Brexit and the Premier League

21 August 2018

Besides Immigration law, another of my passions is football. My interest was therefore at fever pitch when the two subjects collided in the news following revelations that Brexit, and the end of free movement rights may negatively impact the quality of the global product that is the Premier League.

Under current laws, players who are citizens of EU countries can rely on their free movement rights to work in the UK, to play for any club without the need for a visa. By contrast, a player who is not from within the EU will need a Tier 2 (Sportsperson) Visa. Their club will act as their “sponsor” and will be responsible for ensuring that besides playing football, they are not breaching any other immigration rules.

In order to get a visa, the player must receive a “Governing Body Endorsement” or GBE from the Football Association, confirming that the player is internationally established at the highest level and will make a significant contribution to the development of football at the highest level in the UK.

Players who have played in a certain percentage of senior international matches for their national team will automatically qualify. The percentage needed depends on the FIFA ranking of the national team:

  • FIFA Ranking 1-10: 30% and above
  • FIFA Ranking 11-20: 45% and above
  • FIFA Ranking 21-30: 60% and above
  • FIFA Ranking 31-50: 70% and above

The percentage of games played is normally measured over 2 years, but this is reduced to 1 year if the player is under 21.

This leaves a problem for players who play for a country that produces lots of talented footballers, such as Brazil. They may be very good players, and relatively better than their European counterparts, but may not earn enough senior international appearances due to the level of domestic competition to qualify automatically. Manchester City recently signed 20 year old Brazilian Midfielder Douglas Luiz for £10.7 million, but the player was refused a visa on the basis that he had not played for the senior national team. He has since gone on loan to Girona in Spain, and the £10.7 million investment suddenly seems wasted.

It’s also a problem if your country doesn’t get into the top 50 in the FIFA Rankings. Sorry Mohammed Salah, Egypt are 65th so no automatic endorsement for you. Things get even more confusing when you consider that FIFA rankings are influenced by the results of friendly matches played, in which a coach may not even choose to play the best players, reducing the relevance of senior appearances as a useful metric.

Those that do not qualify automatically they may be granted by the Exceptions Panel who judge the application according to an objective criteria in which other factors such as the value of the transfer fee paid, the players wages and whether the player has played a sufficient number of games in the Champions League or Europa League for their previous club.

Once Free Movement rights end, all foreign national players will be subject to this process which may restrict the talent arriving in England. Players such as N’Golo Kanté, Riyad Mahrez (who plays for Algeria but was born in France), and Cesc Fabregas, who are all big stars earning vast sums of money now, would not have qualified for automatic qualification, and would not likely have been granted exemptions as they were speculative talents at the time they were signed rather than proven stars.

Clubs may therefore be discouraged from signing such players, as they would probably have to pay inflated salaries and transfer fees in order to secure an exemption. There is an argument that this will naturally benefit home grown players who may find more opportunity to break into Premier League first teams with fewer foreign players competing for places.

For me this is a false argument, and Gareth Southgate’s recent England team, full of players who have emerged from lower leagues to play for top Premier League teams with the best European talent is evidence of this. I’m a believer in professeur Wenger’s mantra that British players benefit from playing alongside the best players from around the world, regardless of nationality and the cream will naturally rise the top.

By Hesham Shoeb

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