Gibraltar must be admitted as a full member of FIFA “without delay”, the Court of Arbitration for Sport [CAS] has pronounced today.
In a landmark ruling, sport’s highest international tribunal partially upheld the Gibraltar FA’s [GFA] appeal against a 2014 decision by FIFA’s executive committee rejecting the GFA’s application to join the global football organisation.
“The GFA’s appeal against the decision issued by the FIFA Executive Committee on 26 September 2014 is partially upheld to the extent that the FIFA Executive Committee is ordered to transmit the Gibraltar Football Association’s application for FIFA membership to the FIFA Congress, which shall take all necessary measures to admit the Gibraltar Football Association as a full member of FIFA without delay,” the court said in a statement.
Gibraltar first applied to join FIFA in 1991 and again in 1997, but both applications were rejected in large part as a result of pressure from Spain, which argued the Rock was a disputed territory that did not meet FIFA’s criteria for membership.
Today’s decision rejects that position and finally opens the door for the national team to participate in qualifiers for the World Cup, perhaps as early as next September.
It could also have wider implications for Gibraltar beyond the world of sport.
“The judgment is far-reaching and ground-breaking,” said Michael Llamas, QC, the president of the GFA and a key member of the legal team that handled Gibraltar’s case.
“It’s an absolutely fantastic result. We have conquered the Everest of world football.”
“An odyssey that started back in 1997 comes to a fabulous and historic conclusion with the GFA now having achieved both UEFA and FIFA membership.”
“Justice and the rule of law have prevailed. We move forward and progress. The sense of achievement and the feel-good factor are immense.”
The case was heard by a panel of three arbitrators – from Italy, France and Switzerland – and the decision of the court in Lausanne, Switzerland, is final and binding. There is scope for appeal to the Swiss Federal Tribunal, but only on very limited, technical grounds.
The GFA has sought for over 20 years to become a member of UEFA and FIFA. In May 2013, as a result of a CAS arbitration, it became a member of the Union of European Football Associations [UEFA] and went on to seek membership of FIFA.
In September 2014, the FIFA Executive Committee informed the GFA that the requirements for admission to FIFA were not met and that it would not submit the GFA’s application to the FIFA Congress, which is the body authorised to admit new members to FIFA.
The GFA filed an appeal against the decision at the CAS, arguing that FIFA improperly rejected its application and that the CAS should directly award it with FIFA membership.
The CAS procedure was conducted by a panel of three CAS arbitrators: Prof. Massimo Coccia, Italy (President), Prof. Jan Paulsson, France, and Mr Bernhard Welten, Switzerland.
The GFA had asked the CAS to directly award it with FIFA membership, but that request was refused.
“The Panel found that the CAS did have jurisdiction to entertain the appeal and accepted that the GFA’s application should have been transferred to the FIFA Congress,” the court said in its statement.
“However, the CAS Panel refused to directly grant FIFA membership to GFA. Accordingly, the Panel has unanimously ordered that the FIFA Congress take all necessary measures to admit the GFA as a full member of FIFA as soon as possible, within the limits of the FIFA Statutes.”
The full judgement is expected to be published later this week.
The pressure is now on to have Gibraltar admitted into FIFA as soon as possible.
The next FIFA congress is scheduled to take place in Mexico on May 13 but the agenda had already been closed before the court delivered its ruling to the parties last Friday.
The GFA is now lobbying to have it reopened so that Gibraltar’s application can be included at the Mexico meeting.
If those efforts are successful and Gibraltar is granted membership on May 13, the local national team would be able to participate in the World Cup qualifiers starting in September. If not, the GFA will have to wait until next year’s FIFA congress and will miss that window.
“The objective now is to be able to obtain FIFA membership at the FIFA congress in Mexico City on May 13,” Mr Llamas told the Chronicle.
“The GFA is working round the clock in order to achieve this.”
“Obtaining membership in Mexico would mean the difference between the GFA not having any competitive football for the next two years, or being able to participate in the World Cup qualifiers as from September.”
Dennis Beiso, the general secretary of the GFA, said the court’s decision was “a natural progression” following Gibraltar’s admission into UEFA, adding that it was “an anomaly” for the Rock to be a member of the European association but not the global one.
Speaking from Budapest where he is attending UEFA’s annual congress, Mr Beiso told the Chronicle that he was confident Gibraltar’s application would be included in the FIFA agenda for the Mexico meeting next week.
“We’ve been talking to FIFA officials on the sidelines of this meeting and we’re virtually there,” he said in a telephone interview.
Last night, FIFA issued a short statement acknowledging the court’s decision.
“Following the decision of the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) concerning Gibraltar, the FIFA Council is expected to discuss the matter at its next meeting on 9 and 10 May 2016 and decide on the next steps, including a potential request to amend the 66th FIFA Congress agenda in order to submit the Gibraltar FA’s application for FIFA membership,” it said.
There has been no public reaction as yet from Spanish officials to the news.
Angel Maria Villar, president of the Spanish football federation, refused to comment when approached by reporters at his hotel in Budapest on Tuesday.
Alongside access to international competitions, FIFA membership will have practical benefits for clubs in Gibraltar, including allowing them to enjoy the protection of FIFA’s transfer matching system.
“This decision is the culmination of a lot of hard work by a lot of people in the GFA over many years, not just the ones who are here now,” Mr Beiso said.
“We owe all of them a debt of gratitude.”
New of the court’s decision was immediately welcomed by the Gibraltar Government.
Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told the Chronicle: “This is truly magnificent news which everyone will want to welcome.”
“We fought to join UEFA and won. We have had to fight to joint FIFA and we’ve won that battle too.”
“All credit to the GFA and in particular Michael Llamas QC. Now let’s look forward to playing in the next World Cup qualifiers.”
Opposition leader Daniel Feetham also reacted to the announcement from Switzerland.
“The struggle for FIFA membership has taken over two decades and has been like hitting a brick wall at times,” he said.
“It shows that brick walls are there to give us a chance to show how badly we want something and Gibraltarians want FIFA membership with all our collective hearts.”
“My congratulations and that of the GSD to the GFA and the entire legal team on a wonderful achievement.”