The Football Association sees Brexit as a rare opportunity to curb foreign players, forcing top clubs to develop local talent that will boost the England national team
Liverpool manager Jürgen Klopp says “Brexit — makes no sense”. Former Cardiff City manager Neil Warnock argues the UK will thrive outside the EU: “Football-wise as well, absolutely. To hell with the rest of the world.”
December’s general election victory for Boris Johnson may have settled the long-running Brexit argument, with the UK formally leaving the EU at the end of last month and triggering a transition period while both sides thrash out a new trading relationship.
But power brokers running the country’s favourite sport remain divided. For months they have been battling over how to deal with new immigration rules for overseas footballers playing in England after December 2020, which will come into force when freedom of movement between the UK and the 27-nation bloc ends.
This week Priti Patel, the home
secretary, unveiled a controversial immigration system aimed at reducing the
number of low-skilled workers from EU countries, setting a salary threshold of
£25,600. While Premier League players are among the country’s top earners,
after the Brexit transition ends those coming from the EU can expect to be
treated the same as stars from other parts of the world.
But the UK government has demanded the Football Association, Premier League and English Football League, the body that runs the professional club divisions below the top tier, make a joint proposal for how immigration rules should affect football once the country has secured a new trade deal with Brussels.
For the FA, English football’s governing body, the UK’s departure is a rare opportunity to introduce curbs on the number of foreign players at top clubs. That will force clubs to develop more local talent that will boost the England national team, who reached the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup following years of underachievement in international tournaments.
The Premier League, the top tier of English club football, is fighting the proposals. It suggests they will harm one of the country’s great international exports, with clashes between teams stocked with the world’s best players viewed avidly across the planet. “It remains to be seen what the solution is — we’re not close to anything,” said Richard Masters, the Premier League chief executive, this month. “If you did have a quota system that was vastly different to Europe you would put our top clubs at a big disadvantage.”
According to people familiar with the discussions, the FA initially demanded a reduction in the maximum number of non-homegrown players allowed in each team’s 25-player squad from 17 to 12. Under the EU’s immigration rules, homegrown players are counted as those registered with the FA for at least three years before they are 21 years old, regardless of nationality.
That has allowed top English clubs to scoop up some of the best European players aged between 16 and 18. Midfielder Cesc Fabregas, for example, joined Arsenal in 2003 aged 16 from Barcelona but was classified as homegrown. The rule is expected to change after Brexit, so that only players from the UK home nations — England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland — are counted as homegrown.
European footballers will then be expected to meet the same criteria as non-EU nationals to gain a work permit, such as regularly playing for their national team. Those requirements may have excluded entry to promising players such as Chelsea’s Frenchman N’Golo Kante and Manchester United’s Anthony Martial, also French, when they first joined their respective clubs.
To gain agreement for quota changes, the FA offered to loosen the criteria for all overseas players to gain work permits to play in England. That could open the door to less-established players from South America, for example.
So far, the Premier League’s 20 member clubs have rejected the FA’s proposals, leaving the rival sides at an impasse. An FA spokesperson said while altering match-day quotas would require a change to Premier League rules, to which the clubs must agree, it still “wants to see more playing time for young English players”. The spokesperson added that work permit rules were set by the Home Office in consultation with the FA. “The default position will be that all players will be subject to existing criteria unless new arrangements are agreed,” she said.
The lack of an agreement between the FA and Premier League would lead to problems for many top clubs seeking to satisfy immigration rules. More than half the current playing squads at Wolverhampton Wanderers, Chelsea, Manchester City, Norwich City and Arsenal are EU nationals, according to a Financial Times analysis. However, people close to the Premier League’s leadership said it was confident that the FA would back down from its more stringent demands.
There is growing acceptance that the FA’s suggested changes would have unintended consequences. One would be to hamper the development of players such as Aston Villa’s Jack Grealish and Leicester City’s James Maddison. They have earned regular starting places at their teams and are in contention to join other established players such as Raheem Sterling and Harry Kane in Gareth Southgate’s England team at this summer’s European Championships.
Football industry executives believe that under the FA’s proposals, these English starlets would become bigger targets for the so-called Big Six clubs — a group that comprises Manchester United, Manchester City, Liverpool, Arsenal, Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur.