With the recent focus on COVID-19 and its potential implications, Brexit seems to have taken a backseat in the news. Although numerous articles and discussion pieces have been written about the impact that Brexit will have on everyday European Union nationals working in the United Kingdom, relatively little attention has been given to its consequences on the sporting industry. Nevertheless, an end to free movement will have repercussions throughout all levels of sport.
Under the current system, an EU national football player can play in the UK without a work permit, enjoying the free movement rights enshrined in Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union (TFEU). On the other hand, determining the eligibility of a non-European Union Association Agreement (EAA) player is an extremely complex system, with the criteria depending on the player’s nation’s world ranking and what percentage of international matches the player in question has played in the preceding two years.
Post-Brexit, the Free Movement Directive will no longer apply, and thus a similar law may apply to EU players as well. While the details are still being ironed out, players transferring from EU countries will likely have to qualify for a work visa. Stoke City Chairman, Peter Coates, has said that some of the criteria for a visa "would be very difficult to meet for a lot of clubs" and Brexit could therefore "damage" the Premier League. These visas will likely be restricted to the top levels of football, and other major UK sports, and the process will likely take significantly longer, a major issue when negotiating a transfer and a contract.
To understand the scale of the problem, among the 647 players who played in the Premier League in 2017, more than half were classified as non-British. Furthermore, some 332 players in 2016 across the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premier League would fail to meet current work permit criteria, potentially causing them to be disbarred from playing. Similarly, over half of the EU players that have transferred into the Premier League since 1992 would not have qualified for work permits had these been required at the time.
These changes will likely affect smaller clubs more, especially due to the potential loss of access to European footballers under the age of 18. EU countries are exempt from Article 19 of FIFA’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players which prohibits the international transfer of players under 18. With the arrival of Brexit, this regulation would apply to the UK as well, a problem for smaller clubs who are significantly more likely to recruit potential rather than quality. While this may have some benefit for English football overall, leading to a greater focus on grassroots talent, for major football clubs, Brexit could prevent them from signing the world’s best young players.
Many football clubs are lobbying not to be affected by the end of free movement and to remain part of EAA in order to access players, both those in their prime, as well as promising young talents. However, questions surrounding this have a salient point: why should football clubs be exempt from the rules instead of, say, the National Health Service, especially given recent events with the COVID-19 pandemic?
The effect of the UK leaving the EU will also resonate in smaller sports, such as rugby and cricket, as it affects all professional athletes that are considered “workers” under the definition of the TFEU. Under the Kolpak rule, players from countries with Association Agreements with the EU can play free from quotas on foreigners, thereby qualifying as non-overseas players. This is used in county cricket in England, where six percent are Kolpak players, as well as Premiership rugby, where 72 players in 2017 fell under this category. Many players at the top level (often Australian or South African) have been able to take advantage of the joint nationality of an EU member state to play in the UK.
Post-Brexit, however, a player from an EAA country could be treated as foreign. Top individuals in both sports have expressed concern about their ability to attract and keep key talent amid this uncertainty. Existing Kolpak players only have their stats guaranteed until the end of the current 2020 season, no matter their contract length, epitomising the uncertainty that Brexit is casting on UK sporting contracts. Similarly, Brexit risks the Cotonou Agreement between the EU and certain African and Caribbean states that awards athletes the same right to freedom of movement as an EU national, allowing them to compete in the UK as “non-foreigners”.
There are undoubtedly more important issues surrounding Britain’s exit from the European Union than that of sports teams being able to attract and keep players, but it is just one of a number of key issues football and wider sports industries are facing ahead of the UK’s departure. Little is still known about the full impact of Brexit on UK sport and its laws and contracts. As summarised by Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at the University of Salford, "there is little or no clarity. As far as I am aware, no specific instructions have been issued to the sport industry". However, transfers will more than likely become harder to push through, as will attracting and keeping the continent’s top young talent. These are issues that will extend to a multitude of UK sports, such as football, cricket, and rugby.