The Premier League was revolutionised by the EU single market. Clubs can sign any European player they want without needing to apply for work permits thanks to the EU’s freedom of movement of people. This makes the league the most diverse in the world, with 69% of players being foreign. The concern is that this diversity has been to the detriment of young British players, who are struggling to find opportunities in the top flight.
This could all change after Brexit.
Currently the system in place for the signing of non-EU players is that they must qualify for a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the FA, to receive a work permit from the Home Office. The basic requirement for this is that a player must have played a certain amount of international football. If a player cannot meet this criterion its case can be taken to an Exceptions Panel which will decide whether to grant the GBE using a point based system.
While it sounds like applying these rules to EU and non-EU players alike would stop lesser players being signed over British players, it’s worth considering that Leicester Football Club would not have been able to sign players such as Riyad Mahrez (who signed for Leicester in January 2014 before going on to make his Algeria debut later that year in May) or N’Golo Kanté (who, at the time of his transfer to Leicester in 2015, had yet to make his international debut for France). These transfers allowed Leicester to win the league against all odds. Under these criteria, Arsenal were also stopped from signing two non-EU nationals: Yaya Touré and Ángel Di María. Both of whom would go on to win the Champions League during their respective time in Spain. Touré and Di María would go on to make big money moves to the Premier League later in their careers, but at that point, they were playing frequently for their countries and were therefore able to secure work permits from the Home Office. Maybe it’s not just lesser players that these rules stop clubs from signing?
The falling value of the pound since the referendum has been felt by Premier League clubs. Kepa Arrizabalaga became the world’s most expensive goalkeeper when Chelsea paid his €80m release clause this summer. This equals a spend of £71.6m. On the date of the referendum this same release clause would have cost £62.5m. English clubs might be finding it more expensive to sign players from Europe, but the flipside could be more detrimental – big-money European clubs could find raiding the Premier League a much cheaper option than it once was.
There could be wider implications. A defining moment in transfers across Europe was the Bosman ruling of the CJEU in the 90’s. Players could now move from one EU club to another for free at the end of their contract, and UEFA limits on fielding foreign players were also ruled unlawful. Although the principles behind the Bosman ruling are now enshrined in FIFA’s regulations on the status and transfer of players and would remain unaffected post Brexit, both these examples demonstrate how being outside of the EU going forward will see clubs in the Premier League operating under a different legal framework to their European competitors, which may result in additional unforeseen consequences, both now and going forward.
The FA could implement a threshold on British players in squads after Brexit, but this is unlikely as the FA and Premier League would be reluctant to risk damaging the Premier League’s self-professed image as the ‘best league in the world.’
But Brexit can galvanise clubs into focusing on developing young British talent. Premier League clubs are highly criticised for not doing this at present, with some young players turning to German football to get their chance. Freedom of movement means that EU nations are currently exempted from FIFA regulations banning the transfer of under 18s in circumstances where the transfer of a player under the age of 18 is between two clubs based within the EU. This currently means that Europe’s starlets are quickly signed by European and Premier League giants. If this avenue was closed off to Premier League clubs, it may lead to an enhanced focus on academy development and could, one hopes, leave the door open for a new British star to be found.
While Brexit is closing one market, it may be opening an internal one.
The Sports Law team would like to thank insight student Tom Hunt for his contribution to this blog post