Will Brexit Stick the Boot In To Our Beautiful Game
While the media continues to rake over the post-Brexit coals, in an effort to wring every last drop of heat out of the debate, the mood of the nation at large seems to be, in typical British fashion, ‘let’s just wait and see how things turn out.’
However, even the most mild-mannered among us is likely to get excited if Britain’s eventual exit from the EU damages us as a footballing nation.
Many pundits weighed in on this subject ahead of the historic vote in June, from Premier League chief executive Richard Scudamore to West Ham Vice Chairman Karren Brady, and it is easy to see where their fears sprang from.
Current work permit restrictions are designed to allow only top international players who are not EU citizens smooth passage into the Premier League.
At the moment, EU citizens are free to live, work and travel across European countries and this obviously involves footballers.
So until Britain formerly leaves the EU, at present, Premier League football teams can pick from the top European players to boost their squads, largely without any restriction. The position is different with non-EU players, who must be able to show that they are already playing at the highest level, and that they would make a significant contribution to the game here in the UK.
Guidelines set out by the Football Association, alongside UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), stipulate that non-European players must have played in a minimum percentage of international matches for their country during the immediate two years before coming to the UK, in order to qualify for permission to play in the English Premier League. This required percentage is determined by the country's Fifa World ranking. If and when Britain leaves the EU, these guidelines could apply to all non-EU players.
A recent study found that 332 current European players who are playing in the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premiership would not meet the non-EU criteria – so in theory they would not be eligible to play in these teams once Britain leaves the EU. These players include Riyad Mahrez, N'Golo Kante and Robert Huth of current dragon-slayers Leicester City, West Ham’s Dimitri Payet and Samir Nasri of Manchester City. Closer to home, at Swansea City, players such as Jordi Amat along with World Cup winner Fernando Llorente may be ineligible.
If current guidelines were to no longer apply in the UK, just 23 of the 180 non-British EU players currently playing in the Championship would get work permits.
Of course, current EU free movement rules also help British international players like Ashley Cole, Joey Barton and Gareth Bale make their mark in Europe.
Any major legal changes could also make it harder for British clubs to snap up bright young stars from EU countries, like Chelsea player N’Golo Kante. There is also the financial impact of Brexit in that any fall in the value of Sterling makes players more expensive and salaries for such players may fall, making the Premier League less attractive to them.
However, as we have seen since the vote, the pace of change regarding our withdrawal from the EU is slow, and the form of these changes are, as yet, unknown.
And it seems very unlikely that the football stars who are already here, along with the football managers will be bidding au revoir to the UK.
It seems likely too that the FA and the UKVI will look introduce more flexible rules for European workers post-Brexit, so some kind of status quo can be maintained.
Perhaps a post Brexit world gives Premier league clubs the opportunity to recalibrate the make-up of their teams. Would an increased focus upon growing our own talent, rather than relying on European players to boost our performance, inevitably lead to a better quality crop emerging here in the UK?
Before the Brexit vote, Brian Monteith of the Leave.eu campaign pointed out that the long-standing freedom of movement for EU workers came at a high price, namely, burdensome restrictions on visas for potential signings from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Asia. So leaving the EU could potentially free the UK to treat talent from all countries equally.
A final consideration should be perhaps be about the free movement of fans. How easily British travellers will be able to move between EU country remains to be seen, and any changes in this area are likely to be along way off. But it is possible that traveling to Europe will become slightly more complex – perhaps with the introduction of a visa system.
Of course, top fight football brings in vast amounts of money to the UK economy and to those of our European neighbours. It seems likely than any changes will be very carefully designed to limit any damage to anyone’s coffers.