Wednesday, 18 December 2013

Gibraltar joins UEFA – Nations quake

So, after years of trying and at the risk of exacerbating already strained relations between Spain and its British owners, Gibraltar has finally been recognised as a nation by UEFA. Not quite enough for it to qualify as an answer on Pointless, for which you’d need the less important UN recognition as a Sovereign State, but surely enough to send tremors around the world of international football as a long surpressed giant is finally allowed to strut it’s stuff on the international stage. Almost like post-apartheid South Africa being readmitted to the international rugby community, the potential impact on the countries that dominate the game cannot be underestimated.

Except, hang on a minute, this is Gibraltar, a country with no professional football league, a ground that does not yet meet UEFA requirements for competitive fixtures, and no players who play in the top level of any major domestic league. Maybe we should tone down the hype, and run that first paragraph again.

After years of trying, and no one caring, Gibraltar has been recognised as a nation by UEFA. San Marino, Andorra and the Faroe Islands now face a battle to retain the title of crappiest team in international football. A new kid is on the block and he might be about to join the teams that boast played 10, won 0, drawn 0, lost 10 records in the qualifiers.

That is sadly what the reality is likely to be. If you want to know why, just contrast Gibraltar with Iceland, who narrowly failed to become the country with the smallest population to qualify for a World Cup. Gibraltar has a population of 30,002, Iceland’s population is just over ten times that, while the team that currently holds the smallest population title are Trinidad and Tobago, with a population of 1.337 million.

Iceland’s squad include players plying their trade at the highest levels in Holland, England, Italy, Belgium and Denmark. Gibraltar’s first post-recognition friendly squad had just three players who play overseas, Scott Wiseman from Barnsley, Danny Higginbottom, nephew of the Gibraltar manager, whose football league days are now behind him at  conference side Chester and Adam Priestly who plays for Farsley FC in the Evo-Stik Northern Premier Division. As to the league structure in the two countries, Iceland has a five tier domestic league consisting of 70 teams, Gibraltar has two domestic leagues with 20 teams in total and no sign of a professional game emerging. 

The closer comparisons population wise are San Marino, whose population is just over 1,000 higher, and the Faroe Islands with just shy of 50,000 inhabitants. Andorra’s population  meanwhile is almost three times the size of Gibraltar’s.

None of this it to say that Gibraltar should be excluded from the international football party, but maybe it’s time for FIFA and UEFA to realise that a lot of these teams haven’t actually been invited to the party. They’re just there for a pre-party humiliation, turning up in the knowledge that they’ll be sent home long before the trifle’s gone in the fridge let alone been served out. Like the school kid picked last by the captains, they know their chances of ever playing in a proper game are less than zero, but they’re still expected to turn up and subject themselves to ten embarrassing games where the results are a foregone conclusion.

There’s something slightly cruel about it when you look at it. You don’t want to watch a team playing out of its league and with no chance of defying expectations. As anyone who followed Derby on their 11 point relegation season will tell you, it’s not a nice experience knowing that every week you will be out-played, out-classed and just prolonging the inevitable. But that’s what they’re doing.

If they were gaining anything from the exposure to the top footballing nations, you could argue it wasn’t all bad, but the evidence suggests that they’re not, and there is no chance they will ever make it to a World Cup or European Championship. It’s a hiding to nothing. At least with the FA cup qualifying rounds all teams know there is the vague chance it might lead to a place in the actual cup itself, and if it doesn’t, at least it will be a quick and bloodless exit, not the two year, ten game bashing that even the Champions League recognised was a bad idea when it abandoned the second group stage.

Fans want to feel that they have a chance of getting somewhere, not just that they’re making up the numbers. Wolves fans are enjoying the first division far more than they enjoyed the Championship, or the last days of the Premiership after they sacked Mick McCarthy with no plan B, because they are no longer whipping boys. There is hope and expectation. I would guess that the average Wolves fan is having a better time than the average Crystal Palace fan this season, even though they left the Championship via a different exit route.

And this is why, rather than continue the cruel and inhumane practice of every national team being put into the qualifiers, FIFA and UEFA should look at taking them out of the main competition, and creating a new competition just for them, a Small Nations Cup, where all the countries taking part felt they had a chance of making the final, and a reason for taking part. Like the FA Vase, or the FA Trophy, it could be played out at the same time, and have a final in the same stadium, as the big competition.  The finalists could also earn automatic places in the qualifiers for the next World Cup, with the losing semi-finalists, and quarter finalists battling it out for another place or two.

It might pass the rest of the footballing world by, but does that matter? It gives all nations a chance of actually having a tournament they can win and enjoy, and given the latest addition to the countries that could enter it, along with FIFAs love of handing tournaments to small nations with no footballing infrastructure, maybe the inaugural competition could be held in Gibraltar? It’s just a thought.