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Why Brexit will wreck havoc with the Premier League’s foreign players

The Premier League is urging the government to abolish all restrictions on signing foreign players because it fears Brexit will harm the league’s competitiveness and global popularity.

The league is becoming concerned that with just over six months to go until the UK leaves the European Union it is still waiting for clarification on a number of key issues, including whether there will be dramatic restrictions on clubs’ ability to sign European players after Brexit, and the possibility of new quotas mandating the selection of more homegrown players.

And during talks with both the government and Football Association, the Premier League has called for football to be made an exception to any new rules that limit the access of European workers after Brexit, allowing clubs to sign any players they wish over the age of 18.

However, the league fears the Football Association and government may not back its plan as they may attempt to use Brexit as an opportunity to increase opportunities for English players in the Premier League. Only last week the England manager, Gareth Southgate, lamented that his playing pool was getting “smaller and smaller”.

a group of baseball players playing a football game: The Premier League fears that Manchester United would no longer be able to sign players such as Gerard Pique if they were restricted to signing European Union citizens only over the age of 18 © Martin Rickett/PA The Premier League fears that Manchester United would no longer be able to sign players such as Gerard Pique if they were restricted to signing European Union citizens only over the age of 18

The Premier League accepts that after Brexit it is highly unlikely that English clubs will continue to be able to sign European players under the age of 18 – as Arsenal did with Cesc Fabregas and Héctor Bellerín, and Manchester United with Gerard Pique and Paul Pogba among others.

But otherwise it wants regulations on players older than 18 to be changed as little as possible, or eased, arguing that the global popularity and profile of the Premier League, which generates over £3bn in tax for the Treasury and directly employs 12,000 people, mean football should be considered a special case.

The FA, government and Premier League are currently in a consultation about how Brexit will affect football in the UK but there is no indication when this will be completed. However, it is understood the ongoing issues for the league include:

1. Clubs’ right to sign European players

Cesc Fabregas standing in front of a crowd: Arsenal signed Cesc Fabregas in 2003, four months after his 16th birthday © CARL DE SOUZA/AFP/Getty Images Arsenal signed Cesc Fabregas in 2003, four months after his 16th birthday

The Premier League fears that the current work permit restrictions on players from outside the European Economic Area will be extended to all players from EEA countries, meaning they would have to be regulars for high-ranking international sides or command a sizeable transfer fee in order to be allowed to work in the UK. This would be devastating for clubs’ abilities to sign European players, especially earlier in their careers.

Research conducted by Laurie Shaw, a data scientist at Harvard University, and seen by the Premier League shows that, from 1992-2018, 591 of the 1,022 players signed by top-flight clubs with passports for a country in the EEA would not have qualified for a work permit. They include Cesc Fabregas, Riyad Mahrez – who is Algerian but holds a French passport – and N’Golo Kanté. The Premier League’s own research suggests the number of players who would historically have failed to receive a work permit is even higher, at around two-thirds.

Shaw’s research also shows this would affect less wealthy clubs the most as their players are less likely to be regulars for top-60 international sides or command a sufficiently large transfer fee. This would in turn affect the competitive balance of the division.

2. Possibility that rules requiring selection of homegrown players would be strengthened

Currently, all clubs are mandated to have eight homegrown players in their 25-man squads, a rule that also applies to European competition. The FA has long wanted more homegrown players in the league to develop young English talent and they have not agreed on a united view to present to the government. If they fail to come up with one, they would potentially argue against each other, though they are hopeful of coming up with a common position.

3. Which players will count as homegrown

At present foreign players can count as homegrown if they spend three years in a club’s academy before the age of 21, but the ban on signing young talent under the age of 18 would render that more difficult and ensure homegrown is likely to mean British talent.

4. Whether all restrictions on signing overseas players could be abolished

This is a radical shift, advocated by the Premier League. The Premier League believes this could give clubs a competitive advantage in scouting young players beyond Europe, including in Argentina and Brazil.

Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City © Tom Flathers/Man City via Getty Images Riyad Mahrez of Manchester City

5. Lack of clarity over the implications of a ‘no deal’ Brexit

The Premier League has called for football to be made an exception to any new rules that limit the access of European workers after Brexit, allowing clubs to sign any players they wish over the age of 18

The Premier League has been given no timescale for when these issues will be addressed but remain hopeful they will be met receptively. “Like many other organisations dependent on a combination of domestic and international talent, we are waiting to better understand what the political and regulatory landscape will be after the UK leaves the European Union,” said a Premier League spokesperson. “Access to talented footballers from across Europe has played a key part in the growth of the Premier League.

“It is vital that our clubs can continue to acquire European players with the freedom they currently enjoy.”

An FA spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work with the Premier League, EFL and a range of government departments, including DCMS, Home Office [and] Treasury during this consultation.”

The government confirmed it is still considering its options.

“We recognise the need for sports, including football, rugby and cricket, to continue to access talent from the EU and globally and are in ongoing discussions with professional sport about this,” said a government spokesperson.

“After we leave the EU, the UK will continue to be the open country it has always been. We will have in place an immigration system that delivers control over who comes to the UK, but that welcomes the brightest and best who want to work hard and contribute.”

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