The Premier League After Brexit: Good News For English Players & The National Team?

The American singer & song-writer, Darius Rucker, once declared that he divides the year into two halves: The football season and waiting for the football season. Although he was of course referring to the American version (he’s a big supporter of the Miami Dolphins), this view is undoubtedly shared by the many soccer fans in the UK for whom the summer months may seem just a little empty without matches to watch or attend, except (as this June & July) when a World Cup is taking place.

The gap between the end of one season and the beginning of the next, however, is these days fairly brief. The English Premier League (EPL), for example, finished in May and resumed in mid-August. There is, nonetheless, an element of uncertainty hovering over the competition: On 29th March 2019, two months before the end of the current season, the UK is due to leave the European Union. As Business Matters (BM) Magazine has pointed out, “Brexit’s impact on the Premier League is still unknown while negotiations continue” and Politico EU’s sports commentator, Peter Berlin, has warned that that there’s a risk the Premiership could “lose access to the luxury end of the international player market that has allowed them to claim to be the best league in the world”.

The Bloomberg columnist, David Hellier, has noted that English soccer clubs already face higher costs for the best foreign players because of the decline in the value of the pound since the Referendum on June 23rd 2016 and that the tighter immigration regulations planned by the UK Government could pose additional financial threats: “England’s standing in the soccer world would be diminished if EU stars gravitated to other countries after Brexit, potentially cutting the value of future TV rights when the prevailing £8 billion deal expires”. BM Magazine, by contrast, considers that there could be positive aspects to a change in the rules: “At the moment, players from across Europe can ply their trade in the EPL without any problems and it’s not uncommon for clubs to field 11 foreigners on a Saturday afternoon”. If this practice is ended, BM emphasises, the clubs will be forced to look at more home-grown players, giving youngsters around the country a boost as they seek a career at the top level: “This would surely be a good thing”.

Indeed, BM’s observation that “pundits and England managers alike have commented on the ever-decreasing pool of players available to the national coach, which has impacted on performances and results at major tournaments”, has been echoed by the present England manager, Gareth Southgate. As quoted by the Guardian journalist, Stuart James, on 31st August, Southgate expressed his considerable concern that English players are not getting enough opportunities in the EPL and cited the fact that only 30% of the players who started in Premiership matches over the weekend of 25th / 26th August were English. The figures are “even bleaker” at the top-six clubs, with whom only 19.2% of the first-choice team for the first three games of the season were English.

Southgate has called for a “fresh debate” on an issue that he acknowledges dates back many years: On 31st January 2017, the Daily Mirror correspondent Mark Jones reported that the game between Arsenal and Burnley the previous week had been the 149th time the then “Gunners” manager had named a starting X1 which didn’t contain a single English player, with the only Englishman who featured being Danny Welbeck who came off the bench for the final three minutes. This policy hasn’t changed under the new manager, Unai Emery, as was evident in Arsenal’s game against West Ham on 25th August. Chelsea did likewise against Newcastle on 26th August and Manchester City started with 10 foreign players when they beat Huddersfield Town 6-1 on 19th August.

Statistics issued by Sky Sports indicate that 69.2% of Premier League players are foreigners, with French and Spanish being the most common nationalities. The other seven European leagues in which the majority of players are foreigners are: Cyprus (57.1%), Belgium (55.8%), Portugal (55.6%), Italy (55.5%), the English Championship (50.8%), the Scottish Premiership (50.5%), Luxembourg (50.4%). Research by the “Ticket Gum” organisation has revealed that in the 2017/18 season, Chelsea were the most reliant on their foreign team members, who played for a total of 2,973 minutes, equivalent to 33 matches. The figure for Arsenal was 2,749 minutes (31 matches) and for the reigning champions, Manchester City, 2,647 minutes (29 matches).

For foreign players from outside the EU, their eligibility for a UK / Football Association work permit depends on how often they have played for their national team. If they are from a FIFA top ten country, they must have appeared in 30% of their country’s international matches in the preceding two years. This rises to 45% for players from an 11-20 nation, 60% for the next 10 countries and 75% for countries between 31 -50 in the FIFA ranking. As the Daily Telegraph has stressed, after Brexit – unless a special arrangement is agreed – this criteria will also apply to players from the 27 countries remaining in the European Union.

Filed under: Immigration & Visas, Sports | Posted on September 3rd, 2018 by Colin D Gordon

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