The Impact of Brexit on Football and its Players, Coaches and Clubs
Most will be aware of the 2016 Brexit referendum that took place in the United Kingdom (UK). The consequence of the voting results was that the UK decided to leave the European Union (EU). This has a widespread impact on trading with EU countries for the UK and has caused the Pound Sterling to weaken against the Euro on the foreign currency exchange.
Despite the widely discussed ramifications of Brexit, some might not be aware of what the vote means for the footballing world. This blog will assess the impact of Brexit on football. I will explore the expansive influence on UK, European and global football that Brexit has. This varies from the impact on transfers, the restrictions on the free movement of footballers, the introduction of Governing Body Endorsements, a potential influx of South American or African players and the increased prioritisation of homegrown talent in the UK.
Prior to the Brexit vote, the Premier League and UK football benefitted from the wide talent pool available for employment in the European Union. As a part of the EU, there was free movement for all members and transfers of footballers in and out of the UK was simple, with minimal burden. The immigration act of 2021 ended the automatic free-movement right of EU nationals to live and work in the UK. For football this meant that the governing body, the FA, along with the Premier League and the EFL, introduced a points based immigration system that outlined the criteria required of potential players and managers that may be transferred to the UK. Those that meet the criteria are considered as obtaining a governing body endorsement (GBE). Clubs can register players without a GBE but they will be unable to represent or train with the team until they have received one. The responsibility of acquiring a GBE lies with the signing club.
Governing Body Endorsement
The UK Home Office requires a sponsor’s licence, T2 Sportspersons accreditation and a Tier 5 visa. Part of this requirement is to meet the criteria required of the GBE. There are different criteria required for men, women, coaches and youth players with hopes of moving to the EU. By receiving a GBE the player has demonstrated elite professional status and has shown they are worthy of improving and developing football in the UK.
The GBE is awarded on a points-based system and is granted by the FA if a player reaches 15 points. There is also an ‘autopass rule’ which applies to those that have played a certain percentage of minutes (over the last 12 months) for their national team that is ranked in the top 50 by FIFA. This includes over 70% of any of the top 50 ranked international teams or above 30% of minutes for those nations ranked in the top 10. These players are immediately given a GBE and are able to play for a club in the UK.
Those that do not meet the autopass rule are required to achieve 15 points through other means. To accumulate these points the FA also takes into consideration the quality of the selling club, the division they compete in, their league position and their continental cup progression. Individual statistics are also accounted for; specifically club appearances and the percentage of minutes played for the selling club. These points are formulated based on a banded or tiered system for clubs and divisions. For example, those competing for a club in the Bundesliga or La Liga will receive more generous points as they are playing at the first banded level of clubs.
For women and for youth players the principles are similar and based around club appearances and standard as well as international representation. There are some differences however. For women, a total of 24 points is needed and does not take into account the continental competition progression of the selling club. Additionally, clubs are categorised into only two bands in the women’s game whereas there are six bands in the men’s version.
There are now stricter rules in place preventing youth players moving into the UK. This prevents UK clubs signing young talents at a premature age. For youth players to meet the criteria to receive a GBE they are only rewarded points if they have made their senior debut and enough appearances thereafter to meet the required tally of points.
Finally, it is also necessary for managers to obtain a licence and a GBE. Their criteria varies slightly in that the FA expresses the need for a pro coaching licence, diploma or equivalent certification from UEFA. They must also be entering a position where they have ultimate, but not sole, responsibility and decision making authority for first team activities. On top of this they must have endured at least a total of 36 months as a manager in the top professional leagues in Europe or for a top 50 FIFA ranked national team. Alternatively, they can also meet this criteria by having had 24 months consecutively at this level prior to the application.
First and foremost, the largest impact of Brexit is on transfers of European players into the UK and a limitation on the ‘burdenless’ talent pool that was previously available to clubs in the UK. However, coinciding with the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic, the full extent of the impact that Brexit will have remains to be seen. It is less likely to significantly affect the top clubs in the UK as their transfer targets will ordinarily meet the autopass rule. Having said this, it would prevent these clubs from scouting players with top potential. Transfers like Leicester’s signing of Riyad Mahrez before he had announced himself as a top talent, for example, will no longer be possible. In order for a transfer like this to go ahead, the clubs may have to arrange for the player to be loaned to somewhere where they will be able to obtain the 15 points required to receive the GBE.
For clubs to be able to do this, there will be a demand for resources to be deviated towards planning, arranging and organising for players to acquire 15 points as well as their applications and GBE status. This places a substantial administrative burden upon signing players from Europe unless they meet the autopass rule which may negatively impact lesser clubs more than the giants in the UK. Clubs that are also not in a particularly strong financial position may feel the additional effect of the weakening of the pound sterling. Transfer prices are likely to be driven up anyway as selling clubs are more inclined to demand higher transfer fees in the knowledge that their player has become increasingly sought after if they meet the autopass rule or have acquired 15 points for the GBE.
The impact of Brexit may be epitomised by an influx of players signed from non-European clubs such as in South America or Africa. The divisions in Brazil, Argentina and Mexico are in the third band of clubs in the points system. This means that a player will already receive 12 points if they have played for the title winning team in a certain season. Hence, they would only have had to have played 40% of minutes in order to reach the requirement of 15 points. This may be a more feasible option for clubs in search of potential signings that meet the GBE criteria.
Brexit is not all bad news for football in the UK. The main positive of Brexit is that there is likely to be a considerable rise in focus and prioritisation of academy football. Homegrown talent will become an increasingly important element of clubs in the UK. This will be of huge benefit to the youth football system as with less competition from foreign signings, homegrown talent is more likely to feature in top teams and be given opportunities and experience from younger ages. More players of the likes of Smith-Rowe, Saka, and Phil Foden would be expected to emerge as a result of increased investment in and development of academy football. Furthermore, Brexit makes it more difficult for future superstars such as Jude Bellingham and Jadon Sancho to be lost to European football leagues at a young age. FIFA’s protection of minors rule that made the exception for the transfer of 16-18 year olds within the European Union will no longer apply to the UK, further preventing clubs from purchasing foreign youth talent or selling their own.
Brexit has a significant impact on football in the UK. Although the full extent has not yet been felt due to the pandemic, the largest impacts expected are summarised below:
- The removal of free movement for footballers and coaches and the introduction of GBE and Visa requirements.
- The increase in transfer fees for European players.
- A disparity in advantage for top clubs compared to lesser clubs.
- An increased investment in a priority of academy systems in the UK to produce homegrown talent as a replacement. I explained how the system of GBE’s and Visas work for men, women and academy footballers as well as managers. I also considered other possible changes that will occur as a result of Brexit such as an influx of non-European signings.