Friday, 24 May 2013

Gibraltar no longer an Outcast

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After what is surely the longest wait of any country that has actually applied to join one of FIFA’s six confederations, the Gibraltar Football Association were today - 14 years after first applying – accepted into UEFA. 

After first applying in 1999, UEFA changed its membership criteria so that all new members must be in the United Nations. That was done solely to appease Spain, who had threatened to quit all international football, a threat that has proved totally empty. 

After three rulings by the Court of Arbitration for Sport that UEFA’s rule change was unfair, UEFA director Senes Erzik told delegates at the European body’s congress today in London that under the original statutes set out in 1999, Gibraltar was entitled to full membership. 

Erzik recommended to the congress that Gibraltar be accepted and the vote went through. Afterwards. GFA president Gareth Latin said: “It has been a long journey but football and all our love for the sport has prevailed. This is a momentous occasion for football on Gibraltar. We can now begin the next chapter of Gibraltar football, offering our football community the best possible future and development means.”

As he left the stage, delegates applauded including, according to veteran commentator Keir Radnedge, Angel Maria Villar, the influential president of the Spanish federation, the RFEF.
Unlike the four French territories and the Dutch island of Sint Maarten, which were admitted to Concacaf last month, Gibraltar can now expect a significant financial windfall. 

A couple of years ago a British military base on the Rock was handed back to the Gibraltarian government. On the southern-most point of Gibraltar, Europa Point had hosted cricket and rugby but will now be the site of a new 8,000-capacity international-standard stadium. 

Mark Fenwick, from Fenwick Iribarren Architects, the designers of the Espanyol stadium in Barcelona and a leading Uefa expert on stadia design, is helping with plans, which remain at outline stage. 

As a member of UEFA, Gibraltar can now apply for funding for this stadium from UEFA's HatTrick programme, which is putting up €2 million of the €3.5 million cost of a new stadium in Andorra. 

UEFA membership has other benefits. Last autumn, €40 million was paid out to clubs that released players for national sides in the Euro 2012 qualifiers. If as expected Gibraltar is included in the draw for qualifying for Euro 2016 – an event scheduled for the Palais des Congres Acropolis in Nice on 9 March – the Rock’s clubs will get another windfall. 

English side Portsmouth would get a payment for releasing the Gibraltarian midfielder Liam Walker; so would other clubs back on the Rock that supplied players to the Gibraltarian national side for Euro 2016 qualifiers. In tiny San Marino, a dozen Sammarinese clubs shared €566,038 from the Euro 2012 payout ranging from €4,193 for SP Cailungo to €104,822 to AC Juvenes-Dogana. For Gibraltarian football, which has no outside funding, that is a major fillip. 

Then there are the Champions and Europa leagues. A side losing in the first qualifying round of the 2012/13 Champions League received €340,000. Even losing in the first round of the Europa League is worth €100,000 regardless of the result. Although including Gibraltarian clubs in Europe could be confusing, however, as the colony has its own Manchester United, formed back in 1957 and which plays in the Rock's first division. 

The chances of Gibraltar getting into FIFA remain slim. The four French territories have no plans to take that next step and, as a British overseas territory, Gibraltar would surely have little chance. But, in the short term, getting into UEFA is enough. Gibraltar is no longer an Outcast – in Europe, at least.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Problems facing football in an independent Catalonia

This story also appears at
With the Segunda División reaching its climax in Spain, Girona have a good chance of promotion to La Liga that would provide Catalonia with three clubs at the top level of Spanish football for the first time in six seasons.

Ambitious Girona would surely hope to last longer than Gimnàstic de Taragona, whose stay in La Liga in 2006/2007 lasted a year but there could be a bigger threat to the ambitions of Catalonia’s biggest football clubs and that is independence.

Unlike Scotland, no date has been set for any referendum and the Spanish government has banned a declaration of sovereignty approved by more than two thirds of the Catalan assembly. Although Catalans securing independence after nearly 300 years as part of Spain seems unlikely to many in Spain, the increasingly frustrated parties governing Catalonia could declare unilateral independence and stage their own referendum.

Any such declaration would make Catalonia more comparable to Kosovo than Scotland and create problems at international and club level for football, Catalonia's most popular sport.

Catalonia already has a national team that plays once a year as part of what Phil Ball in Morbo, his excellent history of Spanish football, describes as the Café Con Leche (white coffee for all) deal struck after the death of General Franco.

Under the sporting terms of this agreement, Spain’s 17 regions can field a representative side during La Liga’s Christmas break. Outside the Basque Country, Galicia and Catalonia, few regions take up this offer with any great enthusiasm.

Catalonia’s last game was a 1-1 draw with Nigeria on January 2. Some Catalans want more regular games for the ‘national’ side but the cost of persuading the likes of Brazil – 5-2 winners over Catalonia at Camp Nou in 2004 - to play, hiring a ground and other associated costs could easily cost €2 million.

If the Federació Catalana de Futbol (FCF), which is responsible for organising around 1,500 amateur, junior and women’s’ matches every weekend, makes a loss that could have major implications for the thousands of amateur players playing in the region.

So Catalonia’s opponents are usually sides cheap to fly in, like Nigeria, who in January were at a training camp in nearby Lisbon ahead of the 2013 African Cup of Nations. Although Nigeria would go on to win the Cup of Nations in South Africa, Catalonia’s last opponents were seen by many fans as a let-down; certainly from the national teams that Jordi Casals anticipated attracting on taking over as FCF president in 2009.

Casals had grand plans, including persuading big teams before World Cups and European Championships to use Barcelona as a base for a pre-tournament training camp. The Catalan capital has impressive sporting facilities – a legacy from the 1992 Olympic Games – and Catalonia would have provided decent opposition on the pitch.

As a statement of intent, Casals recruited Johan Cruyff – a former player and manager at Barca and revered in Catalonia – as national manager but those plans never materialised. Casals fell out with many people at the FCF before standing down and being replaced by Andreu Subies.

On January 2, just 27,234 turned up to Espanyol’s stadium say ‘Comiat’ to Johan Cruyff. That attendance was partly due to the opposition and the game being at Espanyol’s Estadi Cornellà-El Prat rather than Camp Nou – the spiritual home of Catalan football – but also a reflection on Cruyff’s selection policy.

Previously, the Catalan selection featured players from Girona, Gimnàstic and CE Sabadell, a dormitory town outside Barcelona. Cruyff, however, choose players solely from two clubs. Nine came from Barcelona, including Gerard Pique, Carlos Puyol and Sergio González, who scored Catalonia’s goal after three minutes. The rest of the team were drawn from Espanyol. That was hardly an inclusive selection for a game that was, after all, one aimed at proving representative of Catalonia.

Barca and Espanyol are the best known Catalan clubs but could face a particularly testing time if Catalonia wins independence and sets up a stand-alone Catalonia league. 

What that league might look like was established last year when Plataforma ProSeleccions Esportives Catalanes – a Catalan lobby group that aims to secure international sporting recognition for Catalonia – asked the presidents of a dozen leading Catalan clubs to sign an agreement supporting the idea of an independent Catalonia.


Club Founded Capacity
FC Barcelona 1899 98,787
RCD Espanyol 1900 40,500
Girona FC 1930 9,282
Gimnàstic 1914 17,500
CE Sabadell 1903 12,000
CF Badalona 1903 10,000
UE Llagostera 1947 1,500
Lleida Esportiu CF* 1939 13,500
AE Prat 1945 300
CF Reus Deportiu 1909 4,500
UE Sant Andreu 1925 6,557
L'Hospitalet 1957 6,294
*Lérida Balompié-AEM founded 1939

At a ceremony led by Artur Mas, president of the Catalan parliament, Subies and the presidents of the 11 Catalan clubs, including Sandro Rosell of Barca, Ramon Condal of Espanyol and Girona’s Joaquim Boadas, signed the agreement. Cruyff and Pep Guardiola also sent messages of support but Miguel García, president of CE L'Hospitalet and a Spanish nationalist politician, refused to sign. A putative Catalan league was already down to 11 sides.

Francesc Serra, co-ordinator at Plataforma, which has secured international recognition for Catalonia in minority sports such as darts and Korfball, says: “There is some fear that things might change too much and we might lose the Barca-Real Madrid rivalry. We are telling people of course in the beginning this might be controversial, but after some years of independence it is clear that Catalonia will have what other countries have like Holland.

“Barca have stated they would keep joining the Spanish league, that is a bit clear, but it is not certain what will happen. Of course we will have a Catalan league that is for sure, but in the first years Barca and Espanyol might join this league and the Spanish one, or just the Spanish league. But it does not just depend on that, the Spanish league would have to invite them too.”

An angry split with Spain could prompt the Spanish association, the RFEF, to take a spiteful line and force Barca to play in an independent Catalan league. That would cause uproar amongst the other clubs in La Liga whose crowds are swelled by a visit from Barca’s line-up of superstars. Not only are crowds bigger for a visit by Lionel Messi and company, but ticket prices often go up substantially too, providing a windfall for cash-strapped La Liga clubs.

Espanyol also seem unlikely to give up their place in La Liga, while Boadas reckons that promotion to La Liga could be worth around €23 million to Girona – a sum that no club in the increasingly impoverished Spanish system could pass up. Gimnàstic were relegated from the Segunda División in 2011/12 down to Segunda B and missed out on the play-offs this season. That leaves Centre d'Esports Sabadell as the fourth biggest Catalan club, at least in terms of league placing.

The Estadi de la Nova Creu Alta has a capacity of just 12,000, which was rarely tested in the 2012/13 season with average crowds of 5,000. Under new Japanese owners Sabadell’s focus is on promotion in 2013/14. Japanese youth players are being brought over, senior ones could follow and there are even Manga cartoons in the boardroom.

Álvaro Montoliu Tarragona, Sabadell’s external communications director, says: “I think we are more interested in playing in La Liga, where we could have better players and maybe the opportunity to play in Europe. For the club and people coming to the stadium on a Sunday, they want to see the best players.

“The question is which players are going to play in a Catalan league? Are they going to be professional? Will Messi play in the Catalan league, or prefer to play in the Spanish league? That is the point. Sabadell have played just two games in Europe in our history, against Bruges in the sixties. This is history, but for us to be there again the best way is La Liga.”

Another problem would be a massive discrepancy in size of the clubs. Barca is one of the world’s biggest clubs with a stadium that holds nearly 100,000 people. Segunda B side AE Prat can seat around 300 fans. 

Independence for Catalonia looks certain to be a messy business in every sense. With so many Catalan clubs counting themselves out already, an independent top flight in a place so often defined in sporting terms by football could resemble the League of Wales more than a League of Catalonia.

Friday, 10 May 2013

No new FIFA members for the Caribbean yet

The five new members of CONCACAF are highly unlikely to be fast-tracked into FIFA membership at the world body's next Congress later this month in Mauritius.

Although South Sudan joined both the Confederation of African Football and FIFA inside six months last year, FIFA does not expect to welcome in Guadeloupe (pictured below at the 2012 Coupe de l'Outre Mer), Martinique, French Guiana and Saint Martin, or the Dutch island of Sint Maarten.

A FIFA spokesperson said: “The admittance of the 5 member associations to CONCACAF (Martinique, Guadeloupe, French Guiana, St Martin & St Maarten) does not imply automatic or direct membership to FIFA. Any association seeking affiliation to FIFA must observe FIFA’s regulations related to the subject.

“The admission of football associations to FIFA is referred to in many provisions of the FIFA Statutes and in specific regulations. In particular, art. 10 par. 1 of the FIFA Statutes stipulates that: 

"Any Association which is responsible for organising and supervising football in its country may become a Member of FIFA. In this context, the expression “country” shall refer to an independent state recognised by the international community. Furthermore, and as contemplated in such article, any candidate must have reached a good level of development in terms of championships, infrastructures, etc.”

Although Guadeloupe, Martinique and French Guiana have well developed leagues, the infrastructure is less developed in Saint Martin and Sint Maarten, the Dutch controlled side of the same island.

There have been some suggestions that all five islands had the support of either the French or Dutch national associations, but this is also not the case, certainly for Sint Maarten.

Saint Martin is unable to take part in the biennial Coupe de l'Outre Mer for French overseas territories or departments because the island's association was simply too slow in contacting the French federation, the FFF, after the first competition was staged in 2008. 

Instead, the tiny North American territory of St Pierre et Miquelon took the last remaining place of what is now an eight team competition, but St Pierre will not join Concacaf because traveling to matches is both lengthy and very expensive for an association with just three clubs.

Sint Maarten do not take part in the annual ABCS for Dutch-speaking teams in the Caribbean and are unlikely to either.

“The ABCS Cup is all about Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao and Suriname,” says Kenneth Jaliens, the manager of Suriname. “That’s why the name is ABCS.”

Surinam are not even in touch with the fledgling association on Sint Maarten. Jaliens says the Surinaamse Voetbal Bond relies on the Dutch FA for contact but the KNVB is not in touch with the Sint Maarten association.

The KNVB is working with FIFA to develop pitches at Antriol and Rincon and a mini-pitch at North Salina on Bonaire, another Dutch-controlled Caribbean island that was welcomed as an associate member of Concacaf recently and does play in the ABCS Cup, but there has been no contact whatsoever with Sint Maarten.

Johan van Geijn, international co-ordinator at the KNVB, says: “We currently have no contacts with St Maarten FA and we don’t know who’s in charge. Our last interventions were a few years ago and focused on youth.

“We do not facilitate the islands with finances. We facilitate courses and for Bonaire we have done something special with our Goal project: two new artificial fields and an artificial mini-field.”

Quite why Sint Maarten have been allowed into Concacaf is hard to gauge; certainly the other Dutch islands have no idea and the move looks increasingly like an attempt to bolster numbers ahead of a bid for more World Cup finals’ places – just the sort of ploy that Jack Warner employed in the 1990s.

Thursday, 2 May 2013

Inconsistent membership rules frustrate Gibraltar

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Four French overseas territories and the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten were promoted to full membership of Concacaf at the federation's recent congress in Panama on April 19. Although there are some good footballing reasons for this to have happened, it also looks like double standards. Guadeloupe have regularly qualified for the regional Gold Cup tournament and even reached the semi-finals in 2007, beating Canada and Honduras on the way.

Martinique (pictured above at the 2012 Coupe de l'Outre Mer in Paris) will feature at this summer's Gold Cup after a team featuring West Ham reject Frédéric Piquionne qualified via a fourth-place finish at the 2012 Caribbean Cup; French Guyana have also managed to qualify for the Caribbean Cup finals.

However, footballing activity in the fourth French territory, Saint Martin, is more sporadic. A team was entered into the Caribbean Cup qualifiers but lost all three games and conceded 24 goals without scoring. Saint Martin shares an island with the Dutch territory of Sint Maarten, who did not even bother entering the Caribbean Cup. In 2010 FIFA visited Sint Maarten as part of a working party on new members, led by English vice-president Geoff Thompson. The next year, a Dutch FA source admitted the football set-up there was a "mess" yet the territory is now a full Concacaf member.

That should not really be a surprise, as the Turks & Caicos Islands were admitted into Concacaf in the 1990s when there was not even a functioning football association on the British overseas territory. In 1998, the newly formed TCIFA was admitted into FIFA and has since received millions of dollars in aid.

All this will stick in the craw of the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA), which was formed in 1895 and has been trying to join UEFA since 1999. After years of filibustering, this tiresome process reaches an end-game at UEFA's congress at Wembley on May 24. After Gibraltar originally applied, Spain protested and UEFA switched its membership criteria: all new members must now be in the United Nations. The Court of Arbitration for Sport has since ruled three times that as this switch was made after Gibraltar applied this was simply not on.

A previous vote on Gibraltar at a UEFA congress in Frankfurt attracted just three votes: Scotland, Wales and the Republic of Ireland. Even the English did not support the Rock's footballers, but this time should be different. In October 2012, Gibraltar were admitted as a provisional UEFA member. Since then the GFA have trekked across Europe on a very professional lobbying campaign to put forward a footballing case rather than a political one.

A 3-0 win over the Faroe Islands in 2011 and a 7-5 victory over San Marino in a UEFA futsal qualifier earlier this year helped. Gibraltar are not Europe's worst team and are hopeful of victory at Wembley. Should they be foiled again, the Gibraltarians will surely look at the outcome of that Concacaf congress in Panama City and feel doubly wronged.