The EU Referendum & What It Could Mean For The National Game..
As fans from the British Isles (including myself in a few days’ time) flock to the mainland to watch their national sides begins their respective Euro 2016 campaigns, I can’t help but ponder (& admittedly worry) about a different European adventure… One that could potentially be ending, rather than beginning, in June 2016.
British citizens up & down the country will head to the polling booths on the 23rd of June to decide their nation’s future in a ‘once in a generation’ referendum on the UK’s EU membership. Whether or not the UK remains in the European Union or not will have wide-reaching impacts on all aspects & sectors of our society, and our national game would be far from immune to such a huge change. Whilst the British public has been swamped in recent months by the potential political, diplomatic & economic implications of a ‘Brexit’, a more light-hearted thought exercise is how the landscape of British football could be altered in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote. Over the next few days, I’ll be taking a look at a Brexit’s potential impacts on the British game from the Premier League & Football League to our national teams & fans.
PART ONE: Club Football, Recruitment & Scouting
Work Permits & the Current Foreign Contingent
Most articles on the topic of Brexit’s impact on the EPL focus on changes in work permit laws, and specifically on how such changes could see stars of the division that aren’t necessarily fixtures in their respective EU national teams fall foul to post-Brexit labour laws. For example, whilst doing the reading for this piece I was continually finding articles featuring images of the likes of N’Golo Kante or Dmitri Payet (articles from February published before their late surges into France’s EURO 2016 squad) as well as seeing the likes of Manchester United’s Juan Mata & Ander Herrera also mentioned as players who could see their ability to work in the UK affected by a ‘Leave’ vote. The statements that kept cropping up in the articles I was finding were typically along the lines of how ‘Two thirds of European players in England wouldn’t meet criteria to automatically get a work visa’ and would therefore be unable to play in the UK & the Premier League. However, whilst I’m no Brexiteer (I’m very much a ‘Remain’ voter in fact) I feel it important to mention that such headlines are somewhat misleading as it is hugely unlikely that any visa decisions would be made retrospectively. So Premier League fans need not worry about such headlines nor about their star players missing the 2016/17 opening weekend on the grounds of them having been deported during pre-season…
Furthermore, the ‘two thirds of European players affected’ statistic (125/199 European players according to the BBC’s Dan Roan) should also be treated with scepticism on the grounds that it is based on the assumption that the current work permit restrictions imposed on non-EU players would subsequently be the same restrictions applied to non-British EU players in the future if the UK voted ‘Leave’. And, quite frankly, it is unlikely that such stringent regulations would be applied post-Brexit.
However, a British exit from the EU would certainly see a period of flux & uncertainty concerning the scouting & transfers of foreign players from EU nations to the Premier League. And such uncertainty could be prolonged as the sorting out of any bilateral arrangements relating to footballers’ work permits would not find itself particularly high on the Home Office’s list of priorities in a chaotic post-‘Leave’ vote environment (as is noted by Daniel Geey in The Independent). On top of this, Premier League clubs’ attempts to receive ‘special treatment’ from the Home Office may fail as the Home Office would struggle to find a way to legally view footballers as any different to other workers and thus make any special legislative exceptions. All in all, such disagreements & resulting negotiations between club sides & the Home Office over work permit arrangements would only serve to lengthen any period of uncertainty faced by clubs scouting talent abroad.
Leicester City, Scouting & Club Inequality
Now without meaning to provide Zlatan Ibrahimovic with a much unneeded ego boost, I have to point out that superstars like Zlatan can move wherever they so please regardless of any referendum outcome. Should the UK vote to leave the EU on June 23rd it won’t be Zlatan’s rumoured move to Mourinho’s Manchester United that would be affected. Nor would Paul Pogba, Alexandre Lacazette or Radja Nainggolan’s potential moves to Premier League sides be scuppered on account of work permit changes. And it is here where the issue of recruitment inequalities become relevant regarding the post-Brexit transfer market.
Although superstars will still not find themselves failing to be swiftly granted the necessary documentation for their moves to top clubs, the traffic of European players not playing at the elite level would be affected. It is the lower end Premier League teams, the Football League sides & the Scottish Premiership clubs that would start to see their European transfer targets struggling to easily obtain the permits required for them to join. It is these clubs who could see their permit-free recruitment areas reduced from 27 EU nations to just Britain & Northern Ireland. Ultimately, it is the smaller clubs who end up feeling a disproportionately large share of the brunt of a Brexit when it comes to player recruitment. This unequal impact between clubs of different sizes could potentially result in a widening in the gap between the elite clubs and those below, and a potentially less competitive Premier League could result over time due to the transfer advantages being handed to the richer, superstar-recruiting clubs at the top end of the Premier League.
For the record, it is not that steering smaller clubs towards channeling more resources into scouting domestically is a bad thing at all, it is just that there could be legislative measures to encourage such a practice rather than seeing it occur to only the smaller clubs and only as a mere byproduct of a national referendum!
As for Leicester City (yes we’re still talking about them!) and their 2015/16 title winning campaign, the Foxes’ recruitment in recent years helps illustrate that just because work permit changes most greatly impact smaller clubs, it doesn’t mean that the changes in recruitment aren’t of real footballing significance nationwide. If not for Britain’s EU membership Leicester’s signings of PFA POTY Riyad Mahrez (375,000 GBP from Le Havre) & N’Golo Kante (6.75million GBP from Caen) could easily have never happened (or at least been delayed/held-up) by administrative work permit issues.
In fact, it is perhaps the story of N’Golo Kante that best illustrates the importance that something as seemingly trivial as work permit regulations can have on the global game. Without the EU’s freedom of movement we could very easily live in a world where N’Golo Kante, rather than lining up for France at EURO 2016 with a Premier League medal sitting at home, could have just returned from a forced Joel Campbell-style loan move abroad whilst awaiting the granting of a UK work permit. Work permit laws can literally be the difference between being a champion of England and being legally prevented from playing here. The stories of Kante & Mahrez for Leicester, and hundereds of other foreign EU success stories throughout the football league goes to show that scouting & recruitment at all levels of the British footballing pyramid can be of great value to our national game & the global draw of our leagues. One simply mustn’t ignore how Brexit could affect it.
Next up ->Part Two: The FA & the Impact of Foreign Quotas on Club & International Football.