As England goes hurtling towards Brexit with all the certainty of a person trying to find the door of the pub at closing time after having been at said pub since noon, there is still a whole lot that remains to be decided and agreed. One of the more minor things still up in the air in the scheme of it all, but a very important thing to us and our little corner of things, is the status of non-English players in the Premier League.
Currently, each Premier League squad is allowed up to 17 non-English players in a squad of 25, with the remainder having to be “home grown”. It’s important to note, though, that “home grown” does not necessarily mean English; it just means that a player has trained with an English club for three of the years between age 16 and age 21. Post-Brexit, it is thought that English clubs won’t be able to sign overseas players until they’re 18.
In preparation for the possible uncertainty of Brexit, which as mentioned has a lot of non-footballing loose ends (although calling them “loose ends” minimizes how huge some of them actually are) and a self-imposed (by the triggering of Article 50) deadline of March 29, 2019, the FA has put forward a proposal to require that Premier League clubs have a roster of no more than 12 foreign players, and to give clubs until the end of 2020 to comply with said requirement.
As of right now, more than half of the clubs in the Premier League carry more than 12 players from outside England on their rosters, so the impact of this is pretty large and far-reaching. It also potentially means an expansion of the not-at-all-sketchy process of signing kids from “nowhere” and developing them, because it’s cheaper than buying the finished product on the open market.
Restricting the overseas signing age to 18 will mean that Arsenal won’t be scouring the banlieues of Paris for the next Thierry Henry, but it won’t stop them from doing the same in and around London looking for the next Tony Adams. This is a largely unregulated market which is open to the same shadiness that, say, recruiting college basketball and football players can be in the US; there are very few regulations guiding how such recruitment and signing gets done, so it’s kind of a free-for-all that in most cases does not benefit the prospect as much as it does enrich agents and clubs.
It’s not like English clubs won’t still scout young foreign talent; it’s just that scouting the age 16-18 year olds from overseas will now probably involve even more shady third parties, since clubs won’t be able to directly work with or talk to non-English talent in that age range. And if we assume that La Liga, the Bundesliga, etc., don’t have the same rules in place, that means English clubs will have to be more, shall we say, creative in how they source young overseas talent. What could possibly go wrong?
If the FA and Premier League do not come to some sort of agreement on this issue before March 29, the Premier League will be subject to the same employment laws and rules as any other employer in England, which includes treating EU residents the same as non-EU residents when considering them for work permits.
Currently, a player holding an EU passport is considered to be the equivalent of a UK citizen for work permit purposes; any random Belgian or German can earn a place on a Premier League team if he is good enough. Players from non-EU countries must meet a much more stringent set of criteria - if the player is over 21, he must have played in a certain percentage of matches for his national team in the last two years, a percentage that is dependent on his national team’s FIFA ranking.
For teams ranked 1-10, that percentage is 30; the further down the rankings you go, the higher the percentage, until you get to FIFA rankings 31-50, in which a player must play 75% or more of his national team’s games in order to be eligible for a work permit in the UK. Players under 21 are subject to the same calculation, but over a one year period.
There’s clearly a lot at stake here - foreign players are a big part of what has made the Premier League one of the best leagues in the world, and England is a very attractive destination for a lot of non-UK players. If Brexit changes that dramatically, the character of the Premier League will change quite a bit - whether that change is good or bad is not the point, really, but things will change.
The FA and the Premier League have been far apart on this issue for some time now, with the league insisting that all overseas players should be granted work permits - essentially, if you’re good enough, you qualify. The FA is, as the English governing body of the sport, understandably more concerned with both protecting and growing English participation at the top level of the sport, which explains the more restrictive nature of their proposed rules.
As with all things Brexit, time is of the essence - March 2019 is no longer a theoretical, faraway date. It’s four months from now.