Gibraltar make their international debut

Tonight, UEFA’s newest member made their bow in official international football. Gibraltar pulled off an excellent result by holding Slovakia 0-0 and in doing so became the world’s only unbeaten international team and the only international team not to have conceded a goal.

Gibraltar is a small, self-governing, British colony in the south of Spain. Spain dispute both Britain’s claims on Gibraltar, which stem from the treaty of Utrecht in 1713, and Gibraltar’s right to self-determine who rules them, as the vast majority of Gibraltarians wish to remain under British rule. This dispute has flared up recently due to a row over an artificial reef Gibraltar installed, which Spain believed to be a ploy to disrupt Spanish fishing and has resulted in border crossings between Spain and Gibraltar taking hours longer than usual.

Gibraltar first applied to FIFA in 1997. FIFA provisionally accepted them 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, fearing that Gibraltar’s admission could open the door for a Catalonia or Basque country team, 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 a case and that “Gibraltar was entitled to provisional admission as a member of UEFA”.

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; 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.

In May, 14 years after FIFA recommended their admission, and ten years since a court ordered UEFA to admit them, Gibraltar finally won admission to UEFA, this time with only Spain, and for reasons unknown, Belarus, voting against.

Gibraltar’s first obstacle was finding a place to play. Gibraltar’s stadium, the Victoria Stadium, was deemed unsuitable for international football, though they are building a suitable one that should be ready in 2016. As playing in Spain is not an option, a solution was found, which means that Gibraltar’s home games will be played at the Estadio Algarve in Portugal, which has a capacity greater than the population of Gibraltar!

After the announcement that Slovakia would provide the opposition, Gibraltar then had to build a team. There are about 1400 registered footballers in Gibraltar, but manager Allen Bula knew he had to look a bit further afield for some expertise. Bula’s nephew is former Manchester United and Stoke City player Danny Higginbotham, who now plays for Chester in the English 5th tier and Bula called him up to the squad via twitter. Also included, was Barnsley defender Scott Wiseman.

The rest of the squad are a mixture of amateur players from Gibraltar’s league, some of whom had to battle to get the time off work to play and made the four hour trip to Portugal. Several hundred fans also made the trip, as well as the First Minister, Fabian Picardo.

The game itself was a tight affair, with Slovakia dominating the territory, but couldn’t find a way past keeper Jordan Perez and a dogged Gibraltar defence, but Bula can be proud of his team’s performance against a much better side, and they showed that they will be more than just cannon fodder for the rest of UEFA.

Gibraltar’s next scheduled game is against the Faroe Islands next year, with home and away games against Estonia to follow that (which will allow Estonia once again to be the only side to have played all the others), so it’s not inconceivable that Gibraltar can build on this promising start and possibly get a win.

Before that though, is the draw for qualifying for EURO 2016, in which Gibraltar will be involved for the first time. Gibraltar and Spain will be kept apart in the draw, but Gibraltar will be given the chance to play one of the top ranked nations in Europe.

Considering just how hard they had to fight to be able to play international football, Gibraltar are just happy to be playing and tonight’s result may go some way towards meeting their first objective, which is to establish themselves as an international team.