For football fans, June 10th – the day Euro 2016 kicks off – is likely to be a more exciting prospect than June 23rd – when Britain votes on whether to stay in the EU. But could lovers of the beautiful game see English football become unstuck in the event of Brexit?
Richard Scudamore, the chief executive of the Premier League has said Britain should stay in the EU; West Ham’s vice chairman Karren Brady has made a similar argument, suggesting that Brexit would have ‘devastating consequences’.
But not everyone agrees: former England player Sol Campbell says that with Britain in the EU ‘mediocre overseas footballers, especially from Europe (are) crowding out young English and British talent’.
It’s certainly the case that many players playing football in the Premiership and other leagues are from overseas. It’s also true that most of them have benefited from automatic eligibility to work in Britain, as a result of European free movement rules; amongst those to have done so are West Ham’s Dimitri Payet and Chelsea’s Cesc Fabregas.
But whilst Brexit could make the process for such players getting automatic work permits redundant, it doesn’t follow that they would get booted out of Britain. It also doesn’t mean that, in the future, such players wouldn’t be able to sign for English teams. As a case in point, there are many players from outside Europe – such as Man City’s Sergio Aguero, Crystal Palace’s Mile Jedinak or Liverpool’s Philippe Coutinho – who are integral parts of their teams.
On this point, it’s also important not to underestimate the clout that football – and in particular the Premier League, made up of clubs worth some £8bn on the last count – would have in ensuring teams don’t end up coming unstuck as a result of visa rule changes. Certainly, it seems difficult to accept that British football clubs would play only a passive role in accepting whatever visa rules were chucked at them in the event of a vote to leave the EU.
Last year, for instance, the FA had a pivotal role in shaping changes to work permit regulations affecting non-EU players. In that case, a system called the Governing Body Endorsement process, first introduced by the Home Office in 2008, was used to allow the FA to determine how visas would be dished out to players from non-EU countries. The Home Office largely acquiesced in putting into place the FA’s recommendations and it seems likely that a similar process would be used to work out which players from EU countries, in the event of Britain voting out, would be granted visas.
These visa rules make it clear that top clubs are still able to sign up the best international players. But they are also far stricter in regulating which footballers from outside Europe can play in England, with the criteria saying visas are given only to those footballers who ‘are internationally established at the highest level’.
Whilst Brexit would make it no more difficult then for the likes of Man United to sign up the best players, less wealthy clubs would likely find it trickier to unearth a diamond in the rough abroad in the event of these rules being rolled out across the board. The prospect of a non-EU player being spotted, tapped up by an English club and then progressing into a star whilst playing in England seems remote, given that their eligibility for a visa largely hinges upon them already making their mark in a significant way before they arrive here.
It seems fair to say that the likes of Manchester United, Arsenal, or, dare I say it, Leicester, would avoid a doomsday scenario whereby they were left without their top international stars if Brexit did take place. But where a visa change might hit home harder is towards the bottom end of the Premiership, or, indeed, the Championship, where teams are unlikely to be able to afford to snap up a top, established international in the first place. For the likes of Fulham, Birmingham or others, the prospect of getting a player from overseas may become a more distant one.
Championship teams, in particular, are increasingly relying upon the skills of overseas players to try and compete. Charlton, for example, have a number of foreign players whose automatic eligibility to play here could disappear if Britain was not in the EU. The same is true for the likes of Cardiff, Hull, Middlesbrough and Reading, with these teams having dozens of foreign players on their books between them.
At least in the short term, then, it might become harder for those in the second tier of English football to field foreign-born players. And if this happens, Brexit could result in an even wider gulf between clubs in the Premiership – who are able to afford foreign international stars – and those in the Championship – whose foreign players are likely to be ineligible for visas if the restrictive rules for non-EU players applied to those from Europe as well. If this happens, it’s fans of clubs outside of the Premiership, who are increasingly watching cosmopolitan teams made up of exciting stars from overseas, who would be the ones losing out.
Subscribe to The Spectator today for a quality of argument not found in any other publication. Get more Spectator for less – just £12 for 12 issues.