Earlier today, UEFA, the governing body of football in Europe, named Gibraltar as its 54th member. Despite past objections from Spain, Gibraltar, a British territory at the southern tip of Iberian Peninsula, will now be granted the same rights as other European states for the purposes of football.
Following a vote by UEFA at a congress in London by their Executive Commitee, the Gibraltar Football Association (FA) won an arbitration case and will finally be included following previous failed attempts made in 1999 and 2007.
With an area of only 2.6 square miles and a population of 30,000, Gibraltar will hardly be a threat to continental powers like Germany and Spain, though the latter's objections to the move are not so much in fear of Gibraltar, but of other parts of Spain fighting for their own sovereignty. The Spanish FA has publicly shown dissent towards this decision, worrying that this opens the door for Basque and Catalan regions to claim their own independence in footballing terms, something they have both made efforts to do on a political level.
FC Barcelona, who in recent years has cemented their place as a perennial footballing power, is located in the heart of Catalonia, a region where many claim their right to independence from Spain. If Catalonia were to one day be granted the same rights as Gibraltar, players the likes of Cesc Fabregas, Xavi Hernandez and Jordi Alba, mainstays of the European and World Cup champion side, would be eligible to play for a Catalan National side. What's more, they already have a Catalan National Football team that have played in exhibitions à la Washington Generals. They even once had Dutch legend Johan Cruyff as their skipper. It's easy to claim that players of this stature would never play for a weakened side such as Catalonia, but to understand their beliefs in the rights of an independent state, would be to understand generations of families and their desire to have their own country. The same could occur with players from a Basque autonomous side, despite the fact that the Basque people are spread out over various regions and without the same concentration as the Catalan in Catalonia.
UEFA boss Michel Platini has claimed that Gibraltar and Spain will not be pooled into the same qualifying groups for future tournaments, as with Armenia and Azerbaijan in the past. Surely, this gesture does little to quell the fears of the Spanish FA.
While the dozens of football supporters in Gibraltar should be pleased with UEFA's decision, there's reason to side with Spain and understand their position on the matter. Unlike the former Yugoslavia, civil wars have not forced the division of the country, fracturing a footballing power into smaller, still competitive nations the likes of Croatia, Serbia and Bosnia and Herzegovina. Despite being merely a drop in the ocean that is European football, UEFA's move today could signal a change big enough to inspire other communities to seek the same rights.
editor's note: Barry P. just posted something about this on Deadspin that you'd likely prefer reading not more than 10 minutes ago. Oops. Anyways...