By Ed Wade.
British football could face its biggest ever challenge when the United Kingdom decides whether to leave or stay in the European Union on 23 June. The possible Brexit could lead to 400 players having to leave the footballing pyramid and it would subsequently affect nearly half of all Premier League players.
Footballers who hold an EU passport can currently play in the UK without restrictions. Whilst on the other hand, those without EU status must apply for visas and meet the criteria set by the Home Office. One of the core rules set by the Home office is that players are established internationals, playing for leading countries on a regular basis.
Who Will Be Affected?
A total of 332 players currently playing in the top two tiers of English and Scottish football would fail to meet those current standards. 100 of the affected would come from the Premier League with Newcastle, Watford and Aston Villa facing the prospect of losing 11 players. Only 23 of the 180 non-British EU players currently in the Championship would get work permits, with an extreme example being Charlton Athletic who could potentially be left with 13 ineligible players.
Due to a lack of international caps for their respected countries, players like Cesar Azpilicueta, David De Gea, Juan Mata, Hector Bellerin, Anthony Martial and Kurt Zouma would not qualify under current laws.
None of the 53 non-British EU players in the Scottish Premiership would be granted a work permit, based on their international career, with the same situation for 109 non-British EU players in League One and League Two.
West Ham United vice-chairman Karren Brady has already spoken out about the ‘devastating’ effects it could have on English football.
She said: “Cutting ourselves off from Europe would have devastating consequences. Losing this unhindered access to European talent would put British clubs at a disadvantage compared to continental sides.”
Brexit would also result in it being more difficult for clubs to acquire players from other continents.
In the past players from South America began playing their trade in European countries with lenient immigration systems whilst progressing within the national team, before then moving to the UK.
Currently the rules state that a player without an EU passport must have played at least 70% of competitive international games over the past two years. However, this rule only applies in FIFA’s top 70 ranked side and the percentage increases depending on the ranking of the national team.
What are the rules?
A player from a top 10 nation only has to have played 30% of their games, two years prior to applying for a work permit.
A player from a nation ranked between 11 – 20 has to have played in at least 45% of their games, to gain a work permit.
Players playing for a nation ranked 21 – 30 must have played 60% of their games
If a player is playing for a team ranked 31 – 50 then they must have played 75% of matches.
What does it mean for the Premier League?
This lack of talent-pool could ultimately affect the popularity of the Premier League.
With the increased television revenue deal that awaits on the horizon, the Premier League’s appeal is at an all-time high. Nevertheless, without that talent coming through, the popularity of the Premier League as a whole could lessen, eventually meaning a reduction in revenue. Richard Scudamore, Chairman of the Premier League has spoken out and said the UK should stay in the EU ‘from a business perspective’.
The worst scenario for the Premier League would be if it lacked the ability to bring in players in the same bulk as other top European nations such as France, Italy, Spain and Germany.
Dr Rory Miller, director of the MBA Football Industries programme at the University of Liverpool believes that the home office would take a standardised view of the situation.
He said: “Reducing the number of high quality players in the Premier League will reduce its brand value, particularly to overseas audience.”
If the United Kingdom does opt to leave the European Union, then the FA might be able to implement some of their own plans in the Premier League.
The Premier League currently holds the majority of power when it comes to a quota of non-British players in the division, but the FA would have some leverage if they were to leave the EU. They could begin to implement a quota of foreign players in domestic cup competitions for example.
Daniel Geey, a lawyer at Sport Law firm Sheridans, insisted it would stop the debacle of counting players who play for foreign national sides as homegrown products.
He said: “The FA could limit foreign players – without having to adopt the fudge that allows players such as Cesc Fabregas to qualify as ‘homegrown’.”
And what for the fans?
The fans will look at it in two ways.
Firstly, a lot of them could see their teams cut to pieces and some of their best players leaving their respected clubs, which would be a huge loss.
High calibre players like Dimitri Payet and Mesut Ozil would require work permits to play all of a sudden whilst others would be deemed ineligible.
On the switch-side, fans might look at the youth development system and hold hope that this might lead to the rise of more youth academy graduates making the grade. There is nothing more pleasing for a supporter than seeing a local lad come from the club’s surrounding area and representing the first team.
Teams like Tottenham and Leicester City have already shown the importance of having a British identity this season, with one of those teams looking more and more likely to claim the Premier League crown come May.
Although the Premier League can boast about being the ‘richest league in the world’, it may not even be able to spend the great wealth it possesses come the summer. Clubs may have a complete re-building job on their hands as the majority of their players would subsequently be left ineligible.
British football might wake up to a much-changed landscape come the morning of 24 June.