Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Kosovo, Gibraltar, Greenland and FIFA Membership

FIFA's acceptance of Kosovo as a football nation that is permitted to play friendly matches against other FIFA member nations has not gone down well in Serbia, which continues to see Kosovo as part of itself.

Kosovo has been unable to join UEFA because of a rule that says that only countries that are recognised by the United Nations are eligible to join UEFA.

And fortunately for Serbia, they have an ally in Russia, which has veto rights in the United Nations and continues to oppose recognition of Kosovo. This, despite the fact that almost all the other European countries are willing to recognise Kosovo.

The United Nations rule is a relatively recent one for UEFA. Not so long ago, the Faroe Islands, technically part of Denmark, was allowed to join UEFA. And of course, every football fan throughout the world knows that, for historical reasons, England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales all compete separately in world football, despite being part of the United Kingdom.

The rule is a classic example of a blanket one that was adopted for a single purpose.

On January 8th, 1997, Gibraltar applied for FIFA membership. The full story can be read on the Gibraltar Football Association's website, but to sum up, FIFA would not allow Gibraltar to join until it was granted UEFA membership. The application ran into continued opposition from Spain, a country that has long resented Gibraltar's existence as a British Overseas Territory, and which also has fears of some of its own territory, such as Catalonia or the Basque region, trying to become independent. (Ironically, Spain shows no inclination to give up either Ceuta or Melilla, it's own exclaves that are located in North Africa, despite requests from Morocco.)

This is all even more inconsistent when you consider that Gibraltar, whose Football Association is actually older than Spain's, is allowed to compete as a nation in many other sports that Spain also plays, such as hockey and rugby.

To appease Spain, the UN rule was rammed through by UEFA. Despite the Court for Arbitration in Sport's ruling that because Gibraltar had applied for membership before the rule change, UEFA still had to allow it to join, numerous obstacles continue to be thrown in Gibraltar's way.

At a recent UEFA vote, only England, Scotland and Wales voted in favour of Gibraltar.

Meanwhile Kosovo finds itself in a situation where because two European nations oppose it's recognition by the United Nations, it cannot become a member of UEFA.

This rule would also prevent other applicants, such as Greenland, from joining UEFA. Greenland is an interesting case, in a similar political situation to both the Faroe Islands, which has been a member of both FIFA and UEFA for over 20 years, and Gibraltar, which has found its way barred by Spain.

Interestingly, and inconsistently, while Greenland has already received assistance in the form of a GOAL Project to help construct an artificial turf field that will allow a huge increase in the number of games that can be played, UEFA has stated that Gibraltar cannot be the recipient of s GOAL Project.

Thus we have Kosovo, recognized by FIFA as a nation that may play other FIFA nations, but not allowed to join UEFA; Greenland, unable to join UEFA but having received FIFA assistance; Gibraltar, desperate to join both UEFA and FIFA but opposed by Spain and a hastily written rule; and the Faroe Islands, fully fledged UEFA and FIFA members.

While Kosovo does not have the blessing of Serbia, it's parent country, to join UEFA, Gibraltar and Greenland do have the blessing of the United Kingdom and Denmark, respectively.

Greenland and Gibraltar may find more luck in applying outside UEFA, but it's not clear that this would be satisfactory to them, being culturally and politically more European in outlook.

Given CONCACAF's willingness to accept numerous non-countries, presumably in an attempt to increase their voting bloc, it's not unreasonable to think that Greenland could become part of CONCACAF.

It seems less likely that the CAF would accept Gibraltar, however.

Looking more closely at UEFA's hastily adopted UN-recognition rule, it seems inconsistent that UEFA has this rule, but other Confederations such as CONCACAF, Oceania and Asia allow non-countries to join.

CONCACAF currently boasts amongst its members a number of British Overseas Territories: Anguilla, Bermuda, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat and Turks & Caicos Islands, all of which have the same political status as Gibraltar.

In addition, two other CONCACAF members, Aruba and Curacao, are part of the Kingdom of The Netherlands, while the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico are politically part of the United States.

Also politically part of the United States are Guam and Northern Marianas, which are both members of the AFC, and American Samoa, a member of the OFC.

The OFC also counts amongst its members the two French territories of New Caledonia and Tahiti (which will compete in the 2013 Confederations Cup) as well as the Cook Islands, politically still technically part of New Zealand.

Then there is Palestine, not recognized by the United Nations thanks to America's veto rights, but still accepted into the AFC and FIFA.

The United Nations has a list of Non-Self-Governing Territories, which it considers to be a list of countries that are non-decolonized. Of the sixteen territories on the list, ten currently have FIFA membership. This means that in footballing terms, Gibraltar is treated the same as the Falkland Islands, Saint Helena, Western Sahara, Tokelau and Pitcairn, none of which has so far shown any interest in joining FIFA.

It seems reasonable to me that if ten out of ten territories on this list, recognized by the United Nation as countries, albeit non-decolonized ones, that applied for FIFA membership have been granted it, the same outcome should be allowed for Gibraltar.

I do, however, believe that this is where the line should be drawn. I would not permit the likes of Jersey, Guernsey, Isle of Man, Ynys Mon, the Shetland Islands, Rhodes, Gotland or Hawaii to join FIFA, let alone Sealand.

FIFA needs to move quickly to develop a fair and consistent plan that will not only allow serious applicants such as Kosovo, Gibraltar and Greenland (also Zanzibar) to become fully fledged members, thus increasing participation and following their own goal of promoting the game worldwide, but also to bring in recognized countries that have expressed a desire to join, such as Palau, Kiribati and Tuvalu.

There is actually a FIFA Committee in charge of this, but it apparently moves at a snail's pace. Perhaps if someone were to offer a few million in bribes, things would speed up...

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