Last night, the United Kingdom faced a referendum vote on leaving the European Union (EU), and somehow the vote to leave succeeded by a narrow margin. Those expecting a “free” Britain with less immigration and more money for the country just saw one of the worst single night’s in the country’s economic history. With the prospect of leaving the European Economic Area (EEA), as well as losing the freedom of movement for workers within the EU, the Premier League (PL) could suddenly be on the outside looking in. British leagues (and British players) could be adversely affected by Brexit without some significant legislative changes within the UK, FIFA, and UEFA.
First, the plummet of the British Pound last night by about 10% just devalued every club, player, and deal involving Premier League clubs.[i] Two days ago, clubs loved doing deals with the PL clubs, and filling their coffers with one of the strongest currencies in the world. That potentially changed in one night, and the UK hasn’t even left yet! A £28 million offer for a promising striker, Michy Batshuayi, turned into a £30 million offer without even a phone call or improved offer. Luckily for the Premier League, recent television rights deals put the league (and its clubs) far ahead of their rivals in Spain and Germany; although the gap would close in the event of prolonged economic downturn.
What About the International Players?
This is the heart of the dilemma. The Premier League is one of the top leagues in the world; if not the absolute best top to bottom. While the managers are good, they can only go so far without talented rosters, and the clubs look far and wide to find and acquire these players. To come in and play in the Premier League, non-EU players must qualify for a work permit, which helps the league maintain domestic player development/opportunity by preventing an influx of inferior foreign talent. While the rules for work permits recently changed to be a bit more accommodating, a player must still meet certain international benchmarks to be considered up to snuff.[ii]
What this means is for a country ranked 1-10 in the world per FIFA, a player must have played in at least 30% of his country’s matches in the previous two years, and so on. Basically, an occasional non-EU national team player on a great team, or a prominent player on a worse non-EU national team, can gain a work permit assuming they meet the sliding criteria. While this mostly separates the proverbial wheat from the chaff, it makes it very difficult for any “diamond in the rough” finds.
Two perfect examples of this would be Leicester City’s N’Golo Kante, and West Ham’s Dimitri Payet. Under the current umbrella of the EEA, these two players were able to come in as part of the European Union’s freedom of movement of workers for the 2015-16 season. Without the luxury of EU labor protection; however, these players would potentially have to meet the work permit standards that would suddenly apply to any citizens of the European Union. As France is a top-10 team, these players would be required to play in 30% of their country’s matches in the last two years, which neither did. While this would not affect every new addition, it would have more of a detrimental impact on lower clubs who may attempt to go after less established players. Even going back a few years, Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, who is one of the top defenders in the league, as well as for France, would not have met the current standards upon his entry into the league without being afforded the labor protections of the EU.
What About the Youth Players?
Another significant impact that Brexit would have on British clubs is the ability to fill out their youth academies with prospects from across Europe. Under Article 19 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players, international transfers are not permitted under the age of 18. One exception to this is players 16-18 within the EU or EEA, which many top Premier League clubs regularly utilize, including for young South Americans with dual citizenship within the European Union. Regular first team players in the Premier League, including Cesc Fabregas and Francis Coquelin, moved to the Premier League before the age of 18 as part of this exception. Not only did they move early, but because of their early start in the league, they are also able to satisfy the home grown requirement, which requires at least 8 (of 25) players on a squad list to have registered with the club for at least 3 years before turning 21.[iii]
With the EEA exception potentially gone, Premier League clubs would be restricted to a much smaller youth talent pool than they currently have access to, and limiting the home grown player. Arsenal would not have been able to sign Romanian U16 captain Vlad Dragomir, or the Polish Krystian Bielik, or the German-American Gedion Zelalem. Chelsea would be depleted of the likes of Nathan Ake, Charly Musonda, and Bertrand Traoré. Being able to sign any EU players as early as 16 allows for ample time to achieve home grown status; waiting until a player turns 18 makes home grown status more difficult, with only a few months’ leeway to get three years/seasons in before the 21st birthday. Although I wouldn’t go so “hot take” far as to say Premier League youth academies would be crippled, Brexit could definitely lead to less young talent coming out of the United Kingdom.[iv]
One interesting case would the the Republic of Ireland, whose national team players almost entirely play within the UK. Any new national team players or Irish starlets may suddenly find themselves hard-pressed to qualify for a UK work permit, and yet that is where the majority end up. At least ten of Ireland’s current national team made it to the United Kingdom before age 18. Brexit could change the career path for young Irish players seeking to play at the next level in English/British leagues.
What About the British Players?
With Brexit, British players would similarly no longer be able to use the EU’s freedom of movement for workers, and may face added struggles in any attempt to play within the European Union. While many British players stay within the United Kingdom (from a brief search, all but one national team player from England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland), any movement outside of the UK may now come under non-EU player quotas that some leagues have. One outstanding example of this would be Gareth Bale, Real Madrid’s Welsh star. La Liga in Spain has a maximum of three non-EU players on a squad, and should the UK no longer be a part of the EU, one of the biggest clubs in the would be over the limit.[v] Few players and teams are currently affected by this, but any leagues with these quotas would either have to add a UK exemption into legislation, or figure out who to cut.
While nothing is certain yet (technically the vote is not binding), fully extricating itself from the European Union could take a while should Brexit officially occur. Leagues have ample time to input clauses to continue allowing British players to not count against any league quotas, although there is not necessarily a reason to do this. Every league and association, including the FA in the UK, would theoretically have ample time to work out clauses to negate these effects. Depending on the economy, British clubs could bounce back tomorrow, or a decade from now, or never. The home grown player rule could put even more of a premium on British or home grown players, with the pool growing ever smaller. Overall talent in the league could wane with less foreign players (now including EU players) meeting work permit requirements, although depending on any trade/labor agreements following a Brexit, this could be avoided. Then again, overall talent could increase with more established players entering the league, though this would likely cost clubs more money. While nothing is official or certain, the FA, the British leagues, and British/EU players will be monitoring developments to see what will happen to one of the greatest sports leagues in the world.
[i] One interesting result could be foreign investors/potential buyers considering ownership of Premier League/British clubs at this time. With the clubs devalued, now would be a good time to buy.
[ii] The previous rule required playing in at least 75% of their top-70 country’s international matches over a two-year period. For a great explanation of Premier League work permit issues, see Daniel Geey’s article.
[iii] “Home Grown Player” means a Player who, irrespective of his nationality or age, has been registered with any Club (or club) affiliated to the Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three Seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday (or the end of the Season during which he turns 21) and for the purposes of this definition of “Home Grown Player” a Season will be deemed to commence on the date on which the first Transfer Window closes and expire on the date of the final League Match of the Season.
[iv] The obvious counterpoint to this is “Yes well this could also lead to more British talent coming through.” Sure, but selecting from a pool of about 64 million people has a lesser chance of finding gems than selecting from a pool of about 500 million.
[v] Current non-EU players for Real Madrid are Danilo, Casemiro, and James Rodriguez.
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