Brexit and the Impact on British Football

May 13, 2016

In the first of our blog series on the potential implications of Britain exiting the EU (Brexit), we explore how this decision could impact football across the UK.

The referendum is being held on 23rd June to decide whether Britain should leave or remain in the European Union. Many campaigners concentrate specifically on the UK economy and labour market, but what about the nation’s favourite sport: how could Brexit impact British football?

Currently members of the EU are free to live, work and travel across the European countries. This means English and Scottish Premier League football teams can pick from the very best players in Europe to freely play in the United Kingdom. Those coming to play from outside of Europe must be able to demonstrate that they are already playing at the highest level, and will also make a significant contribution to the game. Specific guidelines set out by the Football Association (FA), in partnership with UK Visas and Immigration (UKVI), indicate that non-European players must have played in a minimum percentage of international matches for their country during the immediate two year period before coming to the UK, in order to qualify for permission to play in the English Premier League. The required percentage of international games played is determined by the country’s FIFA World Ranking.

Under the current rules in place it is believed that many of the English Premier Leagues top stars would not qualify to play in the UK. Leicester City Midfielder Riyad Mahrez recently picked up the PFA Player of the Year Award, having played a pivotal role in Leicester’s Premier League Win. Riyad, of Algerian, Moroccan and French nationality, would qualify for free movement in the UK on the basis of his French nationality. However, if it were not for his French nationality the strict guidelines for non-European players would have meant that he would not have been eligible to sign for the Leicester City side due to his lack of international football experience. Riyad signed for the then Championship Side in January 2014 from Le Havre, France having never played international level football.

Riyad Mahrez is not the only player who would not qualify if it were not for his European nationality. A study by the BBC suggested that 332 European players currently playing in the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premiership would fail to meet the non-European criteria to play. Such players include N’Golo Kante and Robert Huth of Leicester City; Dimitri Payet of West Ham and Samir Nasri of Manchester City.

EU free movement rules are widely recognised in helping British teams sign foreign stars; they also apply the other way, allowing British international players such as Ashley Cole, Joey Barton, Gareth Bale, and Joe Cole to play in Europe.

Jean-Marc Bosman (1995)

Jean-Marc Bosman is a former professional footballer from Belgium, whose judicial challenge of the football transfer rules led to a much publicised judgement which completely changed the way footballers are employed. The judgement passed allows for professional players in the European Union to move freely from their present team to another club at the end of their contract should they wish to do so, which means that players are no longer required to wait for their current clubs to release them in order to move to another club.

This judgement, known by professionals and fans as the Bosman Ruling (1995), was handed down by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) and affects those also playing in the English and Scottish Premier League.  Player transfers which have been influenced by the Bosman Ruling include:

  • Steve McManaman from Liverpool to Real Madrid
  • Henrik Larsson from Celtic to Barcelona
  • Michael Ballack from Bayern Munich to Chelsea
  • Esteban Cambiasso from Real Madrid to Inter Milan

In addition to the Bosman ruling, the ECJ handed down ruling on the 8th May 2003 which went in the favour of Maros Kolpak, a Slovak handball player. The Kolpak ruling meant that players with a work permit or equivalent from a country which has an associate trading agreement with the EU, had the same rights as a European worker/player. This ruling set a precedent for professional sports in Europe, and affected English county cricket and European professional rugby considerably.

Should the UK vote to leave the EU, some have considered that the Bosman Ruling would no longer be applicable to those in the British premier leagues as this would fall out of the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. This is considered to be incorrect as the rules and regulations of the FA have already taken into consideration the Bosman Ruling and therefore players will still benefit from the judgement handed down by the ECJ despite Brexit.

Grass Roots Football

Reports have suggested that Karren Brady, vice-chair of West Ham football club and a key member of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, has claimed that grassroots football would be deprived of European cash should Brexit go ahead.  

Whilst others strongly believe that a potential Brexit is considered to impact positively on younger English Premier League players, younger players will inevitably be relied upon to make up team numbers, specifically where teams have forcibly found themselves with fewer EU players to field. Higher expectations and more game time have also been considered to improve the development of such players, theoretically increasing the numbers of quality English players available for international selection.

However, the move to rely upon younger English Premier League players has been considered by some to devalue the league making this less competitive, due to fewer international stars within the competition

Should Brexit happen, any new rules are unlikely to come into effect immediately. It is also highly unlikely that the UKVI will apply any new rules to those already in the UK; any new rules are considered to only affect new players coming to the UK. Many experts in the sports immigration industry have also suggested that the FA and the UKVI will need to look closely at the current qualifying criteria to introduce more flexible rules for those in Europe.

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