To Brexit or not to Brexit? That is the question. While the government has spent millions trying to convince the public that we should stay in the EU and the Leave Campaign has countered with a powerful voice advancing the case for Brexit, it has left many wondering: what will this mean for football?
The established European principle of free movement of people allows European footballers to play in England without satisfying the rigid 'work permit' rules set by the FA that non-EU footballers must meet to be eligible to move to the UK.
In the event of Brexit, it is unlikely that the Home Office will apply any new rules retrospectively, meaning that non-EU footballers already playing in the UK would remain eligible to play, at least for the first few years. Any new rules are unlikely to come into effect until a specified date in the future - at least a year after an 'out' decision. As such, we will not see any immediate repercussions and it is difficult to say what the full fall-out of Brexit would mean for the long-term future of English football. We do know, however, that the new rules would affect incoming players.
Regardless of the outcome of the referendum, the current visa criteria through which most footballers enter the UK is restrictive – as outlined below – and has the potential to exclude exceptional talent. For example, the next Dmitri Payet or N'Golo Kante - who have lit up the Premier League despite not being regulars for the French national team - would not be eligible to play in the UK under these rules.
This is the ideal opportunity for the FA to reassess its immigration position.
The current rules
Non-EU footballers coming to England must (i) be elite players who are already internationally established, (ii) make a significant contribution to the development of football in the UK, and (iii) do so without affecting any home grown talent. A player must be 'sponsored' by a club, which must in turn obtain a Governing Body Endorsement from the FA for each player. The FA will only grant such Endorsement if the following rules are satisfied:
- the player is from a FIFA top 10 ranked nation and has played at least 30% of their international first team games in the two years prior to applying for their Tier 2 visa (work permit);
- the player is from a nation ranked 11-20 and has played in 45% of their international games;
- the player is from nations ranked 21-30 and has played in 60% of their international games; or
- the player is from nations ranked 31-50 and has played in 75% of their international games.
Any appeals for a player who does not meet the above criteria are reviewed using a points based system. This includes the transfer value, wages and previous appearances, as well as a secondary appeal if these criteria are not met. Willian and Coutinho are high profile examples of players who were only able to play for Chelsea and Liverpool respectively after obtaining their visas on appeal.
Time to move forward?
Reports show that two thirds of the current Premier League EU players would not meet these criteria in the event of Brexit. And whilst there is an appeal process, the outcome can never be assured, often leaving players, managers and clubs frustrated at the last hurdle.
Some may argue this is a positive development in that it would prevent over-reliance on cheaper EU talent to make up the squad, to the exclusion of home grown talent. However, the counter argument is that embracing talent from across the globe enhances home-grown talent, driving up the standard of British footballers. Either way, ruling out these players would not be possible without also ruling out top players who would be an asset to the Premier League. In order for the Premier League to retain its position as the best football league in the world, the FA must ensure it allows clubs to recruit the best players internationally without being hampered by an arbitrary immigration system. We cannot have it both ways.
If Brexit becomes a reality, football's immigration framework can be rewritten to make it fit for purpose for the modern game. If it does not, hopefully the prospect of Brexit will have spurred sufficient debate to encourage a re-think of the current immigration process for sport. Alternative solutions, if implemented, could allow only the best foreign talent into the country, whilst also providing additional funding for grassroots development of domestic English players.
In 2012, we obtained the first ever Football Investor visa for a player who was moving to a top Premier League club, but sports governing bodies swiftly demanded that the Home Office exclude professional sportsmen from the 'wealthy' Investor visa category so as not to interfere with their own entry criteria. We think that sport has missed an opportunity by shutting down the Investor visa route – instead of being feared as leaving an open door, it should be seen as a way to set a higher financial bar for entrants, who have to invest £2million in the UK in order to qualify – money which could be used to raise funds to promote the development of young national footballers. Brexit or not, we think there is a valuable discussion to be had around this issue. It's time to blow the whistle on the FA's flawed immigration rules.
This article first appeared in SportsPro.
If you have any questions arising from this, please contact Maria Patsalos; 020 3321 7457