Which Way Will the Brexit Ball Bounce? – Dennis Whitehead
Nearly a half-million people in the United States tune into British soccer matches every weekend, according to numbers from the NBC Sports Network. Premier League supporters’ clubs dot the American map reflecting increasing interest in the game, particularly British style, to follow some of the biggest names in soccer from around the world who play in the English Premiership. Many of these top-ranked players come from European Union nations.
When Brexit falls, landing soft or hard, what impact will it have on the British game?
The result of Brexit could be a weakening of British teams and the Premier League on the whole, leading to declining performances against strengthening Spanish, German, Italian and French clubs, and jeopardizing the four slots the Premiership maintains in the Champions League, a significant revenue source for European clubs.
According to the 2017 UEFA Club Licensing Benchmarking Report, British and Italian clubs led the transfer market among the leading soccer market countries looking within Europe for players. While British clubs spent only three percent on player transfer fees outside of Europe, while English clubs brought in talent from Spain, France and Italy, accounting for more than €1billion over the previous ten seasons. The report notes, “As the largest actor in the global transfer system, any changes to work permit agreements linked to Brexit, could have a notable impact on transfer flows.”
Three of the highest-paid players in the Premiership come from EU nations: Spain’s David de Gea is paid £19.5 million per season (£375,000, nearly $460,000 per week), according to Capology. Next highest is Manchester City’s Kevin de Bruyne, a native of Belgium, and German Mesut Özil round out the top three, followed by Paul Pogba and Anthony Martial, both from France.
Goal.com recently selected their starting eleven players in the Premiership over the past decade. Of those eleven best, just one of those finalists, Raheem Sterling, was British; seven hailing from EU countries. Harry Kane received the Honorable Mention.
But, what happens in a post-Brexit Premiership? When the UK walks away from the EU will it be leaving some of the league’s biggest names behind? Will there be additional repercussions?
All twenty Premier League teams voiced their opposition to Brexit as the issue was being put before voters in 2016. Premier League Chairman Richard Scudamore expressed his discomfort in a BBC Radio morning program in 2016 that Brexit will negatively affect the perception of Britain as a country that welcomes investment: “That doesn’t seem to sit very well when you travel the world like we do being welcomed because of the fact that we are open for business, open for discussion, and open for cooperation.” Fifteen of today’s twenty Premiership teams are partly or wholly owned by non-UK entities.
Burnley chairman Mike Garlick foresaw the decline of the British Pound Sterling against the Euro, noting that this will make it more difficult for Premier League teams to sign top-notch players is a competitive international market. Garlick told the BBC that Brexit “threatens to make the widening inequality gap in our top division even worse.”
The current roster of twenty-eight EU nations is composed of Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Croatia, Cyprus, Czechia, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Romania, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden, and the United Kingdom. Soccer players in these nations freely cross EU borders to play in other member nations without regulatory red tape. But, that all could change.
Subtract the UK from the EU and then all of those EU players will face the same work permit regulations that non-EU athletes must hurdle before entering the league. There will be only two options for plying their trade in the UK — either have to meet certain criteria for a work permit or failing that, an appeals process for exemption from these work regulations. Transfers within soccer often move very fast and bureaucratic barriers will certainly be detrimental to a significant number of these deals destined for the Premiership.
The requirements for non-UK and players not from Commonwealth nations are enforced by the UK Home Office, the domestic regulatory agency overseeing immigration. The outcome of an application to the Home Office must meet criteria scored with points to determine an applicant’s qualifications for endorsement. A player can automatically qualify for a work permit if they have played a pre-set percentage of national team games, defined as Competitive International Matches and Continental Competition, for their home nation’s governing soccer body over the previous two years.
The criteria are based upon the nation’s standing in the FIFA rankings and, then, in the percentage of competitive games in which the applicant participated:
FIFA Rank…Percentage of Games
(The United States currently is ranked 24th in the FIFA standings. In the ongoing rebuilding process where players come and go from the U.S. Mens National Team roster means their qualification to meet the 60% mark would be tough to meet.)
Failing to meet these measures, an applicant can then appeal to an “Exceptions Panel,” a group of three members appointed by the Football Association (FA), to “consider the player’s experience and value in order to determine whether a Governing Body Endorsement should nevertheless be granted.” (2018–19 Premier League Handbook). According to Goal.com, “the value of a player’s transfer fee (or their virtual transfer value), their wages and their recent playing history,” factor into the appeal process.
A 2016 analysis by the BBC found that 332 players from the top tiers of British and Scottish soccer would fail to meet the such standards. Among them, more than 100 Premier League players would be affected. Only twenty-three, most former Northern Irish and Commonwealth internationals with British passports, would qualify for work permits among the 180 non-British EU players currently playing in the second-division Championship.
And, let’s not leave coaches and staff out of the mix as they, too, will be subject to new work rules. Among the current twenty Premier League teams, eleven of the twenty Premier League teams are helmed by foreign coaches, most notably Spaniards Pep Guardiola at Manchester City and Unai Emery at Arsenal, and German Jürgen Klopp at Liverpool.
Conversely, Brexit could create difficulties for UK players looking to play in an EU country as process and paperwork will await them before a work permit will be issued. Of the estimated 800,000 British citizens living outside the UK in the EU, they face losing their right to work with a British exit from the EU without a deal. Among them is Welshman Gareth Bale who plays for Real Madrid in Spain but, according to ESPN, he is keeping his options open for the future under the uncertainties of Brexit.
Brexit could also negatively impact the Premier League’s ability to recruit European players under the age of 18 for their academies. FIFA regulations protect minors by permitting the international transfer of soccer players between the ages of 16 and 18 only if they are moving between EU-based clubs. Away from the EU, the FA will no longer qualify.
The FA may take the lead in managing the number of foreign players in the Premiership — Brexit or not. In 2018, the FA proposed that Premier League clubs be limited to twelve (reduced from seventeen) foreign players each after Brexit, leaving a majority of teams in the top division needing to reduce the existing number of foreign players on their rosters. The governing soccer body is making its case to the British Government promoting their governance of immigration issues regarding professional soccer players wishing to play in the UK in the wake of Brexit. The organization hopes for a relaxation of Home Office work permit rules. Of course, Premier League teams wish to maintain the current number of foreign players, but the FA sees Brexit as an opportunity to reinforce the number of UK players in the top flight and strengthen British soccer across the board.
Edmund Greaves, writing in Moneywise, cited Ernst & Young figures that £3.3 billion was paid by the Premiership into the British Treasury in 2016–17, with players contributing £1.1 billion. Overall, the Premier League added £7.6 billion to the general British economy, touting maintenance of 100,000 full-time jobs in the UK. Greaves quoted Bill Bush, Premier League executive director, as saying: “It is a simple model: many of the best players in the world playing for some of football’s finest clubs in a compelling competition in front of passionate fans, broadcast here and around the world…Great football gives us the economic success to invest in our own competition and provide unparalleled support to the EFL, youth development, the non-league system and community football. The national economy benefits from over £1billon in overseas earnings and over £3billion in tax because our clubs strive so hard to get the football right.”
Arguments are made that the tax paid by soccer players is sufficient reason for an exclusion for EU players from post-Brexit changes.
The Brexit effects could ripple through UK clubs playing in international competition. Beside potentially losing slots in Champions League and Europa League competitions, the UK Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport estimates that UK groups — teams, fans and sponsors, could face additional issues with documentation in traveling to EU countries, along with the transportation and sale of goods brought from the UK into the EU.
Likewise, post-Brexit British laws could present problems for some of the top players entering the country. Lionel Messi could be barred from playing UEFA Champions League matches in the UK, according to Givemesport, as changes in international law post-Brexit could deny entry into the UK of players with convictions and suspended sentences for tax evasion, even if they hold an EU passport. Barcelona star Messi falls into this category due to his tax complications in Spain and could be forced to sit out Champions League matches played in the UK.
Andrew Osbourne, partner at law firm Lewis Silkin told The Athletic: “If you are not an EU citizen and have a conviction or prison sentence imposed — even if suspended — you are banned from coming to the UK.”
Such scenarios can potentially bring about further repercussions from UEFA. Aleksander Čeferin, UEFA President, points to potential difficulties to be faced by Messi and others, citing the November 2016 denial of Paris Saint-Germain player Serge Aurier, a player from Ivory Coast, to enter the UK to face Arsenal in the Champions League due to Aurier’s ongoing appeal against a prison sentence for an assault on a Paris police officer.
“I was very disappointed when Aurier, from PSG, was not allowed to enter England. That will worsen when Brexit happens, especially if the reasons were as formal. We could have a serious problem,” Čeferin told The New York Times. “If we see that players cannot enter because they have any sort of procedure ongoing, then we will simply think if we should play our European matches there.”
“If Brexit happens,” Čeferin reasoned, “everything changes, but football was played before, and it will be played in the future. Now, with free movement in the European Union, it is much better.”
London’s Wembley Stadium is scheduled to host the semifinals and final of the European championship — Euro 2020, and Čeferin told the Times he hoped to avoid any issues, complaining that while players from England can travel freely across Europe, players from other teams under these circumstances cannot travel freely. “Even in 2020, if Brexit has happened, then it can be a big problem for fans,” counting on the FA to step in to assist UEFA overcome any difficulties.
The May 2019 Europa League final featuring two British teams — Chelsea and Arsenal, was held in Baku, Azerbaijan over the loud complaints from the FA but Čeferin held fast to his decision. In the end, British fans were unable to attend the championship due to ticketing and travel problems. Neither team could sell their ticket allotments and Arsenal player Henrikh Mkhitaryan opted not to play due to safety concerns regarding the tension between Azerbaijan and his country of Armenia. In defense of his decision, Čeferin said the situation would have been the same had two Azerbaijani teams been playing in a final match hosted in the UK.
Brexit was ill-conceived and brought to life through a dubious campaign and vote, the execution is haphazard, to say the least. Brexit is being played out in a fashion where uncertainties about its impact on the UK overwhelm anything that is known, and with Brexit could push English soccer from the top tiers of the game.