future members to be members of the UN, with a grandfather clause allowing existing non-UN members such as England, Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the Faroe Islands to continue competing. This left Gibraltar, a non-sovereign nation not in the UN, seemingly excluded permanently.

Gibraltar took their case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), who ruled in their favour, stating that as Gibraltar had applied before the rules regarding membership to the UN as a requirement for UEFA membership came into effect, those rules didn’t apply to Gibraltar, and a decision on their membership had to be taken quickly.

UEFA’s ExCo then refused Gibraltar’s admission on the grounds that they didn’t qualify for FIFA, prompting another trip to CAS in 2006, which again ruled in Gibraltar’s favour, and ordered UEFA to give them provisional membership, with a vote on full membership to shortly follow, at their next meeting. UEFA breached this order several times, delaying a vote on Gibraltar’s membership time and again.

Gibraltar was eventually given associate member status along with Montenegro in late 2006, and a vote was taken in 2007 as to their application for full membership. RFEF again intervened and threatened to withdraw all of its teams from all UEFA competitions should Gibraltar be admitted. Even though the threat was a hollow one; there was no way that Spain would have withdrawn its teams from the European Championships over a team that has played less than 40 internationals, and there was equally no way that Barcelona, Real Madrid and the other Spanish teams would have stood for not being allowed to play in the Champions League, the UEFA members didn’t call Spain’s bluff, and while Montenegro were unanimously accepted by the other UEFA members, Gibraltar lost a vote 45 to 3, with only England, Scotland and Wales voting in their favour, and were once again left in limbo.

Once again, Gibraltar went to CAS, and once again, they won. UEFA were ordered to do everything in their power to admit Gibraltar into UEFA by their congress in 2012. Gibraltar still aren’t in, but UEFA did give Gibraltar a ‘roadmap’ which should lead them into full UEFA member status, including things like setting up courses to train Gibraltarian referees to the UEFA standard, improved coaching courses and help with governance of football in Gibraltar. This should mean that come next year, when UEFA has its congress in London, there should be no reason, except for more Spanish posturing, why Gibraltar should not be admitted, and possibly take part in the qualifying process for EURO 2016.

Currently a sticking point to Gibraltar’s membership to FIFA, and a point which Spain have raised, is that their stadium, the Victoria Stadium, which is currently the only stadium in Gibraltar, is located on a narrow isthmus which is under dispute between Spain and Gibraltar as to who it belongs to. The UK’s Ministry of Defence, which still has a presence in Gibraltar, has donated a military sports field to the Gibraltar government, meaning that if Spain objects to the position of the stadium, they could relocate and build there.

One possible way forward for Gibraltar would be to join CAF, the African Federation, where Spain’s objections would count for nothing. Gibraltar is quite close to mainland Africa, so that might be a real possibility. RFEF has also floated the possibility of Gibraltar having a team in their league system, similar to Monaco having a place in France’s league system. This was rejected on the grounds that Gibraltar wants to become a full international team.

I believe that sport should be inclusive, and that FIFA and the regional confederations should do more to help those countries who want to be a part of FIFA, but currently are not. I’m pleased that Kosovo will get to play some matches, and hopefully FIFA can help to get other nations with a strong case, such as Zanzibar and Greenland, admitted into a regional confederation and on their way to full FIFA membership. Hopefully, Blatter’s intervention will also help to show that there really is no reason why Gibraltar shouldn’t be allowed to play international football sooner rather than later, despite Spainish objections.

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