NYON, Switzerland (AP) – Gibraltar's national teams have been included in UEFA competition draws for the first time, a move into European football which their FA president insists should not be a political issue.
Gibraltar Football Association leader Gareth Latin told The Associated Press on Wednesday it was ''a proud moment'' seeing Under-19 and Under-17 teams placed in qualifying groups for their 2014 European Championships.
However, some politicians in neighboring Spain want to stop the British territory playing those matches because of a sovereignty dispute.
''This is nothing at all to do with politics and we have said it from Day 1,'' Latin said after the draws at UEFA headquarters. ''We should think of football and work in unity.''
Still, Spain was barred as a potential opponent by UEFA to avoid inflaming political tension.
Gibraltar was drawn instead with an asterisk by its name in an Under-17 pool with England, Ireland and Armenia, and an Under-19 group with the Czech Republic, Croatia and Cyprus.
Those fixtures will be fulfilled next October - in Armenia and the Czech Republic - only if Gibraltar is accepted as a full UEFA member by a majority of Europe's 53 official football nations when they vote next May.
Gibraltar was allowed in the draws because UEFA granted provisional member status in October after previous bids in a long campaign were blocked by Spain, which claims sovereignty.
Still, Gibraltar is sure to make its official competitive debut in January, playing qualifiers for the 2014 Futsal Euro. The matches in Nice, France, will be against the host, Montenegro and San Marino, another tiny territory which has become an established member of the European football family.
Latin said Gibraltar has six top-division teams and 600 registered senior players in its population of almost 30,000, who have full British citizenship. It seeks to follow Andorra, the Faroe Islands and San Marino who joined UEFA's ranks within the past 25 years - though without facing such political opposition.
The GFA, which was founded in 1895, applied to FIFA for membership in 1997 with the backing of England, but the world governing body delegated the decision to the European body.
UEFA called a vote at its 2007 Congress but Spain engineered strong opposition to Gibraltar's bid.
Spain still has strong feeling about a territory it ceded to Britain in 1713.
After UEFA pushed Gibraltar's application forward in October, Spain's sports minister Jose Ignacio Wert said he hoped ''provisional acceptance of Gibraltar won't become permanent.''
Spanish football president Angel Maria Villar, a FIFA vice president and 20-year member of the UEFA board, is a potentially influential opponent ahead of the next vote in London.
''I'm hoping to meet him soon,'' said Latin, adding that his Spanish is ''excellent. We want to be friends and we want to build those bridges.''
Latin, a volunteer president for four years with a day job in banking, aims to visit all 53 voters before the vote. He acknowledges he has much work to do.
''At the end of the day, I don't expect countries closer to eastern Europe to know who Gibraltar is. That is reality. It's important that we make them aware,'' he said. ''It's something we've been waiting for 14 years.''