English football has long appeared to be immune to anything that threatened its standing, influence and popularity. It has thrived consistently in the face of economic recession, scandal, politics, allegations of financial impropriety and even the unpredictable British weather. But even the all-powerful Premier League cannot consider itself safe from the consequences of Brexit.
Since the UK announced its intention to leave Europe in June 2016, league officials, club managers, journalists and lawyers have been voicing concerns over the implications of Brexit for the UK footballing community, and, specifically, the Premier League.
The Conservative party advocated in their election manifesto a “firmer and fairer Australian-style points-based immigration system” designed to target highly skilled migrants. The new system is intended to prioritise people with an ‘education and good qualifications’, especially those in the fields of technology and science, and who have a good grasp of English. Crucially, it will also ensure that EU and non-EU citizens will be treated equally.
What does this mean for English football?
Unsurprisingly, when Brexit was first proposed back in 2016, every single Premier League club was opposed to it. However, there has recently been some show of support for Brexit, with then Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock being quoted as saying “I think we’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely”.
Whilst it may be true that some of the larger (and by definition richer) top-tier clubs will be somewhat sheltered from the storm of Brexit, it is inevitable that lower-tier clubs will face increasing difficulties in recruiting talented players to allow them to improve their results and league standings.
The current Immigration Rules are remarkably prohibitive in this regard, and non-EU nationals must satisfy onerous criteria to obtain sponsorship in order to play and train in the UK. For example, applicants who wish to play in England cannot obtain endorsement from clubs outside of the Premier League or Football League, and during the period of endorsement they cannot play for or be loaned to any club which is not a member of these Leagues. In order to obtain endorsement, an applicant must have participated in at least 75% of his home country’s senior competitive international matches where he was available for selection during the two years preceding the date of application, and his National Association must be ranked at or above 70th place in the official FIFA World Rankings.
The Conservative party’s pledge to treat all EU and non-EU nationals equally, therefore, may have a serious impact not only on football clubs in the UK, but also on emerging talent in European countries who will no longer enjoy freedom of movement rights to play at some of the world’s most desirable clubs. To put that into context, players such as N’Golo Kante and Riyad Mahrez, who have significantly impacted English football as a result of being signed from overseas (and who were integral in Leicester City’s 2015-16 Premier League triumph), would not have been eligible to play football in the UK.
A study conducted by Laurie Shaw of Harvard University’s Data Science Initiative indicated that 591 of the 1,022 European players signed by Premier League clubs between 1992 – 2018 would not have met the eligibility criteria to play football in the UK had they not been EU citizens enjoying free movement rights.
The concept of free movement is an essential aspect of modern football, and is arguably responsible for establishing a competitive balance within the Premier League.
The impact of Brexit is likely to stretch even to football training academies in the UK, which recruit young players under the age of 18 in a bid to nurture their talent. FIFA’s regulations aimed at the protection of under-age players allow for the international transfer of players between the ages of 16 and 18 on the basis that they are moving between clubs which are both based within the EU. It was this exception that allowed players such as Cesc Fabregas, Hector Bellerin and Andreas Christensen to be signed to play in the UK. Following Brexit, and the UK’s departure from the EU, football academies and training clubs in the UK will no longer be able to recruit under-age players on this basis.
The ramifications of Brexit stretch beyond the players themselves, however. More than half of the managers or head coaches currently employed by Premier League clubs are EU nationals, for example Freddie Ljungberg at Arsenal and Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool. It is clear that the football industry has benefitted handsomely from the talent and expertise of EU nationals at every level.
As with most things, however, there is a flip side. It is not only the UK footballing community and the European players plying their trade in the UK’s football leagues, who may feel the tremors of Brexit. British footballers playing at European clubs, such as Gareth Bale at Spanish giant Real Madrid, will similarly find themselves subject to an all-new post-Brexit footballing landscape.
For some within the football industry, Brexit is being seen as a welcome change. FA bosses have already announced an intention to lower the limit of non-homegrown players in order to champion young British players and to nurture British talent. The thinking behind this being that the increased bureaucracy and costs of recruiting footballers from abroad will give rise to more opportunities for British players and coaches.
The true impact of Brexit on the football industry in the UK remains to be seen, but as with most things where some doors close, others will open. Perhaps Brexit will bring football home again.
The information in this blog is for general information purposes only and does not purport to be comprehensive or to provide legal advice. Whilst every effort is made to ensure the information and law is current as of the date of publication it should be stressed that, due to the passage of time, this does not necessarily reflect the present legal position. Gherson accepts no responsibility for loss which may arise from accessing or reliance on information contained in this blog. For formal advice on the current law please don’t hesitate to contact Gherson. Legal advice is only provided pursuant to a written agreement, identified as such, and signed by the client and by or on behalf of Gherson.
Immigration Consultant and Trainee Solicitor in our Private Client department