Would Brexit be an own goal for football?
Park Euro 2016 for a second. Is football better in or out of Europe?
We know the Premier League’s position. One of Britain’s greatest exports now plays on a global stage and Premier League Executive Chairman Richard Scudamore says: “There is an openness about the Premier League which I think it would be completely incongruous if we were to take the opposite position."
The Premier League’s fame and popularity over the past two decades is largely down to the influx of foreign talent, on and off the pitch: the top eight clubs from last season had a foreign manager in charge.
Now, if Britain votes to leave the EU, clubs will not be able to sign players from countries within the EU unless they get a work permit. Previously, European players from the EU could freely move to Premier League clubs without the need for a work permit. If Britain votes to leave, the same players would be classified alongside the likes Fernandinho, Shinji Okazaki, John Obi Mikel and Sergio Agüero. A Brexit could see a change in the immigration rules and EU players may not be allowed to live in the UK, let alone ‘work’. The European Union has 28 countries including the United Kingdom. A Brexit would make it tougher for players from the other 27 countries to move to the UK.
According to Sky News, last season saw 432 players from across Europe move to the Premier League and anyone who is still contracted to EPL clubs will not be affected. So whilst a Brexit would not have an immediate impact, the longer term picture is infinitely more complicated.
Eligibility to play would boil down to the FIFA rankings of the player’s nation. To be granted a work permit, a player from one of the top 10 FIFA ranked countries would have had to play at least 30% of the country’s matches in the two years before the application was submitted. This is similar to the rule that currently exists for non-EU players.
How about English clubs wanting to sign a player from countries outside of FIFA’s top ten? Players from countries ranked 11 to 20 should have appeared in 45% of the international matches. Teams ranked 21 to 30 require 60% while it goes up to 75% for countries ranked 31 to 50.
Sports immigration lawyer Maria Patsalos cites French duo Dimitri Payet and N'Golo Kante, two of the outstanding performers for West Ham and Leicester City in this season’s Premier League, to make a powerful point:
“They have not been playing for their French national sides regularly at all. They would not have been given the opportunity to play in the Premier League if we are talking in three or four years' time.”
Football fans who support the ‘leave’ campaign argue this scenario would provide a welcome catalyst for home grown talent. Brexit will force clubs, especially at Academy level, to look at local talent without the benefit of signing young foreign players to nurture for first team football. This could bode well for the long term health (and success?) of our national team.
Off the pitch, clubs with vast international scouting networks will be replaced by an inflated squad of back-office support staff having to navigate the complexities of securing work permits.
Those who wave the ‘remain’ flag would question this logic and enthusiastically applaud Arsene Wenger’s point of view:
“Will the European players be considered as they are now? Will the French be considered like South American players? That would completely re-question the influx of foreign players. Will England go that way? If they did, that would leave the Premier League with some questions.”
Indeed it would.
Is it possible for clubs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland to be as competitive when the rest of European football marches toward each transfer window with the freedom to sign players from a bigger pool of talent?
It is a commonly accepted fact that the Premier League’s meteoric rise in global popularity has been due to the arrival of foreign talent (and knowledge) that saw an evolution in tactics and an upgrade in the overall level of a footballers’ skills. You become the best by mixing with the best.
So the quality of product is beyond debate, evidenced by the Premier League’s ability to sell its TV rights to Sky and BT for a massive £5.1bn. International players draw global audiences; global audiences deliver premium TV and sponsorship revenues; wealth generation benefits our national game at every level, for players and fans alike. This last point is often overlooked. Enlightened fans will be reluctant to unpick the seam of a sport that is part of the fabric of our society.