“Football is the most political of all sports”

Gibraltar’s right to participate in European football has been the product of a hard-won diplomatic battle. Dennis Beiso, chief executive officer of the Gibraltar Football Association, speaks to Charlotte Simmonds about their triumphant journey to Uefa membership and what comes next

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“Hello, Dennis speaking,” the voice crackles down the line. I’m on the phone with Dennis Beiso, chief executive of the Gibraltar Football Association (GFA). He’s working from home today. “I often find I can get more done here than in the office,” he admits cheerfully.

The soft-spoken Beiso may be the highest-ranking official in Gibraltar’s sporting hierarchy, but until recently he held an entirely different position. “I used to be the government’s official archivist,” he tells me. “My involvement with the GFA began in a purely voluntary capacity. I served as its general secretary for three years, after which I left to focus on work. But then the issue of Uefa came up again.”

The issue of Uefa is, of course, exactly why we’re talking. May last year marked the triumphant conclusion of Gibraltar’s longtime bid to become the 54th member of Europe’s federation for association football. The story dates back to 1999 – when the territory submitted its original application. But its admission was barred by one of the union’s most prominent and influential members: Spain.

“There were various objections to our membership,” Beiso explains, “none of them on sporting grounds, and all of them on political grounds.” It has been widely reported that the Spaniards regarded Gibraltar’s admission both as an affront to their claim over the territory and a troubling precedent that might spur autonomous communities – such as the Basques and Catalans – to submit similar claims for their teams.

Gibraltar was rejected on the grounds of its status as a non-sovereign territory (and, from the Spanish perspective, a colony on its doorstep) after Uefa introduced new statutes in 2001, Beiso tells me. “Over the next decade, we filed three cases against Uefa through the Court of Arbitration for Sport,” Beiso says. “It became very clear to us through subsequent conversation that Uefa’s rules had been changed precisely because of our application and the difficulty this created for Spain.”

The GFA argued that its 1999 application pre-dated these regulations and should be considered on grounds that had allowed for admission of other non-independent states such as Scotland and Wales in 1954, Uefa’s launch year, and the Faroe Islands as late as 1990. “We felt it was unfair, immoral, even illegal for our case to be considered with a new set of rules,” Beiso says.

Each successive CAS ruling steadily strengthened Gibraltar’s favour. “The first [in 2003] said we were simply entitled to membership of Uefa. The second in 2006 went on to say that membership had to be considered at the next Uefa congress of members,” Beiso recalls. “The third in 2011 was the strongest of all – it stated that not only was Gibraltar entitled to membership; it should be admitted at the next congress.”

By this time Beiso had been appointed as official liaison between the GFA and Uefa, working to steady the relationship and translate a legal victory into practical results. In the run-up to the 2013 vote, he began a diplomatic tour of member states to plead Gibraltar’s case. Visiting more than 30 of the 53 capitals in person, he and his colleagues spoke with the national FA presidents. “We showed them what Gibraltarian football is all about,” he tells me. “We said: ‘This isn’t about politics or personal gain. We’re here because we want to give our players and the next generation of players an opportunity to thrive in the sport. This could only be possible through the chance to play in Uefa competitions.’ ”

The GFA’s more personalised message was a success. At the 2007 Uefa congress, only three nations had voted in favour of Gibraltar’s admission. This time, the numbers in favour swung to 51. The reaction was ecstatic. “A historic day for the sport in Gibraltar,” said Chief Minister Fabian Picardo. Britain’s minister for Europe, David Lidington, tweeted that he was “Delighted by today’s #Uefa news” and #Gibraltar trended round the world.

Since then, a collective optimism and renewed passion has defined the sport on the Rock. “Uefa membership already means a complete change in our game,” Beiso says. “You simply cannot compare it to before. People are attending matches again. Players of all ages and abilities are coming into the game. The women’s league is moving forward in leaps and bounds.”
The “icing on the cake” will be the national team’s participation in European Championship qualifying matches this September, where Gibraltar will compete in a group that includes Germany, Poland, Scotland, Georgia and the Republic of Ireland. “Just to be there is immense for us,” says Beiso. He sounds proud.

One would be mistaken, though, to suppose that recent enthusiasm implies the previous absence of an entrenched football culture. The GFA is in fact among the world’s oldest football associations. Englishmen serving at Gibraltar’s naval and military base instilled a love of the sport which took shape with the founding of the Gibraltar Civilian Football Association in 1895. According to Beiso, 10 per cent of all Gibraltarians participate in football, through playing, refereeing, volunteering or administration.

Not all, however, are behind the GFA’s most ambitious new project: an 8,000-seat, Uefa-standard stadium, to be housed on Europa Point, Gibraltar’s southernmost promontory. The Point boasts views to North Africa and is home to a lighthouse and little-used cricket ground. Yet despite its picturesque location and ambitious design – conceived by the leading sports stadium architect Mark Fenwick – more than 5,000 residents have signed a petition against the Europa Point stadium on the grounds of its environmental and heritage impact.

“I readily accept that there is a community against it, but personally I disagree with that position,” Beiso says when I raise the controversy. “Europa is a sorely underused location and the stadium’s footprint won’t impinge upon the environment or heritage sites. Not only is it essential that our facilities are up to Uefa standards so that our team can host matches and train properly, the new stadium will revive a dormant area and have tremendous economic value as a magnet for retail, leisure, entertainment and cultural facilities.”

Scarcity is a defining challenge of Gibraltarian football. A poverty of playing space, as illustrated by the push for the Europa Point development, is coupled with a slim supply of players. Of the whole population of 30,000, just 600 to 700 constitute the viable pool of talent. How has the association coped?

“Finding players is a problem,” Beiso admits, “but that said, there are some great talents within it. Roy Chipolina, our team captain; Lee Casciaro, a great goal-scorer; our national goalkeeper Jordan Perez – all are extremely influential on and off the pitch. We also bring in selectively players from the English professional leagues who have Gibraltarian heritage. They’ve added experience and given guidance to younger players developing their skills.”

Compactness, he reminds me, has its advantages, too. “Our size creates a kind of solidarity,” he explains. “Many on our national team have developed their game together since the youth leagues and this is reflected in their spirit as a team. Gibraltar has fought so hard to get here. And this struggle has made our players hungry. When you’re told that you don’t belong, you’ve got something to prove.”

Perhaps it isn’t surprising that Gibraltar’s trials on the pitch mirror the territory’s wider fight for autonomy, European recognition and an international voice. Partaking independently in its first European elections only in 2004, the tiny society has long juggled its own interests with those of its Spanish neighbour and British protector. Is it fair to say this diplomatic impasse has left a footprint on the field?
“There’s no getting away from the fact that football is the most political of all sports,” Beiso affirms. “Being recognised by Uefa has been critical in increasing the level of awareness of Gibraltar and strengthening our own identity.”

He’s noted another remarkable change, this one on the streets. A typical Gibraltarian follows both a British and a Spanish club, he explains, which is “in many ways a definition of our curious national dichotomy”. But now many have started wearing the Gibraltar national shirt. “You never saw that before,” he says. “We’ve always been proud to be Gibraltarian, but now people can manifest that by supporting their national team. It’s influenced how we see ourselves in the world.

“Football can give identity a focus,” he emphasises, drawing our conversation to a close. “The guy on the pitch represents your country. And for us to see ourselves up against the likes of Germany, Holland, England: it’s hugely significant and symbolic. Yes, we’ll get beaten. Yes, we’re a small country. But we’re at the same table.”

 

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Charlotte Simmonds is a writer and blogger living in London. She was formerly an editorial assistant at the New Statesman. You can follow her on Twitter @thesmallgalleon.