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Football: Spanish politicians deny involvement in Spanish FA's refusal to give Gibraltar its support

Officially, Spain says that Gibraltar's bid to become a full member of European soccer's governing body, UEFA, next month is not a political matter. Opposition is coming from the Spanish Football Federation, a nongovernmental body, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said.

But comments from the world of sports indicate how difficult it is to ignore the political pressures surrounding any effort by Gibraltar to assert a little sovereignty.

"This is part of a much bigger matter and could open up all sorts of political issues," Lars-Christer Olsson, chief executive of UEFA, said recently.

Gibraltar's bid was granted provisional approval last week by UEFA's executive committee. But the committee made clear that it was not endorsing the application, saying its hand had been forced by a court ruling in July ordering temporary approval so the bid could go before the UEFA congress for final consideration in January.

Joseph Nuñez, chairman of the Gibraltar Football Association, said that it was clear UEFA was buckling under pressure from the Spanish government to oppose the bid on political grounds.

"This is the best example I've ever seen of politics in sports," Nuñez said. "No one has ever raised any sporting objections to our application."

For about 300 years, Spain has argued that Gibraltar, a British territory on Spain's southern tip with a population of about 30,000, should be under Spanish control and has no right to sovereignty.

For years, said Peter Gold, a professor in Spanish studies at the University of the West of England, "Spain has tried to block Gibraltar from engaging in its own right in international sporting competitions." But he added that the Spanish opposition to Gibraltar's admission to UEFA had to do with internal political concerns as well as diplomatic ones. "It goes back to concerns that if Gibraltar joins, then Catalonia and the Basque country would try as well," he said.

Catalonia and the Basque country, regions of northern Spain with entrenched separatist movements, have increasingly sought to field national teams and to gain membership in international sports organizations, efforts that Spain's central government has strongly opposed.

The vote on full UEFA membership for Gibraltar is expected to occur in late January at a meeting of the UEFA congress in Düsseldorf.

The Spanish soccer federation has contended that the application should be rejected because of UEFA requirements that new members be recognized by the United Nations as politically independent nations. But the Gibraltar soccer association says that those requirements do not apply in this case because they were established after its application was submitted — in 1999.

"Gibraltar does have a leg to stand on," said Gold, alluding to the fact that the Faroe Islands, a Danish protectorate that has been a member of UEFA since 1988, has a level of political autonomy that is similar to Gibraltar's.

The Gibraltar government has refused to comment on the matter. "We do not want to mix politics and sport," Francis Cantos, a spokesman, said.

Gibraltar's national soccer team has a long history, going back more than 100 years, and it achieved some impressive results along the way.

"In 1949, our national squad drew 2-2 with Real Madrid," said Nuñez of the soccer federation. "Since then we have stagnated while the rest of Europe has progressed, because we have had no international competition open to us due to Spain's opposition."

The team's last appearance was in June, when it competed in a tournament with Tibet, Northern Cyprus and other teams not officially sanctioned by FIFA, world soccer's governing body. It finished third.

Nuñez admitted that the odds were against Gibraltar's winning UEFA approval in January. "It will be a very uphill struggle," he said.

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