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Jean-Yves Gilg

Editor, Solicitors Journal

The consequences of Brexit for British football

The consequences of Brexit for British football


The outcome of negotiations with the EU could have a significant effect on the ability of UK clubs to recruit talented players, says Dr Gregory Ioannidis

After a series of political manoeuvres and parliamentary, constitutional, and judicial controversies, the government has triggered article 50, which opens the door for Britain’s exit from the EU. This decision will have a major effect on every facet of people’s lives and it will create several socio-economic ramifications. Football is one of the areas that it is anticipated will be affected. Given the significant role football plays in society, with its considerable financial parameters, Brexit and its consequences for British football cannot be dismissed at face value.

Free movement

One of the four fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the EU is the right of citizens to move freely within member states for the purposes of employment. As things stand, EU citizens (including football players currently working in the UK) will continue to enjoy this freedom until the Brexit process has been completed. At this point, the government must have in place an agreement which determines its relationship with the EU and consequently the rights of EU citizens in the UK. It is difficult to pre-determine the stance of both parties in this negotiation process. Given that the rights of millions of people will be affected, if prudence and logic prevail, it is highly likely concessions will be made by both parties and the negotiated settlement may produce a ‘freedom of movement’ outcome which remains unchanged or by and large maintains the main pillars of this freedom.

In the event, however, that there is no agreement as to the particulars of such a relationship, the UK will be forced to negotiate different individual agreements with different member states of the EU, thereby making the process time consuming, expensive, and uncertain. This will have an impact on EU players who will be unable to move freely and seek employment in the UK.

Work permit system

The legitimate aim pursued by FIFA and UEFA, and consequently shared by the FA, is the development of national (local) players; hence, the creation of regulations that aim to restrict free movement in football. This means that every non-EU football player must apply to the FA for a governing body endorsement (GBE) before a work permit can be issued by the Home Office.
This permit can automatically be given to the applicant if the latter has satisfied several stringent criteria that depend on the applicant’s percentage of senior competitive matches with his national team in the two years preceding his application. Such percentages are determined by FIFA’s world ranking system:
  • Ranking 1-10: 30 per cent and above;

  • Ranking 11-20: 45 per cent and above;

  • Ranking 21-30: 60 per cent and above; and

  • Ranking 31-50: 75 per cent and above.

In the event that the applicant is unable to meet such criteria, there is an appeal (review) process, based on a points system, which takes into consideration the player’s transfer fee (if any), the salary agreed for his services, and how this salary compares to those of other players in the league. Points could also be awarded to the applicant where consideration is given to the applicant’s previous league and the level his previous club belonged to.The Brexit outcome could force the FA to re-consider and, possibly, re-adjust the current regulations to accommodate not just the non-EU players, but also the EU players. Such a re-adjustment would be a point of severe friction between the FA and the Premier League, as it is evident there are conflicting interests between the two regulators.

The FA’s primary consideration, on the one hand, is a strong national team and, consequently, the development of national young players. This can only be achieved if such young players are given opportunities at the elevated level of competition that the Premier League can offer. On the other hand, the Premier League has a vested interest in maintaining a competitive league through strong individual clubs, which can employ the best players from around the world. This means that the fewer restrictions on the movement of players, the higher the chances that the best EU and non-EU players could be attracted by the competitive and highly lucrative Premier League. As a result, the outcome of the UK’s negotiations with the EU could also trigger a series of events that, in the long term, would severely affect the competitiveness of domestic football in the UK. A restriction on the ability of clubs to recruit the players they desire may affect their ability to create competitive squads. If British clubs are unable to compete effectively with their European counterparts, the national product may suffer in the long term in terms of revenue that can be identified in sponsorship, broadcasting rights, merchandise sales, and so forth. Eventually, it would be a decision as to whether the national team is more important than individual clubs and, therefore, can justify the continuation of restrictive practices as opposed to an exception to immigration controls for football players. The latter is a matter that must be decided upon by the government. Although the chancellor suggested last year that highly skilled and highly paid workers from the EU would be exempt from post-Brexit immigration controls, it is highly likely that football players may not be included in the former category and, consequently, they may fail to gain such an exemption.

FIFA’s article 19The impact could become greater if the UK government fails to reach a satisfactory agreement on trade tariffs and free movement of people and services. Article 19 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players states that international transfers, save for a limited number of exceptions, are only permitted for those who are over 18 years of age. One of these exemptions applies to players of EU or EEA origin, in which case the restriction is relaxed to allow international transfers for those who are 16 to 18 years of age. If the UK fails to reach an agreement with the EU, UK clubs could potentially lose the exemption to article 19. The ramifications of such a loss are great, considering the financial and football regulatory implications arising from a club’s inability to recruit young players. The exemption to article 19 is significant as clubs prefer to recruit talented young players in order to minimise costs and see a greater return in their investment of developing such young players. The loss of the exemption to article 19 could potentially affect UK clubs’ ability to make effective use of the Home Grown Rule regarding their EU players, for the purposes of UEFA competitions. Currently, clubs must register 25 players for the purposes of European competitions, eight of whom must be club trained or association trained. To be club trained, a player must have been registered with his current clubs for at least three seasons between the ages of 15 to 21.

Potential implications

This development is fascinating for sports lawyers, given the uncertainty surrounding the potential implications for football law and the broader legal discipline of sports law. The same cannot be said, however, for those in charge of football clubs in the UK and those who are responsible for the regulatory framework of the sport. It is likely that the tension between the FA and the Premier League will increase, particularly if any potential pressure on the government to grant an exemption to football players from post-Brexit immigration controls yields no results.

Although it is highly unlikely the football authorities in the UK would desire to place further restrictions on Bosman transfers, some form of restriction on the recruitment of EU players could be imposed on UK clubs. This may materialise should the UK government fail to implement a beneficial agreement on tariff-free trade or on the free movement of workers and services. This ‘hard Brexit’ scenario will make European football clubs more competitive and, in the long term, stronger, on and off the pitch. On the other hand, it could possibly strengthen young local and national players’ productivity, as more opportunities for participating at a higher level could be created for such young players. Any decision to place restrictions, or not, on clubs’ ability to recruit the players of their preference will be based on political considerations that would affect the future of UK football, as well as the development of football law.

Gregory Ioannidis is a senior lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University and an academic associate at Kings Chambers