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Soccer and Brexit: what does it mean?

TL;DR - we don’t quite know, but we can guess

Frankfurt Stock Exchange Reacts To EU Referendum Vote Result
not a football analyst
Photo by Thomas Lohnes/Getty Images

First off: NO POLITICS. This is not a space to discuss the wisdom or otherwise of the Brexit vote. If you wish to do that, there are many, many places where you can, and we wish you much happiness in doing so. But, as England chose yesterday to withdraw from the EU, it’s a good time to look at what it means for soccer in England overall, in the context of England’s withdrawal.

The short answer to “what does it mean”, of course, is threefold:

  1. Prices will change as the pound finds its new, post-Brexit level
  2. Nothing else changes for a year or two, as it will take that long or longer for England to untie itself from the EU
  3. Beyond that, we don’t know much about what to expect yet

Even though we don’t know facts yet, we can, knowing a few things about how it works now, speculate a bit as to what the ramifications of a Brexit are for the English game.

For those of you who don’t know, one of the functions of the European Union is to smooth things like trade and the movement of labor to where it is needed, as much as possible, throughout its member states. This is why, to oversimplify a bit, foreign players can play in England so easily - they just have to prove they’re really good at their job, by playing in a large percentage of their national team’s games, and once they do, England grants them permission to work in the UK under the terms of the UK’s membership in the EU, without having to apply for a work permit.

“Lesser” players from Europe can still come to England to play, but are subject to the same work permit rules as any non-sports person desiring to work in England; it’s not impossible, obviously, but there are more hoops to jump through. For countries bound by the Schengen Agreement, then, not a whole lot will probably change; the changes to work rules and eligibility will come from countries outside this agreement, which no longer can use EU law to expedite the work permit process.

Well, that’s gone now; once the UK is no longer part of the EU, English work permit laws will prevail, with no waivers or fast tracks. So, given that, England can either choose to maintain EU-style work permit exemptions for footballers or tighten up their work permit requirements so they are in line with those of the “normal” person requesting a work permit. It’s far too early to know which way that will go, although the FA’s solid support for the Remain campaign gives a pretty strong clue.

Even if the elite tier still gains entry fairly easily, a Brexit could have a chilling effect on the mid- to lower-tier of non-English player, particularly in the youth ranks. Would a player like Gedion Zelalem be able to learn his trade at Arsenal in this new world? What about a promising early-20’s player who hasn’t played much if at all for his national team yet? No one really knows what that looks like at this point.

One other possible ramification, ugly as it sounds, could be the imposition of nationality quotas for competitions. It’s probably not terribly likely that the Premier League, which is a very desirable destination (currently) for players from all over the world, would do such a thing, but that may become an issue in the FA Cup and the League Cup, in order to keep those things as English as possible.

One interesting footnote: under the FA’s criteria for signing non-EU players, neither Thierry Henry nor Cristiano Ronaldo would have been able to sign with their respective English teams, as at the time of their signings they had not played enough national team games to qualify for expedited work permits.