Gordon Brown called Brexit “the biggest own goal in our peacetime economic history … no matter how much it is dressed up as a patriotic act”.
After a season in which English football clubs celebrated record success in Europe, how much of an own goal will Brexit prove to be for the English game?
As the Transfer Deadline Day coincides with Brexit Day, the sad fact is football clubs in the UK are still kicking off about the uncertainty that lies ahead for them.
Will UK clubs be as able to lure young talent?
One of the main worries is the ability to bring in the next generation of European football starlets to join the likes of Paul Pogba and Hector Bellerin, both of which were signed by English clubs while still under the age of 18.
FIFA rules forbid the transter of players under 18 across borders – with the exception of what is known as Article 19 – free movement across the European Union and European Economic Area (which we will refer to as the EU for the purposes of this article). Under freedom of movement workers over the age of 16 – including footballers can come here to work.
As the UK is leaving the EU on January 31, 2020, clubs feared this transfer deadline day might be the last chance to attract under-18 rising stars from Europe.
FIFA were forced to clarify the matter and put out a statement on the eve of transfer deadline day reassuring UK football clubs that the current exemption that allows potential young EU talent to be poached would continue until the end of the transition period at the end of 2020.
A FIFA spokesperson told Sky Sports News: “When it comes to the transfer of players between the age of 16-18, the EU/EEA exception applies in territories where EU law is in force. FIFA’s understanding is that under the terms of the UK Withdrawal Agreement, EU law (including EU law on free movement) remains in force until the transitional period ends, on December 31, 2020.”
FIFA’s statement brought clarity to a confusing issue, as several lawyers working with clubs had warned that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU and European Economic Area on Friday night meant that football clubs in the UK may no longer be exempt from Article 19 from tomorrow.
But this only gives UK clubs a temporary reprieve. The Football Association wants to increase the quota of homegrown players in top-flight squads from eight to 12. To qualify as homegrown for English clubs under UEFA rules, a player must have spent three years in the youth set-up of an English club before they turn 21.
So if UK clubs are unable to recruit under-18 players after the Brexit transition period ends, it will be much harder for youngsters from the EU to qualify as homegrown having trained with a club.
After December 31, 2020, the big European clubs will have their pick of the next generation of young stars aged 16 and 17. European players aged 18 and up that British clubs do sign will not have time to be counted as homegrown any more.
Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba – a World Cup winner with France, Chelsea’s Danish defender Andreas Christensen, Arsenal and Chelsea legend Cesc Fabregas, Arsenal full back Hector Bellerin and Manchester United star midfielder Pogba are all examples of players who arrived under the age of 18 and who it would have been much harder to incorporate into UK teams.
Unless FIFA is prepared to continue the UK’s exemption in Article 19 beyond the transition period, British clubs will suffer.
FA and Premier League kick off
The Football Association and the Premier League are not playing ball over their priorities post-Brexit. The FA wants an opportunity to bring up homegrown talent, while the world’s most popular top-flight league does not want to lose talent to Europe’s other top football leagues who Premiership teams fear will be the big winners.
The FA wants to relax rules about signing non-EU players to make it a level playing field with EU footballers. But in return they want to cap the number of overseas players increasing from the current level of around 260, which would works out around 13 per top-flight club, which is why they plan for 12 of the 25-man squad to be homegrown footballers.
The Premier League has warned this will increase competition, driving up costs and favouring the richest few clubs, increasing the inequality in what is already farther than ever from a level playing field for teams. Teams without big budgets will find it harder than ever to retain British talent.
It’s not only a new generation of under-18 starlets UK clubs could lose out on. Under the current system, EU players can sign to an English club without needing a work permit under freedom of movement rules. Non-EU players need a work permit and to get it they have to meet a number of strict criteria.
Many current players in British clubs may not have have qualified to have come over, perhaps not having enough caps for their national team, for instance. This also makes it harder to scout out young potential talent before they become prohibitively expensive to buy.
Unless the Football Association can carve out new special rules with the UK government, after Brexit, European players would have to apply for a permit just like non-EU players, and many would not qualify.
Up to a quarter of the 152 EU Premier League players may not have qualified
The Premier League is the most watched in the world – for now. The knock-on effect of talent going elsewhere would be a downgrading in interest in the Premier League, meaning lower revenues for the massive broadcasting rights for matches watched around the world.
British clubs are worried they will have to go on a spending spree this summer, as perhaps as many as a quarter of the 152 European players currently playing in the Premier League would not have qualified for work permits automatically.
Non-EU players seeking an automatic endorsement by the FA – the most common visa requirement currently – need to have played at least 30 per cent of competitive international matches for their country in the past two years if it’s ranked in FIFA’s top ten. If the country is ranked between 11 and 20, the player should have played over 45 per cent of matches; 21-30: 60 per cent of matches and 31-50: 75 per cent.
Many football teams this season fielded EU players who would not have qualified for this automatic Governing Body Endorsement. Footballers not automatically eligible for a permit can still apply to the exceptions panel to get a governing body endorsement from the FA, but this is discretionary, causing more uncertainty.
The future relationship between the UK and the EU is facing a worrying level of uncertainty in general. Part of the Government’s statement of intent post-Brexit is to substantially reform the existing Sponsors Management System to provide a more “streamlined” immigration system which is proposed to be easier for employers to navigate. With the addition of FA endorsements for EU players it is hard to see how any new system would be more “streamlined” for football clubs.
Clubs may need to be registered with UKVI as sponsor licence holders to employ overseas workers. Most football clubs in the UK are not currently registered as sponsors perhaps due to the criteria required to obtain a Governing Body Endorsement from registered bodies such as the FA.
More worries for UK clubs post-Brexit
Nobody knows if the FA endorsement system will be extended to include players from the EU beyond December 31, 2020, or whether entirely new regulations will be introduced.
And the loan system that cash-strapped teams are often resorting to is also set for an overhaul. The FA is suggesting that only British and Irish players would be allowed to be loaned between clubs after Brexit.
And if UK clubs didn’t have enough to worry about with Brexit predicted to make the pound even weaker, luring foreign talent here is about to become even more expensive, as well as preventing foreign teams luring talented players away with higher wage offers.
English football clubs celebrated an unprecedented season of international success in 2019. Making history, both the Europa League and Champions League finals were contested exclusively by English teams. Liverpool FC and Tottenham Hotspurs thrilled in the Champions League final in Madrid, having beaten Barcelona and Dutch legends Ajax. Arsenal and Chelsea made it to the Europa League final in Azerbaijan with just one English player Ainsley Maitland-Niles in the starting line ups.
All four teams, not to mention Manchester City which won the historic domestic treble of the Premier League, FA Cup and League Cup, all owe much to the foreign stars making their mark in English football. No surprise then that the FA, Premier League and Government have been discussing ensuring a post-Brexit immigration system won’t jeopardise their continuing success.
England Manager Gareth Southgate, who met with the FA and Home Office at one top-level meeting last year, is understood to see Brexit as an opportunity to give domestic talent more of a chance. Yet there is a lot of concern among UK football clubs that everyone is prepared for a new immigration system set to end the current seamless movement of EU players between English teams and their international rivals.
And it’s not only footballing bodies divided on the impact of Brexit on teams, managers too have been outspoken too. “I can’t wait to get out if I’m honest. I think we’ll be far better out… football-wise as well,” Neil Warnock, boss at Cardiff City relegated from the Premiership, ranted as he struggled to recruit footballers during the last January transfer window, insisting leaving the EU would not make his life any more difficult than it already is.
Meanwhile Liverpool’s rather more successful German manager Jurgen Klopp has made no disguise of his dismay at Brexit, enjoying a joke with reporters about English clubs’ success in European competitions at the end of the season by quipping: “obviously, the big clubs in England want to stay, with all they have, in Europe.”