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.

Previously -> PART ONE: Club Football, Recruitment & Scouting 

PART TWO: The FA & the Impact of Foreign Quotas on Club & International Football

As discussed in Part One, post-Brexit work permit issues could have potentially devastating effects on smaller clubs by severely reducing their ability to recruit internationally for players & coaches alike. However, when focusing on the international composition of players in the Premier League (as well as its implications for the English national team) the result of the EU referendum appears to have the potential to cause even greater fundamental changes to the British footballing landscape.

One of the many features  of the UK’s EU membership (and the one most over-focused on as the referendum approaches!) is that British citizens are free to work in any of the other 27 member states, and other EU nationals have the right to do the same. And it is the ‘freedom of movement for labour’ clause of EU membership that prevents any British organisation (including the FA) from setting any quotas to limit workers (footballers) from working in (playing for) British organisations (clubs).

However the FA & its chief Greg Dyke have long had the desire to find ways to restrict foreign nationals from playing in the Premier League in order to increase the English participation levels (their thinking being that more English players in the Premier League would lead to a stronger national team). Dyke & others look at English club football today and fear a future Premier League “owned by foreigners, managed by foreigners and played by foreigners”. Unfortunately for them it is because of the UK’s EU membership that the FA is unable to do anything to restrict foreign (EU) participation via the use of quotas akin to those found in the likes of Russia’s Premier League, the Chinese Super League & the UAE’s AGL. Although, if the UK was to leave the EU on June 23rd then Dyke & the FA would gain  a large deal of power in being able to implement such quotas (against the wishes of the Premier League).

It is perhaps by the FA gaining the ability to set strong foreign quotas (rather that having to dance around EU law with its current, weaker rulings on ‘homegrown player’) that a ‘Leave’ vote in the EU referendum could most affect the English game at club & international level. And it is the impacts of foreign quotas in a post-Brexit Britain that I feel are worth pondering over. Would they, if implemented, be beneficial to the Premier League or national team?

The likes of Cesc Fabregas & Alex Song satisfy the weak ‘homegrown’ quota the FA uses presently. Credit: Futbol Primera

Foreign Quotas & the Premier League

Firstly one has to wonder if intervening & regulating the playing contingent of Premier League clubs would be good for the quality, international competitiveness or global reach of the league. And the answer for all of these factors seems to be a resounding “no”.

Intuitively one can appreciate how a legislation that (for all its potentially noble ambitions) flies in the face of meritocracy  will generally lower the average quality of footballer in the Premier League because less talented British players will, at the margin, be playing at the expense of more talented non-British footballers. Without wishing to spend too much time (and bore you) on the nitty-gritty of the mechanism through which the Premier League’s overall quality could fall post-quota, I will at least point out that the workings behind it can be found explained wonderfully & at length in ‘Soccernomics’ by Stefan Szymanski & Simon Kuper, where the example of ‘import substitution industrialisation’ is used to really great effect. Regardless of the inner-workings, the point stands that more players ending up in EPL squads on the basis of nationality rather than quality has the potential to significantly reduce the quality of the football played in the Premier League compared to if the Premier League had kept its more liberal, pre-Brexit labour market laws in place.

So it is widely accepted, even by many in favour of quotas, that increased restrictions & frictions in the football labour market would, according to the University of Liverpool’s Dr Rory Miller,  “absolutely, inevitably lower the standard” of the Premier LeagueThe knock on effects of this lowering of the average quality of player & therefore team in the Premier League is that quotas could also end up potentially hindering English clubs’ performances in European competition too. Premier League sides could struggle to compete if they find themselves saddled with less talented, quota-enforced Englishmen in their teams (akin to the Fabian Delphs & Richard Wrights of today). Or they could struggle to compete with La Liga, Serie A & Bundesliga sides simply on account of having grown too accustomed to competing in a weaker (but ‘more British’) Premier League competition week in week out.

The final issue of quotas for the Premier League would be that if the quality of the division, as well as its player diversity, was to diminish too much due to post-Brexit enabled restrictions then the global draw of the league as a whole could diminish over time. Foreign stars who could fall foul of foreign quotas or even just work permit restrictions (see Part One) make up half the outfield of the 2015/16 PFA team of the season, and nobody would deny that the Premier League is of higher quality, more entertaining and ultimately more popular globally thanks to the talents of Dmitri Payet, N’Golo Kante & Riyad Mahrez. In conclusion, it is clear to see why the Premier League generally stands so strongly against foreign quotas like the ones that Greg Dyke & the FA are mulling over & would be much more able to impose in the event of a Brexit.

Potential work permit restrictions (let alone outright quotas) could have prevented over half last year’s TOTS from featuring in the Premier League. Credit:

Foreign Quotas & the National Team

As seen already, all opinions & arguments seem to suggest that quotas would have a detrimental effect on the Premier League as a competition & as a global brand. However, Dyke & co. don’t argue for quotas for the sake of the Premier League but rather for the benefit of the national team. And the debate as to whether a greater share of foreign players in the Premier League is beneficial or detrimental to the Three Lions is a slightly less clear-cut debate in terms of argument & intuition.

However, before setting out the general arguments of either side, I shoud here mention that empirical data is seen to suggest that the increasing diversity & number of foreign players (by leading to a better quality Premier League over time) has actually benefitted the performances of the English national side. Such findings are seen to go against many of the arguments used to encourge the imposition of foreign restrictions.

Focusing on the arguments and points made by either sides on the foreign quota debate, one sees that any analysis of the beneficial or detrimental impact of any quotas is a result of the overall tradeoff between ‘the quality of football/the league that English players are exposed to’ and ‘the number of English players getting minutes in the Premier League’.  Those in both the free market & pro-quota camps would agree that English football fans ultimately want as successful a 23 man squad to take to tournaments as possible, but whether or not quotas help achieve this is where the disagreements begin.

Many in the pro-quota camp will suggest that there could be dozens of young, English players with the potential to play at the elite level if given sufficient Premier League minutes to develop and fulfil their potential. The more opportunities available to these players (due to quotas preventing crowding out by foreign competition) is posited to ultimately benefit the national team as more Harry Kanes get unearthed from the academies and U21 setups of both Premier League & Football League sides (Dele Alli at MK Dons).

The success of Harry Kane has proved to be an arrow in the quiver of those arguing for restrictions on foreign players. Credit: The Telegraph

However the above argument, used even by Greg Dyke himself, is often seen to be strong on rhetoric but ultimately short of good examples & supporting data. On the other hand, those against the imposition of quotas can cite the recent removal of foreign restrictions in the Turkish SÜPER LIG, which occured due to the practical difficulties it caused club sides coupled with the fact that it was not appearing to significantly boost national team performance.

One of the main issues frequently seen with imposing foreign quotas is that clubs are forced to pay over the odds & well above market value for domestic players. This issue is seen in quota-enforcing leagues across the world whether in the UAE (where talented Emirati players are such a premium & get rewarded so lucratively that their incentive to move to Europe is reduced hugely) or in China where domestic players not even in the national team are being transferred between Super League sides for transfers fees above the £6million mark (I’ll plug my piece on China’s domestic bubble here…).

The issue of an inflated domestic transfer market & premium being put on domestic players’ transfer fees & wages as a result of foreign restrictions is one of the key arguments against quotas. And the idea of young players getting “too much too soon” and losing their hunger to develop further & improve is one cited in discussions over the Russian quota experiment in recent years (really good article by worth checking out). If young players’ incentives to push on and develop are reduced due to lucrative long-term contracts signed at a young age, a la Josh McEachran at Chelsea, then this breeding of less motivated young players emerging from the elite youth academies could go on to harm the national team in the long-run.

The English Premier League has seen the ludicrous fees paid/demanded for young English talents like Raheem Sterling, John Stones & Saido Berahino in recent years. And journalists reporting on transfers will casually state, as it’s the norm, how a club will be forced to/be willing to pay more for a player to satisfy the ‘homegrown’ quota rules. With only the rather weak, flexible ‘homegrown players’ rules in place there is already the issue of an ‘English player premium’ inflating English players’ transfer fees, and were the restrictions to get much stricter (as the FA would like) post-Brexit then the issues of a inflated, overpriced domestic market will only get worse.

Regardless of the practical issues for a league of imposing foreign quotas, it is still argued that a larger number of English players in the Premier League means a larger pool from which to pick a national team & therefore a potentially stronger national team as a result. And the argument between ‘number of English players in the league’ & ‘the quality of the league they play in’ centres around the sort of numbers shown below.

Pro-quota writers will argue that the falling percentage of English players in the league means fewer opportunities for the English & is therefore bad for the national team, whereas the likes of football-economist Stefan Szymanski (who is against the imposition of quotas) will suggest that there is already a sufficiently large pool of English players in the Premier League. Those against quotas will typically argue that the quality of the players Englishmen are competing with in the Premier League is what will allow the quality of English players & the English national team to improve. The likes of Szymanski state that there are already way more than enough English players in the division from which to select a strong squad of 23 or preliminary squad of 30, & that exposing the 213 English players already in the Premier League to better foreign competitors will benefit the Three Lions set up more than simply widening the pool of players from 213 to say 250. The main historical example of how league competitiveness rather than number of homegrown players boosts national team performance involves looking at the Three Lions over the past 5 decades (as Szymanski did in his study). England was rather consistently failing to qualify for international tournments in the 1970s & 80s when the old Division One was almost entirely British players, on the other hand (since the increasingly non-English Premier League’s estabishment) England have only failed to qualify for one major tournament in 20 years (thanks, Steve). For the record USA ’94 isn’t counted as the Premier League era as the revamped first division was still in its infancy & also more demographically similar to 1980s Division One than the 2000s Premier League, however its inclusion wouldn’t change the suggestion that England are doing better today than they were 30 years ago.

As a result of the above findings, one could argue that the FA should be delighted to have so many Engish players playing in the world’s richest & (arguably) most competitive major league. It’s the world’s most popular, lucrative league & the English have 7 times more players in it than any other country on the planet (the French are second by the way). In fact, you could even point out (in jest) that England are even producing enough Premier League players to kindly fill up the squads of the rest of the home nations too…

One final argument against imposing strong foreign quotas (that the FA would be able to implement in the event of a Brexit) is that the work permit restrictions & inflated post-quota wages earned by English players would make them even less willing to move abroad than they already are. This issue is not unique to football in British society, and one hopes that British workers and footballers alike in the future will become more willing to experience moving abroad. More English players in foreign leagues around the world (specifically around major leagues in Europe when concerning the national team setup) could serve to benefit the England national team moving forward as the squads taken to tournaments would be more tactically diverse, as well as containing different players accustomed to a different style or pace of play. The only example of note in the English squad at present is conveniently one of England’s more versatile, flexible players (CB, RB, CDM, free kick taker) in the form of Sporting Lisbon-educated Eric Dier. And rather poignantly, it was under to the EU’s freedom of movement for labour laws that saw the Dier family emigrate to Portugal in the summer of 2004.

England are certainly better off as a result of Eric Dier’s cosmopolitan footballing education. Credit: 101 Great Goals

Whilst English players in the Premier League & also the Football League (no reason why an English Championship midfielder couldn’t sign for a Liga Nos, Eredivise 0r Jupiler League side)  moving abroad is something that ought to be encouraged in the future. An exit from the EU would only increase the barriers (bureaucratic & psychological) preventing English players moving to Europe. This is one way in which a ‘Leave’ vote could shut off a potentially vital channel through which the English national team could improve in the future.

All in all, a ‘Leave’ vote in the EU Referendum and the restrictions on foreign players that the FA would push for post-Brexit would likely have a detrimental effect on the landscape of British football. Whilst the negative effects on the quality, European standing & global popularity of the Premier League is generally accepted, it also appears that quotas (despite the nice sounding, plausible rhetoric) aren’t even particularly proven to help national team performances either. As a result, it would appear that (within the discussion of future FA restrictions) a Brexit would have (along with the many, many more important issues!) a negative impact on the national game.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *