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Joe Hernandez views on the state of sport in Gibraltar and where it is heading

MADRID, Dec 15 (Reuters) - At a time when many are worried about the rise of the couch potato, the British territory of Gibraltar appears to be bucking the trend and enjoying record levels of participation in sport.

Yet despite their success, the people who organise sport on the Rock are worried that a lack of recognition from international governing bodies could put the brakes on future development.

"Outsiders are often amazed by the high percentage of people who practise sport here," the chief executive of the Gibraltar Sports and Leisure Authority, Joe Hernandez, told Reuters.

"A key reason behind this growth was when Spain's General Francisco Franco closed the border between Gibraltar and Spain in the late sixties.

"There were very few sports available then, but with nothing to do, no access to the countryside, and the only way out on a boat, young people turned to sport for entertainment.

"The border was shut for 17 years and that forced its development. We now have 40 registered sporting bodies of which up to 25 are recognised internationally."

The Gibraltar government has backed this development, investing large amounts of money in state-of-the-art sporting facilities, which are 100-percent subsidised.

"We never need to advertise these facilities. We always have more demand than we can supply," Hernandez said.

Gibraltar has full or associated membership in a wide array of international sporting bodies including athletics, badminton, basketball, boxing, cricket, hockey, rowing, squash, swimming, table tennis, triathlon and volleyball.


But the favourite sport of Gibraltarians is soccer and that is where they have run into problems.

Last week, the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA) was admitted as a provisional member of UEFA, but it has taken nine years of petitioning and court cases to get to this stage. A final decision will be voted on at a UEFA Congress in January.

"Maybe there is no other place in the world where from a population of around 30,000 people you have so many participating in sports," GFA vice-president Albert Buhagiar told Reuters.

"In football, we have 31 registered amateur teams and around 80 junior teams."

The GFA, which was founded in 1895, boasts three divisions of amateur teams, who all play the at the Rock's Victoria Stadium, but Buhagiar is not about to claim these sides could compete with Europe's top clubs.

"It would be impossible for our teams to play in the Champions League," he said. "That's not why we want to join UEFA.

"We are more interested in joining for other reasons. To help the development of football among the children, to get support and training for our coaches and referees, and financial help in the form of grants from UEFA.

"Maybe in 15 or 20 years time we might have developed enough to be able to compete in the top competitions. Nobody wins from games where you watch England beating someone like us 5-0."

Many of the arguments put forward against Gibraltar's inclusion in bodies such as FIFA and UEFA are more do to with politics than sport.


Spain, for example, fears that if Gibraltar was given recognition as a separate footballing entity it would undermine its claims to the territory.

There are also concerns that it would strengthen the arguments of Spain's own autonomous regions, the Basque Country and Catalonia, for their own separate national teams.

"Spain won't accept our recognition in UEFA as it would give us the status of a country," Buhagiar said. "The Spanish government, through the Spanish FA, is doing its best to influence a vote against us."

But it is not only in football where Gibraltar has encountered opposition. Its bid to join the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has ploughed a similar furrow to that of the UEFA bid.

The Gibraltar National Olympic Committee (GNOC) is suing the IOC through the Swiss courts for the right to be recognised. A decision is expected next year.

President of the GNOC Louis Triay told Reuters: "Legally we should win the case because we satisfied the rules that were in place when we first made our application.

"Under the old rules, places with a similar status to ourselves such as the old Hong Kong, Bahamas and Western Samoa were recognised, but not us."

Triay stressed that Gibraltar could hold its own on the international stage as it already does in sports such as sailing, hockey and shooting.

"The standard of sport is very high in Gibraltar," he said. "The people here are keen sportsmen. All we need is a sprinter, for example, to win something really big to put us on the map."

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