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Political football

A general view of the Gibraltar runway with Spain beyond it.

It was Roy of the Rovers stuff – footballing minnows versus the greatest national team of the modern era. On one side the reigning World and European champions, on the other a national team whose last result was a 2-0 home defeat by English club side Charlton Athletic. The last time the two nations met it was a comprehensive victory for the favourites – 45-3 to be precise – but this time things could be different. The stage for this battle isn’t a football pitch, it’s London’s Grosvenor House hotel, the date was 24th May 2013, and Spain and Gibraltar were doing their fighting largely by proxy. European football’s governing body, UEFA, was about to decide whether to admit the Rock.

In the run-up to the vote, I travelled to Madrid to gauge Spain’s reaction to the move. On my arrival, a funny thing happened. No one would talk. Not the federation, not the sports council, not the press officers. Questions were met with apologetic shrugs. They couldn’t comment. The issue wasn’t with them any more, it was out of their hands. And it was then that I was invited to a meeting at the Ministry for Cooperation and Foreign Affairs, a futuristic metal and glass edifice on the outskirts of Madrid.

I was met by two serious-looking middle-aged men, who did not want to be named and certainly did not want to be quoted. This was just a meeting, they said, to put forward Spain’s point of view and correct any historical errors I might have inadvertently carried with me.

They wanted to talk about Gibraltar. It’s a tiny territory with a population of just 30,000 people, which the Spanish government has described as “the last colony in Europe”. The territory was ceded in perpetuity to the British in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht, although successive Spanish governments have long disputed the legality of that document.

My hosts were keen to point out a few of the finer details. The treaty, they said, only covered the rock itself, not the isthmus that connects it with mainland Spain. That isthmus – a tiny, narrow spit of land that would be deemed worthless in any normal circumstances – was only colonised after an 18th century yellow fever outbreak forced the British settlers there. Now it is settled by thousands of Gibraltarians, and is also home to Gibraltar’s airport. “Is that fair?” my hosts asked me. The UN has ruled that the Gibraltarians are settlers, they said. This is an issue that only the British and Spanish governments can discuss. So you see, in effect, what the Gibraltarian people want is irrelevant. The men exchanged looks that mixed condescension and pity. They understood why I might be mistaken, having travelled all this way from the UK. They didn’t hold it against me personally. But I needed to understand that the Gibraltar national football team is on the government’s radar at the highest diplomatic level.

With the briefing completed, they ushered me out of their office.

A general view of the Gibraltar runway with Spain beyond it.

The Utrecht gambit

The Gibraltar Football Association was formed in 1895, a full 14 years before the Royal Spanish Football Federation. It is one of the oldest football associations in the world and contains 16 teams in a two-tier league. Gibraltar launched its first bid to join UEFA in 1997. The rewards for membership are potentially enormous; if successful, Gibraltar’s champions would be entered into the UEFA Champions League and Europa League qualification draws. Their national team would be entered into the draw for the next European Championships.

The 1997 bid met with predictably strong Spanish opposition; the Spanish federation hinted that it would remove its clubs and international teams from all competitions should Gibraltar be allowed in. That would mean no Spain at the World Cup and no Real Madrid or Barcelona in the Champions League – which would be an enormous blow to UEFA. In 2001 UEFA changed its statutes to bar any territory from becoming a member that wasn’t already part of the UN. The move was widely seen as a way of preventing Gibraltar from ever joining the club.

“A national stadium must be built on undisputed land. But the Treaty of Utrecht didn’t cover the isthmus so UEFA rejected it”

But the Gibraltar Football Association was not so easily silenced. It took its case to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS), a Swiss-based international legal body that rules on disputes in sport. When CAS ruled that Gibraltar should be admitted as it had applied for membership before the rule change, UEFA held a vote at its annual congress in 2007 and Gibraltar suffered that crushing 45-3 defeat. Only England, Scotland and Wales voted for them.

The defeat, a UEFA insider told me later, was largely thanks to a loophole sought in the face of fierce Spanish opposition. “We found the original wording of the Treaty of Utrecht,” he said, “and went through it line by line and found a loophole. A national stadium must be built on undisputed land. But the treaty didn’t cover the isthmus [where Gibraltar’s Victoria Stadium was built] so UEFA rejected it.” The members seemingly had no choice but to vote no.

Then, in September 2011, the CAS ruling was upheld for a second time. In October 2012 Gibraltar was granted provisional membership of UEFA, pending confirmation at the new vote on 24th May 2013.

“We’ll prove Spain wrong”

One man who was delighted at Gibraltar’s second chance was Allen Bula, coach of the Gibraltar national team. I met him at Victoria Stadium where we watched his under-17 team prepare in the pouring rain for a friendly match against Ireland. “Over there we have the World and European champions,” said Bula, pointing to the border some 500 metres away. “I would love to play Spain, love to. I would play them any day, anywhere, anyhow. I know they have a massive team. I’m not frightened and my players are not frightened. We’d give them a hell of a game too.”

Ever since Gibraltar first began the long journey to UEFA membership, Bula has been patiently waiting to take charge of the team’s first official international fixture. He has waited through the court cases, the setbacks and the political intrigues. But with the vote a few months away, his wish was for a match against arguably the greatest side in the history of international football. “The Spanish have stopped us from joining UEFA for political reasons and haven’t let us progress,” he said, defiantly. “We’ll prove Spain wrong.”

Nearby, half a dozen of the full national team were standing by the pitch. They all have other jobs: lawyers, customs officers, policemen. Most of them are now approaching 30, their best days behind them. European and World Cup qualification campaigns would be for the next generation. But the old guard had briefly tasted international competition. Provisional membership of UEFA had meant that Gibraltar was entered into the draw for several smaller competitions including three qualification matches for the 2014 UEFA Futsal Championship. In one of these games Gibraltar secured its first ever UEFA victory, beating San Marino 7-5. Gibraltar also beat the Faroe Islands 3-0 in a friendly, a victory that Bula improbably claimed sent “shock waves throughout Europe.”

“By beating San Marino we proved we are at least at their level,” Gibraltar’s captain, Roy Chipolino, told me. “They’ve been playing for eight to ten years already and haven’t got a win. We’ve played just three games.” Other players see membership as something bigger. “We see ourselves as Gibraltarians. We have our own culture, our own way of living,” said striker John Paul Duarte, who also works as an immigration officer. “They’ll never have Gibraltar. The message UEFA membership [would send] is that the Spanish have been wrong for all these years.”

Inside, at the bar of the Victoria Stadium, I met Gareth Latin, president of the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA). Three televisions flickered with different English football matches and the walls were adorned with signed football shirts and pictures of famous Gibraltarian teams of the past.

Latin told me he doesn’t understand the deep opposition to the Rock from Madrid. Most Gibraltarians, he said, have strong Spanish roots. “English is our official language but we speak a dialect called Llanito. It is bilingual English-Spanish. You speak whatever you think in first.” He talked about his own Spanish roots – how his grandmother comes from La Línea de la Concepción, the Spanish town directly across the border; how thousands of Spanish come over to work in Gibraltar every day. Indeed, the border crossing is cursory. It usually takes less than ten minutes to cross into a territory that is growing at nearly eight per cent a year thanks to shipping, telecommunications, gambling and offshore banking.

Latin was in the middle of a charm offensive to secure Gibraltar’s membership to UEFA, vowing to visit every member association before the vote and spending what money the association had on a slick promotional video called ‘Team 54’, as well as on a glossy brochure making the case for Gibraltar’s membership. “A country in eastern or central Europe would not know who we are, so we have to tell them,” he explained. Latin even wrote to the Spanish federation requesting a meeting. He received no reply.

Playing politics with football

The battle for Gibraltar has been going on for nearly three centuries but Spanish claims were only truly revived in the 1960s by fascist dictator General Franco, who cut Spain’s land border with the Rock. He won an important diplomatic victory at the United Nations in 1967, forcing Gibraltar onto a list of territories the UN believed should be decolonised. The land border was only partially reopened in 1982, seven years after Franco’s death and not fully until 1984, just before Spain joined the European Union. Then came the transition to democracy and the emergence of Basque separatist movement ETA. The Gibraltar question was put on hold.

Relations between Spain and the British remained largely untroubled by Gibraltar. In the early noughties, the UK government reached a tentative joint sovereignty agreement with Spain, only for it to be overwhelmingly rejected by the people of Gibraltar in a 2002 referendum when 98.97 per cent of them voted against the proposal.

The issue was easier to sideline during the boom years. But then in 2011, Mariano Rajoy’s right-wing People’s Party won by a landslide just as youth unemployment hit 50 per cent. For the first time in decades Gibraltar was back on the agenda. Spain’s foreign minister, Jose Manuel Garcia-Margallo, was quoted as saying he would not set foot on the Rock until the Spanish flag was flying over it. The Spanish government rejected the previous agreement of tripartite negotiations between Spain, the UK and Gibraltar, effectively cutting Gibraltar out of the process. Yet in the background, the slow cogs of football administration were turning towards recognition of Gibraltar on a level that would frighten Spain.

“We see ourselves as Gibraltarians. We have our own culture, our own way of living – they’ll never have Gibraltar”

Recognition of national football teams has become a key weapon for disputed states in their quest for a bona fide political existence. The Palestinian national team was recognised in 1998 by FIFA, one of the only international bodies to have done so. In Ramallah, the national football team is seen as one of the only manifestations of its unrecognised state. Jibril Rajoub, a former West Bank security advisor to Yasser Arafat who is now head of the Palestinian Football Association, told me in 2011 that he viewed the team’s footballers as “soldiers without guns.” Kosovo, Kurdistan, North Cyprus – all have tried to advance the cause of nationhood through football. And it is here that the main issue lies, not on Spain’s south coast, but on the Catalan Costa Brava.

“The Spanish government is playing politics,” Alfred Bosch, a leading pro-independence Catalan politician in the Spanish congress, explained to me. “It is striving to prevent Gibraltar from having national teams which could eventually face Spanish teams. The driving force behind such meddling has to do with Spanish nationalism.” A Catalan national team has long existed although it has never seriously sought official recognition. That is largely thanks to the fact that it has a hugely successful de facto national team, albeit at a club level – Barcelona, which carries Catalonia’s colours and history to a massive audience. As the late England and Barcelona coach Sir Bobby Robson once said: “Catalonia is a country and FC Barcelona is their army.”

When Bosch asked a question about Spain’s resistance to Gibraltar’s UEFA membership in the Spanish parliament in December 2012, the government broke its silence on the issue. “The government will continue opposing by all legal means [the admittance of] the Gibraltar Football Association as a full member of UEFA,” it said. “The government will continue opposing holding competitions between the official sports teams of Spain and [those of] the colony of Gibraltar.”

The Spanish government may have a point in being wary of Gibraltar’s recognition. Bosch believed that Gibraltar’s membership of UEFA would send an important message within Spain, where the restive Catalans and Basques are watching the developments closely. “A majority of Catalans stand in favour of having international Catalan teams. They share a common goal with Gibraltarian sports people,” Bosch said, adding that Gibraltar’s UEFA membership “would certainly set an inspiring precedent and prove that sports are above politics and independent of nationalistic government pressures.”

The vote

London, 24th May 2013: at the Grosvenor House Hotel, UEFA’s 53 member associations and Gibraltar were awaiting the result. Due to a quirk in the seating plan, Latin and the GFA were sitting directly behind the Spanish federation’s delegation. The Spanish federation president Ángel María Villar, who is also a member of UEFA’s ExCo, watched the vote unfold with a face like thunder.

“Football has spoken and shown there’s no room for politics”

Allen Bula, decked out in his best suit, was leaning over the edge of the balcony above the delegates with a mobile phone pressed to his ear. His wife was on the other end. He relayed the events in real time as those in favour of Gibraltar’s membership lifted their green cards, and those against lifted red. “We’re in, we’re in!” he shouted to his wife, before putting the phone to his chest. “Are we in?” he asked me. “I don’t understand French…”

Yes, Gibraltar were in. Almost every card held by the delegates was green. Only Spain and, bizarrely, Belarus voted against. “I don’t know what to say, I’m lost for words,” Bula said as he was congratulated by the Gibraltarian delegation. “Football has spoken and shown a clear message that there’s no room for politics. We worked hard. We deserved it.”

The national team will be entered into the draw for the next European Championships although Michel Platini would later say that he would ensure Gibraltar and Spain are not drawn in the same group. Bula’s dream of Spain playing Gibraltar could only happen now if the two met each other in the 2016 European Championships in France. That is unlikely. But a new national stadium is being built on the Rock itself so that Gibraltar can take the next step: full membership of FIFA as well.


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