The approach of the UEFA Euro championship is always a hot topic; this year even more so. The subject of the UK’s EU membership referendum hovers on the side lines and the commentators are out in full force.
The ‘Leave’ campaign have already brought the Euros firmly into the debate by offering a £50 million prize for the person to accurately predict the outcome of all 51 matches. According to Paddy Power, the odds of doing so are one billion to one, meaning it’s significantly more likely that someone will find the Loch Ness Monster this year, which has odds of 500/1. Vote Leave is offering a £50,000 prize to the person to correctly predict the most results in a row and has taken out an insurance policy against the cost of the grand prize just in case, however.
The debate so far may have centred on other topics – emigration, the economy, sovereignty – but what impact will it have upon the beautiful game in the UK? Quite a lot, according to industry experts.
UK football might seem like an activity well-insulated from the ‘Brexit’ debate, but a vote to leave could have a significant impact upon the international talent playing for clubs across the leagues. Under the current free movement rules the UK is signed up to as a member of the European Union, footballers who are EU nationals do not need a visa to play for a club in the UK. Additionally EU membership gives players from places such as South America the opportunity to claim citizenship of a European country in order to bypass FA rules. Diego Costa, who was born in Brazil, was able to claim Spanish citizenship in this way and therefore play visa-free in the UK.
International footballers, however, are subject to much more strict regulation. According to the Football Association’s rules, a footballer from a top ten nation needs to have played in a minimum of 30% of their country’s international games during the two years prior to their application. A player from a country ranked 31-50 would have to have played in 75% of international games. Transfer fees and the player’s Fifa ranking can also be taken into account.
Many commentators therefore believe that a ‘Brexit’ would see all overseas players governed by the same restrictions as non-EU players currently are. According to research by Britain Stronger in Europe, 100 premier league players would be required to apply for a work permit in the event of a split from the EU, with the top two divisions in English and Scottish football holding 332 players whose right to live in the UK could suddenly be revoked.
Speaking to the BBC, football agent Rachel Anderson explained, ‘Leaving the EU will have a much bigger effect on football than people think. We’re talking about half of the Premier League needing work permits.’
Liverpool, Manchester City and Aston Villa would be among those whose squads were hit the hardest, each with nine players suddenly needing visas. Arsenal and Sunderland both have eight players, Southampton seven and Manchester United six. Everton and Tottenham Hotspur would get off more lightly, with just two players each under threat, while Crystal Palace would have just one squad member required to apply for a visa.
Karren Brady, chairman of West Ham United, wrote in a letter to Premier League clubs that ‘Cutting ourselves off from Europe would have devastating consequences. Losing this unhindered access to European talent would put British clubs at a disadvantage compared to continental sides.’
However, ‘Leave’ campaigner Brian Monteith believes that withdrawing from the EU’s free movement restrictions would leave UK clubs open to recruit talent from other areas. He claims:
‘The freedom of movement for people in the EU comes at the price of heavy restrictions on visas for potential signings from Africa, the Caribbean, South America and Asia. Once we leave the EU, the UK will be free to treat footballers from all countries equally, which will broaden the pool of talent for our teams, not reduce it.’
Copyright: Gustavo Frazao
There are two issues here; the first is whether it would be possible and the second is whether it would really be fair. It may be possible to negotiate a deal with the European Union to make special dispensation for footballers. As we’ve already mentioned, there are currently loopholes in the UK’s EU membership which help premier league clubs to attract non-EU players while circumventing the Football Association’s rules.
Whether or not EU footballers would suddenly become subject to the same level of regulation as international players remains a topic of much debate. On the one hand, Daniel Geey, a partner in sports and media law firm Sheridans, stated ‘I don’t think the same standards would be applied to players from the EU as they currently are to non-EU players. Arranging bilateral regulations for footballers won’t be the first thing on governments’ minds.’
However, there are ethical issues which spread much further than the Premier League. Many commentators believe that the UK’s work permit rules may be relaxed in the event of a ‘Brexit’ in order to make it easier to retain desirable international talent. They point to the cases of Switzerland and Norway, which both had to relax their work rules in exchange for access to the single market. Of course, there is the chance that the UK will ignore the single market entirely in the event of a ‘Brexit’, but the idea of making special rules for footballers is still a contentious one.
As Senior Law Lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University Dr Gregory Loannidis explains, footballers ‘are considered workers in law and it may be the case that they cannot be treated as a special category.’
The Guardian has also pondered the ethical implications, noting that ‘it could become difficult to justify one rule for football clubs and a different rule for other industries. It would also raise questions as to whether it would be discriminatory to establish one set of rules for Europeans and another for footballers from the rest of the world.’
A lack of international talent in UK football could make it less attractive to international sponsors. That’s what several industry professionals have warned, suggesting that Premiership football could see a significant drop in finances.
Rory Miller, who taught an MBA in ‘Football Industries’ at Liverpool University, explained that in the case of a ‘Brexit’ the FA may have more control over the Premier League and could limit the number of foreign players each club is allowed to have on the team sheet. He predicts that, ‘the worst case scenario for the Premier League is that it would not be permitted to attract foreign stars in great numbers and would then lose ground in international sponsorship and broadcasting rights to rivals like Spain and Germany.’
Sponsorship is big money for football clubs, attracting major global brands. Manchester United’s seven-year deal with Chevrolet currently tops the charts for the most lucrative premiership deal in the UK, with a value of £53 million per year, while Chelsea’s sponsorship by Yokohama is worth £40 million to the club each year. Only four of the top 20 deals with UK clubs during the 2015-16 season come from UK-based brands.
Simon Bayliff, leading football agent, reckons that ‘the downside [of a shift to home-grown players] could be the value of the Premier League decreasing, as its attraction is the collection of foreign stars across many clubs. I don’t personally believe it will have a huge impact on the biggest names but it could have an effect on the general traffic of non-star international players, which may hurt the league’s quality and attractiveness to foreign investors.’
A drop in sponsorship revenues could have a significant trickledown effect, with fans feeling the financial burden as season ticket prices rise in order to fill the funding gap. However, if Brian Monteith is correct that a ‘Brexit’ would allow UK football to access talent from other parts of the world, it could be that the lack of European players in the Premiership is countered by talent from elsewhere in the world. This could uphold the position of UK football as an appealing and lucrative business opportunity for the world’s largest brands.
Like so many issues surrounding the referendum, the truth is that it’s simply impossible to accurately answer the question of how UK football would be affected by a ‘Brexit’. Many in the industry have warned of dire consequences, but others have suggested it could improve the game. In a couple of weeks we could get our answer.
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