Politics and soccer are not supposed to mix. FIFA and UEFA operate strict rules preventing political provocations on the field, which is why Robbie Fowler was famously fined in 1997 for wearing a T-shirt sympathizing with the plight of Liverpool’s dock workers.
The sport’s governing bodies may try to separate soccer and politics, but the truth is they are irrevocably fused. The World Cup bidding process, for example, is highly politicized. And the likes of Paris Saint-Germain and Manchester City exist in their current successful guises purely due to politics.
Political and socio-economic forces hold a great deal of sway over the upper echelons of the beautiful game, which leads us to Brexit. For those unfamiliar with this ongoing facade, Brexit is the process by which the UK will be withdrawing from the European Union, based on the mandate of a controversial referendum held in 2016. Brexit should have happened on March 29, but due to disagreements about its implementation, it is currently scheduled for April 12.
If it goes through, Britain’s largest trade agreement, with the rest of the EU’s 27 members, will be void. And the freedom of movement that EU citizens currently enjoy will cease at UK borders.
In a nutshell, this means British businesses (i.e. Premier League clubs) will have greater challenges to trade with the rest of Europe, and players will have greater obstacles to move between the English top flight and the continent.
In 2016, when the Brexit referendum returned a surprising 51.9% majority to leave, all 20 Premier League clubs were against it. League chairman Richard Scudamore said a decision to put up borders with Britain’s European neighbors would be "incongruous" with the league's commitment to "openness."
As a product that benefits significantly from a global audience and a diverse range of employees, it is unsurprising that the change was unwanted. In fact, the only notable Premier League voice who has spoken up in favor of Brexit is Cardiff manager Neil Warnock, who said “to hell with the rest of the world” in January. He boldly claimed the nation would be better off “football-wise.” (It’s worth noting his team features players of 11 different nationalities, is Malaysian-owned and plays in a city that voted overwhelmingly to remain in Europe.)
So how would Brexit impact Premier League clubs in particular? Well, for starters, it has lowered their spending power and will likely continue to do so.
A British pound was worth €1.43 in August 2015, but dropped to around €1.11 shortly after the referendum. That represents around a 22% drop in spending power for British clubs buying in Europe. The pound has stayed relatively weak as uncertainty around Brexit has prevailed, while experts believe that a “No Deal Brexit” (where a trade deal with the EU is not reached) could further cause the currency to plummet.
Therefore, if Manchester United wants to spend big on Jadon Sancho this summer, it will cost them more to meet Borussia Dortmund’s asking price. In the long term, it is possible that English clubs will find it harder to match the wages of their continental counterparts — or at the very least, it will cost them much more to do so.
The biggest immediate effect on Premier League clubs, however, may come from the changes in immigration.
Currently, any EU citizen may travel, work and study in any of the 28 member countries, without impingement. The growth of the Premier League since its inception in 1992 has steadily relied on foreign labor: In its inaugural season, 70% of players were English. Last season, 33% of players were English (as per The Guardian).
After Brexit, the European players who have helped build the Premier League grow into a global behemoth will be subject to the same work permit rules as non-EU players. These work permits are acquired through a points-based system from the UK Home Office, which takes into account wages, transfer fees and international appearances. (For example, a player from a top 10-ranked nation must have appeared in 30% of international matches in the past two years).
In 2016, the BBC found that 332 players in the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premiership would not satisfy these work permit criteria.
Furthermore, the folks at FiveThirtyEight found that 58% of EU players who had played in the Premier League since its 1992 inception would not have qualified for a work permit.
But surely this is all scaremongering: Premier League teams have the power and financial sway to ensure that work permits are pushed through, right?
Not so. Non-EU work permits are frequently denied to Premier League sides. This season, for example, Pep Guardiola expressed frustration when the Home Office denied a work permit for defensive midfielder Douglas Luiz. He was sent on loan to Girona, since Spain has less stringent work permit laws.
Essentially, the restriction of free movement caused by Brexit is likely to put up barriers to player recruitment, which could in turn lower the talent pool of the planet’s most-watched domestic league.
Brexit is also likely to affect the strategies of Premier League academies in their pursuit of young talent. FIFA currently allows players aged between 16 and 18 to move freely between EU countries. Since Premier League players may be counted as “homegrown” if they train in the UK for three years before turning 21, many Premier League clubs recruit in this age range in order to satisfy the homegrown rules (whereby every squad must have at least eight homegrown players). It’s how Cesc Fabregas counted as a homegrown player when he moved to Arsenal from Spain as a teenager — and how the current Manchester City academy has purchased several young players from Barcelona’s famed La Masia.
However, after Brexit, those Fabregas-style purchases would never be allowed to happen. One may argue that this will help British players flourish, and the English Football Association has even proposed that Brexit should coincide with an increase in homegrown players in every squad, from eight to 15. According to The Guardian, 11 current Premier League teams would be forced to sell non-homegrown players under these proposals.
The English national team may benefit from such a change, but once again, the Premier League’s talent pool will be limited.
Unfortunately, there are also some tangible effects for fans. As Premier League clubs try to compete in Europe using a weaker currency, they may have to raise ticket prices. Premier League fans who wish to attend Champions League games on the continent will likely have to acquire visas. And TV subscription prices may see above-inflation increases as broadcast contracts rise to meet higher operational costs.
There is a great deal of uncertainty surrounding Brexit and the impact it could have on UK companies. Given the issues it has created around the movement of people and the economy, it is easy to see why all 20 Premier League teams oppose it.
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