New UEFA nation Gibraltar eyes Euro football debut
LONDON (AP) -Gibraltar became the smallest European football nation on Friday after the British colony's lengthy push to join UEFA was completed by gaining full membership.
The campaign for recognition has long been resisted by Spain, which wanted to stop the tiny territory on its southern tip from joining UEFA and being able to play in its competitions.
Gibraltar has been a frequent source of tension between Britain and Spain, which claims sovereignty over the territory that was ceded to Britain in 1713.
The path to becoming UEFA's 54th member, which started in 1999, became clearer after a Court of Arbitration for Sport ruling in Gibraltar's favor in 2006.
The following year UEFA called a vote at its Congress but Spain engineered strong opposition to Gibraltar's bid.
The congress in London on Friday, though, overwhelmingly backed Gibraltar, which was granted provisional member status last year.
There was no chance for Spain to express any opposition apart from by refusing to raise a green card, which signified support, as most nations did.
"This is a momentous occasion for football in Gibraltar,'' Gibraltar Football Association president Gareth Latin said. "UEFA membership means we can begin the next chapter of Gibraltarian football.''
Gibraltar can now enter into the qualifying competition for the 2016 European Championship.
UEFA President Michel Platini said Spain would be kept apart in qualifying in a bid to avoid inflaming political tension, as happens with Armenia and Azerbaijan.
"It's better to try and ... pre-empt such a situation and avoid it happening rather than dealing with the consequences,'' Platini said.
Gibraltar is now looking to quickly play its first friendly as a UEFA member.
"Obviously the calendars are full for most nations, but, if someone is free, then we would be happy to play anyone at this stage,'' head coach Allen Bula told British broadcaster Sky Sports.
There is uncertainty over where the team would play international fixtures with a small stadium being upgraded on the rocky territory where the Mediterranean Sea meets the Atlantic Ocean. They could be played in nearby Portugal.
Gibraltar has six top-division teams and 600 registered senior players in its population of almost 30,000, who have full British citizenship.
"We have been trying to achieve this (UEFA decision) for 14 years, and we want to give this to the Gibraltar community and we want to develop our kids so they have a chance to become professionals,'' Latin said.
The GFA, which was founded in 1895, applied to FIFA for membership in 1997 with the backing of England, but the world governing body delegated the decision to UEFA.
Spain had UEFA change its rules in 1999 so that members were U.N.-recognized states. But Gibraltar's original application predates this change.
Gibraltar sends teams to the Commonwealth Games but does not have a recognized National Olympic Committee.
Now, though, it is an official footballing nation.
"Finally the politics of ancient rivalry and colonial tribalism have been kicked into touch,'' said Graham Watson, who represents Gibraltar in the European Parliament.
The territory was captured by Anglo-Dutch naval forces in 1704 and ceded to Britain in the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht. The strategically situated rock has had a British military base ever since.
"Gibraltar's presence on the international stage is going from strength to strength ... now Gibraltar can sell itself to the world through the art of the beautiful game,'' Watson said.
Rob Harris can be reached at http://twitter.com/RobHarris
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