It was a nail biter. Both teams played well, right up until the final whistle. But, after a series of controversial rejections at the hands of UEFA, Gibraltar has finally been officially recognised as a nation by the Union of European Football Associations.
Located on the southern tip of Spain, Gibraltar is renowned for its blistering heat, abundance of monkeys, and, most famously, the eponymous slab of rock which towers over the surrounding area, providing endless photo opportunities for sunburnt holiday makers. Yet, this small British overseas territory of around 30,000 people has recently been the source of much contention and debate. As with most of the arguments in our rainy isle, this stems from one thing: football.
Gibraltar finds itself in an unusual predicament. Separated from Great Britain in 1713 under the Treaty of Utrecht, the nation is formally labelled an “Overseas Territory” meaning, whilst under British jurisdiction, it does not form part of the United Kingdom (in contrast to, for example, the Isle of Wight). Yet, as with much of history, things are never that simple. Instead, Spain disputes the legality of the Utrecht Treaty and desires control of Gibraltar, arguing that it is rightfully a Spanish colony. Gibraltar’s ongoing campaign for footballing recognition has therefore provoked much heated debate; the nation’s previous bids to UEFA have been subject to much public outcry in Spain, who strongly backed Gibraltar’s most recent rejection in 2007. This has deeply tactical motives, and as Rory Smith summarises, “Not only is there a fear that if Gibraltar was recognised on the pitch Spain’s claim to the territory would be damaged, but a worry that — if Gibraltar was accepted — it would stoke the fires of independence in Catalonia and the Basque Country, too”.
“Not only is there a fear that if Gibraltar was recognised on the pitch Spain’s claim to the territory would be damaged, but a worry that — if Gibraltar was accepted — it would stoke the fires of independence in Catalonia and the Basque Country, too.”Rory Smith
As this suggests, Gibraltar is not alone in their quasi-national position, and many other unrecognised nations, such as Palestine or the Isle of Man, have their own national football teams. Since 2003, the “Non-Fifa Board” has been bringing together these similarly disputed territories to play out their differences, pitting the likes of Tibet against the sporting prowess of the Romani people. Even the Principality of Sealand are included in the fun, despite them only being a small abandoned fort in the North Sea which, at most recent estimates, has a population of 27 people.
So what does Gibraltar say to this swirling melange of intrigue and controversy? “Look, we know we’re probably not going to win the World Cup any time soon” quips the team’s manager, Allen Bula, “But we just want to play football”. This conviction certainly seems sincere, and one must acknowledge Gibraltar’s recent 3-0 defeat of the mighty Faroe Islands as evidence for their footballing ability. And this, it seems, was enough for UEFA, who today ruled that Gibraltar could play alongside other countries as an official nation of European football.
“Look, we know we’re probably not going to win the World Cup any time soon… We just want to play football”.Allen BulaGibraltar's manager
So what now? Can we expect to see the likes of Germany and France pitted against Sealand in the near future? That seems a long way off, but Gibraltar’s acceptance into the world of European football will be of great encouragement to other budding nations. And, even if it will be a while until we can see England take on the Vatican City, I for one wish Gibraltar the best of luck. Just don’t sign the Pope- I’d imagine that long dress he wears causes all sorts of tripping hazards.