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Gibraltar's historic UEFA debut more than just a game

By Daniel Alvarenga

LISBON (Reuters) - A red British post box was erected in the tiny enclave to mark its huge achievement, summed up in the inscription: "Gibraltar Football Association - 54th member of UEFA, 24th May, 2013".

Now, after defying Spain to become the smallest member of the official European football family, the rocky territory's 30,000-strong population is excited at their first full international against Slovakia on Tuesday (1.30 p.m EDT).

"I will be very emotional and nervous. It's a dream come true, one I've had ever since I can remember: to see my flag flying out there on the pitch, at the highest level," Dennis Beiso, the chief executive of the Gibraltar FA told Reuters.

Delving into history books will help grasp why the GFA only became a full UEFA member almost 120 years after being formed.

Tuesday's match is not their first international of course: they have been playing for years, and once drew a match with Real Madrid in 1929. More recently their opponents have been the likes of Greenland, Jersey and the Isle of Man.

Their tougher battle was a bitter 14-year court marathon against Spain's objections to their football ambitions as a national side.

Gibraltar's northern neighbor disputes its sovereignty, ceded to Britain "in perpetuity" under the 1713 Treaty of Utrecht as a spoil of the War of the Spanish Succession.

Back then, muskets and cannons were fired to settle the argument pitting an alliance of English, Dutch and Austrians against Spain and France.

This time, however, Gibraltar's battle was won in the diplomatic corridors and ultimately, in the courtroom.

"It's been a very long process since the mid-1990s. We had to go to the Court of Arbitration for Sport (CAS) three times," Beiso said.

"In the end they ruled very strongly in our favor, saying we had to join immediately."

CAS ruled that, under UEFA statutes at the time of Gibraltar's application, the concept of 'nation' or 'country' in sports should not be confused with its wider political meaning.

UNIQUE CASE

It likened the territory to members like Scotland, Wales and the Faroe Islands which do not enjoy full independent statehood but have their own national teams.

Gibraltar is an economically self-reliant, and mostly self-governing British Overseas Territory.

According to Beiso, about 10 percent of its tiny populace are in some way involved in football, either as players (1,400), referees or part of the association.

Before UEFA's verdict in May, Spain fiercely opposed the application saying they would "exhaust all legal means" to prevent Gibraltar's membership.

A spokesman for the Spanish sports council said it was not appropriate to comment on Gibraltar's first match.

In fact, just weeks after UEFA's final go-ahead, tensions rose between the Iberian country and Britain over an artificial reef built in contested waters near Gibraltar.

Beiso said Spain had nothing to worry about as Gibraltar was not setting any examples for Spanish regions like the Basque country or Catalonia with their strong break-away movements, even though Spain used the sovereignty argument in court.

"We were very successful to prove this was not true, that our case does not mean other territories will follow suit. We are unique," he said.

PRIDE AND HONOUR

Tuesday's match will be the first at their temporary home at the Algarve Stadium, situated midway between Faro and Loule in Portugal, which they will also use for their Euro 2016 qualifiers because the 2,000-seater Victoria Stadium in Gibraltar is not big enough to meet UEFA's minimum standards for official matches.

A new, bigger Europa Stadium will be ready by 2016.

But some ghosts still linger. As part of the UEFA ruling, Gibraltar cannot be pooled with Spain in the Euro qualifying phase that starts after the World Cup next year.

That is not a unique situation as, because of political tensions, UEFA do not draw Russia and Georgia together or Armenia and Azerbaijan.

However, Beiso says: "We did not ask for that. I presume Spain did. It's a shame, but that's what we have to deal with.

"It would be an honor to meet Spain one day. They are the world champions, the European champions and leaders of the game. To share the pitch with (Andres) Iniesta and Xavi would be tremendous."

Gibraltar's head coach Allen Bula is reveling in the challenge, saying his team's character is unique.

"We combine the best side of Latin style football and the English," he told Reuters.

"Everywhere you go around here there is football. Of all the different European leagues, the closest followed is probably La Liga and then the Premier League, but we watch everything."

Bulla said it was a "big challenge" to gel his mostly amateur football players with professionals.

Former Manchester United defender Danny Higginbotham, 34, now at Chester City in England's fifth tier, is the highest profile name in the squad that includes a fireman, a policeman and several civil servants.

But Bulla, an avid user of social network Twitter, sets the bar high. He wants Gibraltar to climb at least to 43 in the 54-member UEFA ranking by the end of his three-year contract that started last summer.

"Let's get one thing crystal clear, I took on the Gibraltar job to qualify for France 2016. Not just compete in Europe," he wrote on his page recently.

(Additional reporting by Iain Rogers in Madrid; Editing by Andrei Khalip)

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