Why Brexit could ruin the Premier League

When the English Premier League returns on Jan. 12 following its short post-festive season break, take a good look around. It might not be the world’s best soccer circuit much longer.

While the Brexit saga that has consumed the United Kingdom since the U.K. voted to leave the European Union in 2016 has mostly flown under the radar elsewhere, it’s about to change the Prem as fans who have made it the most-watch sports league on the planet know it.

The U.K. finally fully pulled out of the EU last week; this is the first transfer window that the new rules, which now prioritize British workers over those from the country’s European neighbors, are in effect. No longer can a club like, say, Chelsea, simply sign a promising 18-year French winger to a contract, no questions asked. Now that player is subject to all sorts of restrictions before acquiring a British work permit, with his eligibility ultimately determined by a complicated points system. Score too low on that test and its an automatic “no” no matter what the specific circumstances might be. For those players, there’s no ability even to appeal to the exceptions panel.

This will have implications for every club in the Premier League and beyond. Take a second-tier club like Norwich City. According to a tabulation by Michael Bailey, who covers the Canaries for the Athletic, 11 of the 17 non-U.K. signings Norwich sporting director Stuart Webber made since being hired in 2017 would’ve been impossible in the post-Brexit world, including those of standout performers Emi Buendia, Teemu Pukki and Christoph Zimmermann.

Boris Johnson and the U.K. government's withdrawal from the European Union could have an adverse effect on the Premier League. (Toby Melville/Pool Photo via AP)
Boris Johnson and the U.K. government's withdrawal from the European Union could have an adverse effect on the Premier League. (Toby Melville/Pool Photo via AP)

Young English players will get more opportunities now, that’s true. The new rules might keep home the next Jaden Sancho or Jude Bellingham, who left Manchester City and Birmingham City, respectively, because playing time was easier to come by with German titan Borussia Dortmund. But it’s a net loss.

Back in the bad old days before the Bosman ruling of 1995, British teams were made up mostly of domestic players who were technically and tactically inferior to their contemporaries south and east of the English channel. Between 1985 and 1998, not one English team so much as reached a European Cup final, let alone won one.

The title of “world’s best” is subjective and always changing, of course. But based on results in European competitions, the trends are clear. Italy was the undisputed No. 1 through most of the 1990s. Spain and Germany were probably tops in the early- to mid-2000s, with the Prem, thanks to an influx of players from across the continent, claiming the throne by the end of the aughts. Led by Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo, the crown swung back to La Liga midway through the last decade; in 2015, not a single English team reached the last eight of the UEFA Champions League.

Recently, though, the Premier League has once again reigned supreme. In 2019, for the first time ever, all four finalists in the Champions League and Europa League were from the Prem. And once again, it’s done it mostly on the strength of its foreign talent. Players everywhere want to be in England, where the pay, the fans, and the relevance of the sport culturally is good as it gets.

But luring those players, particularly younger ones, from around the continent will now be more difficult, as those players now face a layer of restrictions that didn’t exist before — restrictions that the Premier League’s competition in Germany, Spain, Italy and even France won’t have to worry about going forward.

Now the same roadblocks that have long prevented promising but unproven Argentines, Brazilians and Americans from beginning their pro careers in England — there’s a reason so many top young U.S. players get their start in Europe in Germany’s Bundesliga — will also stop those from Belgium, Portugal and even nearby Ireland.

The impact probably won’t be noticeable right away. Established international stars from around the world will still easily meet the criterion required to get a work permit in the U.K. Young foreign players already under contract with English clubs will be allowed to stay. In the years to come, though, Brexit could put England at a competitive disadvantage. No league stays on top forever. It’s possible that the end of the Premier League’s most recent run has already begun.

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