Gibraltar, a British territory on the southern tip of Spain, was accepted as a full member of UEFA at today's meetings of European soccer's governing body. It's the culmination of a 16-year push for international recognition, a quest fiercely opposed by Spain at every turn.
Gibraltar received a majority vote at UEFA's annual congress in London, and it instantly receives some superlatives. With a population under 30,000 and just 2.6 square miles of territory, it squeaks past San Marino as UEFA's smallest member in both respects. (Don't sleep on that rivalry. As a provisional member, Gibraltar beat San Marino for its first UEFA win.)
An overseas territory since 1713, Gibraltar is culturally British in nearly every respect, as described in a fun Times piece from earlier in the week.
The Gibraltar pound, which is interchangeable with the British pound, is legal tender. Red British phone booths line the roads. Police officers wearing the distinctive British helmet patrol its streets. Low-cost airlines deposit British vacationers.
Soccer under the shadow of the Rock goes back a long way—the Gibraltar Football Association was established in 1895, with a national team forming in 1901 and league play beginning in 1907. This photo shows hundreds of British sailors attending a match in April 1934.
But, still bitter about that whole War of the Spanish Succession thing, Spain has always claimed sovereignty over Gibraltar, and in recent years has stepped up its push for the return of the territory. As part of the politicking, one of the most powerful soccer nations has threatened to boycott international tournaments if little Gibraltar were recognized. The last time UEFA voted on this, in 2007, Spain threatened to pull out of the European Championships, and bar its clubs from the Champions League. Only England, Wales, and Scotland voted for Gibraltar that election.
Who knows what backstage bargaining was done to ensure Gibraltar's approval this time around, but a 2011 ruling in the Court of Arbitration for Sport had a lot to do with it. UEFA head Michel Platini announced that future Euro draws will be set up so Spain and Gibraltar are placed in opposite brackets. This will only be a problem if both make the finals. This will not be a problem.
The upshot of all this? I get to show you the official Gibraltar National Team highlight video, set to Queen's best song.
Update: Michael J. Chandler has a different take on Gibraltar's recognition, and what it could mean for Spain's autonomous regions.