Sunday, May 26, 2013

Between A Rock And A Hard Man

Gibraltar is to become the latest member of the UEFA family. Where next? The Isle of Man? The Isle of Wight? It has taken a decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport to oblige UEFA to admit Gibraltar, but on what grounds? As a British overseas territory, it isn't really a country, so what will it be doing entering a competition that is supposedly for European nations? But then, Gibraltar's status is a bit odd. It is part of the European Union, so on this basis, there probably are legitimate grounds for its admission to UEFA. If the rock is good enough for Brussels, it must be good enough for Nyon, as in Nyon, Switzerland, where UEFA has its HQ. And as Andorra, San Marino and the Faroe Islands are all a bit iffy in UEFA nationality terms, then why not extend this iffiness to Gib. In fact, the comparison with the Faroes is probably the best grounds for UEFA admission, as the Faroes are selg-governing, like Gibraltar, but also an overseas territory, one that is under Danish sovereignty.

These other iffy members of UEFA haven't, though, faced the same sort of opposition as Gibraltar has. And its main opposition is known as Spain, who in 2007 threatened to take all Spanish teams out of European competitions if Gibraltar was given membership. This opposition was not solely because of the obvious - Spain's claims to the rock - but also because of a Spanish fear that Gibraltar's admission would mean that there would be claims for UEFA membership from Catalonia and the Basques.

This fear has always sounded somewhat unfounded. There are "national" teams for all the regions of Spain, including the Balearics, who have only ever played one "international" (losing to Malta), but none are affiliated to UEFA or indeed FIFA because they are all represented by the Spanish FA. Having said this, there is of course another iffy arrangement that is sanctioned by UEFA and FIFA, and that is the one which concerns England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Catalonia could argue, one supposes, that it if the Welsh can have a national side, despite not being a separate nation, then why can't it? Of course, Catalonia may try and resolve the matter of its football team by declaring itself independent, a move that would throw not only Spain and the European Union but more importantly UEFA into a turmoil of knowing what to do. And if UEFA can be made by the Court of Arbitration to bring Gibraltar into the fold, then it would have no choice but to let Catalonia in.

Even without having declared itself a separate nation, the idea of Catalonia having its own team in European competitions is a delicious one. Firstly, it might reduce Spain's dominance, but secondly, and far more deliciously, would be the prospect of Spain playing Catalonia. They already do in one way, and that is El Clasico, Real Madrid versus Barcelona, but a match-up between Spain and a separatist Catalonia in a European nations tournament ... ?

The contentious issues to do with sovereignty claims and so the possibility of teams playing each other are dealt with by UEFA ensuring, in the case of Spain and Gibraltar, that they cannot be paired in a qualifying round. Given that there would be absolutely no chance of Gibraltar ever advancing beyond the qualifiers, then the worry that they might have to play each other is non-existent. UEFA also skirt round a contentious issue of a different sort - that of the poor relations between Armenia and Azerbaijan. They are always kept apart, and it might be worth noting, for those who believe that minor entrants to European competitions should have their own pre-qualifying tournament, that it would be that much more difficult to ensure that Armenia and Azerbaijan never came up against each other.

But back to Gibraltar and its membership of UEFA, we can now doubtless look forward to a team with its back story similar to that of San Marino. Plucky bricklayers, accountants and waiters take on the might of Italy or even England. And lose horribly.

I'm not one of those who decries the presence of no-hoper, smaller teams in the European championship, but I accept that they add to the unwieldy nature of qualifying groups. These teams are so outclassed that all they can really hope for is to make life difficult for their betters by parking the bus and filling it with hard men who rattle the effete superstars of European football. Or in Gibraltar's case, perhaps they could scout for a likely Barbary Ape or two.

Any comments to please.

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