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Posted on 12 April 2021

The UK's Skilled Worker (work permit) visa regime changed following Brexit, with the changes for elite sportspeople introduced in December 2020. These changes are not substantive and instead mostly reflect a revision and simplification of the wording and organisation of the visa rules. We understand the visa rules for sportspeople will undergo further revision in the coming months to continue the Home Office's drive for simplification of the visa options for sportspeople. 

Governing Body Endorsement:

To obtain a work permit for an elite sportsperson the employer must first obtain a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE). The governing body, for example the Football Association (FA) for football clubs and the Rugby Football Union for rugby clubs, issue GBEs. Governing bodies were required to rewrite their GBE rules following Brexit. This is because their pre-Brexit rules would severely limit which EU players would qualify for work permits, which in turn could reduce the appeal and strength of the domestic leagues. Using football as a case study example, we look at the FA's post-Brexit GBE rules, which the FA announced late last year.

Case study – the FA post-Brexit GBE rules:

Many were expecting a regime that would make obtaining a work permit for foreign players significantly more difficult. However, the new rules seem to strike a fair balance between enabling the signing of players from the EU, and promoting the development of youth players in England. It is important to note that the GBE requirements for female footballers are broadly the same as the criteria for male footballers, although there are slight differences to the criteria in respect of the points required.

  • The new rules can automatically grant a GBE to international players:
    • This auto grant will depend on the player's senior international appearances and their nation's FIFA ranking. For example, a player representing Colombia, presently ranked 15th in FIFA's men's world rankings, will automatically qualify for a GBE if they have played in at least 40% of Colombia's competitive international games in the previous 2 years. With Colombia currently ranked 26th in FIFA's women's rankings, a female Colombia player would automatically qualify for a GBE if she played in at least 80% of the country's competitive international games in the last 2 years.
    • Players who do not automatically qualify through their international appearances now require 15 points to qualify for a GBE and, for a female player, she would need 24 points to qualify for a GBE. If the aforementioned male Colombian player only played in 39% of Colombia's competitive international games in the previous 2 years he would be granted 10 points. He would then have to earn the remaining 5 points through other criteria as outlined below.
    • Players will be able to earn points based on how many minutes they have played domestically, their minutes in continental competitions, the final league position of their last club, the continental progression of their last club, and the league quality of their last club. Compared to the old system, there are now more ways to qualify for a GBE.
    • Youth Players (under 21s) can score points through the above criteria, but there are also additional criteria that they can use to score points. These are more reflective of where a Youth Player might be in their career (i.e. points earned for minutes in equivalent international competitions like the Under 21 World Cup and points earned for their debut for the senior team).
  • The Exceptions Panel has changed as well:
    • Historically, the Exceptions Panel was involved when a player did not meet the international appearances criteria to qualify for a GBE. They would consider a number of criteria (amongst others) such as transfer fee, salary and minutes played to assess if a player should be issued with a GBE.
    • The panel now considers if there are exceptional circumstances (e.g. injury) that led to a player not being able to achieve the required number of points. If there are, the panel will offer their recommendation to the FA that a GBE should be granted. However, the FA still retains ultimate discretion over the final decision.
  • Now that free movement has ended, European and non-European players will both have to satisfy the same requirements to qualify for a GBE and work permit in the UK. In practice, the new GBE rules mean that active players in Europe's top five leagues (English, Spanish, German, Italian, and French) should easily obtain the required 15 points. However, English clubs will find it significantly more difficult to obtain work permits for youth players from Europe's best academies. This means that obtaining a GBE for first teamers such as the Kante's and Ronaldo's of the next generation should be straightforward, but signing a promising youngster such as the next Fabregas (who signed with Arsenal at 16 years old) will be significantly more difficult.

Alternative options to a GBE:

Other UK visa options for sportspeople are limited, but they can work if the circumstances are right. For example, sportspeople may want to consider:

  • Sportsperson Visitor – a short term visa option, usually for those who are taking part in specific competitions in the UK;
  • UK Ancestry – a long term visa option for those who are from a Commonwealth country and can prove one of their grandparents was born in the UK;
  • Partner of a British or settled person – a long term visa option for those who are married or in a durable relationship with a British / settled person in the UK;
  • Partner of an EEA national – a long term visa option for those who are married or in a durable relationship with a EEA national in the UK (where the EEA national moved to the UK by 31st December 2020); and
  • Tier 5 (Temporary Worker – Creative and Sporting) – a 12 month fixed term visa option for elite sportspeople, usually for those who do not satisfy the English language requirement for the Skilled Worker visa.

These alternative options have their own hurdles and in practice it will usually be best to proceed with the Skilled Worker visa option.

In practice, there are already signs, even in the first 100 days of 2021, that clubs and intermediaries have already changed their approaches to player recruitment. In particular, there has been a renewed focus on bringing in promising South American players, often at the expense of lower league European players. We fully expect this trend to continue over the coming weeks and months.

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