Proposed changes to immigration law in the UK as a result of Brexit could well have a profound effect on the Premier League’s long-term competitiveness
Phil NashPhil Nash is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – the UK’s leading organisation of immigration lawyers.
With English teams recently contesting both the Europa and Champions League finals, it has been another blockbuster year for British football.
The UK’s political and economic outlook, in contrast, appears far less encouraging. While Liverpool and Chelsea were adding to their trophy cabinets, politicians at Westminster were still grappling with a Brexit delayed until October, and the implications this could have for commerce and sport in the country.
Proposed changes to immigration law in the UK as a result of Brexit could well have a profound effect on the Premier League’s long-term competitiveness. The end of freedom of movement in Britain threatens to compromise the well-oiled system that has seen world-class players such as Paul Pogba join Manchester United from Le Havre as an untested 16-year-old.
British teams, especially England’s Big Six, will need to respond dynamically to these changes, while their rivals in Europe could well reap the rewards of Britain’s exit.
Changes to immigration law
Although at this point Britain’s departure from the EU is far from guaranteed, prime minister Theresa May’s government has already published plans for a reformed immigration system.
Under the new skills-based criteria, to become law from 2021, all future EU-born players will be subject to both the Football Association’s current requirements for non-EU players, and the Home Office’s own stricter rules. The ramifications of this change for current and future stars, as well as the staff who manage them, are significant.
Under the proposed changes, EU-born players will be required to apply for a work permit, with only the elite achieving automatic clearance as a result of international appearances.
Neither N'Golo Kanté nor Riyad Mahrez would have made their names at Leicester City under the new requirements
For established stars this will not be a hindrance, but for teams outside the Big Six it spells trouble. Neither N'Golo Kanté nor Riyad Mahrez would have made their names at Leicester City, for example, under these new requirements.
Aside from international caps, the FA will judge players’ eligibility on their transfer fee, salary, and recent playing record. In 2016, the BBC calculated that 58 per cent of current professional players in the English and Scottish top divisions would have failed to meet these demands.
Despite the Premier League’s undeniable economic clout, it would not be surprising were European-born players to opt against transfers to UK clubs able to offer only time- and travel-restrictive visas. Under the planned criteria for these visas, players will need to demonstrate they can perform at the very highest level, and that their employment makes a significant contribution to sport in the UK. They must also be sponsored by a governing body (the FA) and pass an English language test.
Poaching Europe’s best
Should EU players heading to Britain be refused a visa they will be able to appeal to an ‘exceptions panel’. At this stage, exactly how strict or lenient this panel will be remains uncertain. Either way, the system clearly disadvantages younger academy-age prospects. For example, under the new rules, it seems unlikely a celebrated player like Cesc Fabregas would join the Premier League as he did in 2003, fresh from the Barcelona youth system.
As a member of the EU, British clubs can currently poach any EU-born player aged between 16 and 18 from an EU-based club
As a member of the EU, British clubs can currently poach any EU-born player aged between 16 and 18 from an EU-based club. When those same youth players need to qualify for a visa, it becomes harder, if not impossible, to snag them.
Conversely, the end of free movement in the UK would undoubtedly benefit Juventus, PSG, Real Madrid and a host of other European powers. While clubs in Spain, Italy, Germany and Portugal would continue to be free to trade 16-to-18-year-olds, the likelihood of an English club swooping in and stealing their finest prospects would be greatly reduced.
Of course, this works both ways, and European clubs would also find it harder to sign British youngsters. Breakout stars such as Jadon Sancho, so impressive this year at Borussia Dortmund, would probably have to wait longer, and jump through many more administrative hoops, before they could further their careers away from Great Britain.
The manager merry-go-round
The careers of top-flight managers and coaches could also be affected. The current bosses of Manchester City, Liverpool and Arsenal – Pep Guardiola, Jürgen Klopp and Unai Emery, respectively – are all European-born and hence do not currently require a work permit. But as bureaucracy mounts, a managing or coaching job in the UK is rendered a less enticing prospect, posing a recruitment problem at all levels.
In the 2018-19 Premier League season, 14 out of its 20 clubs were led by foreign-born managers – excellent news for clubs in Spain and Germany that have grown accustomed to losing their best backroom staff to British teams.
A more balanced Europe?
Uncertainty over Brexit has already downgraded the British economy, and this in turn has affected the ability of UK football clubs to compete in the global market. Mike Garlick, chairman of the Premier League’s Burnley FC, has claimed Brexit “threatens to make the widening inequality gap in our top division even worse.”
The British Home Office, meanwhile, has revised its definition of a “professional sportsperson,” leading to concerns the stricter requirements will eventually harm the grassroots.
This all amounts to a superb opportunity for Germany's Bundesliga, Spain’s LaLiga and Italy’s Serie A
This all amounts to a superb opportunity for Germany's Bundesliga, Spain’s LaLiga and Italy’s Serie A. No longer will the UK’s Big Six be free to hoover up their academy-bred talent, and it will also be easier for them to keep hold of their top-rated coaches and managers.
At the very least, the new visa application process in Britain means those familiar last-gasp transfers on deadline day to clubs in the Premier League are far less likely to occur.
In the UK there need to be clear strategies in place and concerted effort by all parties if British football is to continue to thrive as it has done previously around the world.
For the remainder of Europe, the race is on to take advantage of the power vacuum that will surely result if and when Brexit is finally delivered.