Brexit and Football

Benjamin Franklin once said there were only two things certain in life: death and taxes. But over the course of this football season a third certainty is that there will be a lot of discussion about Britain leaving the European Union.

There are high profile figures in British football who’ve publicly made their opinions clear on the issue. Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp and former England striker and current Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker have both stated they think Brexit is a bad idea and have given support for a second referendum, whereas former England internationals David James and Sol Campbell have notably expressed their support for Britain leaving the EU. But Brexit isn’t a subject often discussed in football circles nor is it one you’ll find many within the industry expressing an opinion on.

What is the effect of Brexit on football?

We have already seen the short-term effect of Brexit on football, with the falling value of the pound since the Brexit referendum contributing to an increase in transfer fees paid by Premier league clubs. Something Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino partly blamed for his club’s lack of transfer activity over the summer. Of course, much of any anticipated effect of Brexit won’t be seen now but in the medium to long term, once the effect of changes in legislation following leaving the EU have fully taken effect.

What this does show however, whilst some will say otherwise, is that with something that is as constitutionally drastic as Brexit its natural that there will be changes that in turn effect the game. It’s likely we will see major changes to our laws and standards throughout all industries in this country, effecting both the UK and the remaining EU members states, and I have no doubt football will feel these effects to some degree.

Due to the wide-ranging consequences there are a number of issues that could be discussed, including the effect on affordability of matchday tickets or the potential requirement of obtaining a VISA for every trip to an EU state making following British teams across the EU harder. However, I’m only going to discuss its effect on two main areas: Immigration and the potential of the formation of a European Super League.

Immigration

This is one of the big talking points and an area for which a change in legislation is likely. Currently EU law gives its citizens the right of freedom of movement across the EU to live and work in any EU member state within the customs union. For English football with the domestic game largely defined by the footballers who’ve immigrated here from overseas, this will be an area that will no doubt effect English football significantly whatever the outcome.

Whilst those who have moved to this country from other EU member states are expected to be given permanent rights to stay in the UK, there is expected to be more stringent rules limiting those who come to the UK to live from EU member states after Brexit. With many assuming a similar system will be put in place to the one that those immigrating from outside the EU to the UK adhere to. Whilst there are others that believe freedom of movement could still remain or the industries like football may get special exemptions, its likely that it will be harder for those from inside the EU to emigrate to the UK after Brexit.

If this is the case this will therefore have a medium to long term effect on Premier League club’s attempting to recruit players from overseas. Football agent Rachel Anderson told the BBC’s Today programme that she believed this would be good for English football, giving more chances to home grown players. “It will be better for the home players if they will be given a chance to play, they’ll be given a chance to shine.”

This is a subject that is an often cited as an excuse of the failure of the English national teams at major tournaments and a regular criticism of the Premier League. Sol Campbell stated when he announced his support for the leave campaign at the referendum: “I’m looking at the sporting side – how youngsters aren’t getting the opportunities at some of the big clubs and some of the big clubs are bringing in youngsters from 14, 15, 16 and becoming home-grown, which is pushing some of our youngsters out.”

And there are many who agree with Campbell’s point. Whilst homegrown players like Dunk, Murray and Stephens are thriving at Brighton, England internationals like Rashford, Delph and Welbeck are playing second fiddle to overseas talent at their clubs, meaning the English national team manager Gareth Southgate suddenly has the unlikely but plausible option of picking a Brighton player over a top 6 club player due to their lack of first team football.

However, Burnley chairman Mike Garlick has stated his scepticism to the benefits of Brexit to many Premier League clubs. He has focused on how the changes in immigration laws would make it harder to recruit players from the EU. Saying: “ending freedom of movement will make it much more difficult for teams to attract the right talent, if the government brings in more restrictive conditions for work visas for players from Europe.”

Diminishing the quality of the players competing in the Premier league is a genuine risk of Brexit. If EU based players were to need to fulfil the same rules as non-EU players currently do, then some of the current crop of players with EU origins wouldn’t have met the requirements in place. This includes household names players like Cesc Fabregas, N’Golo Kante and Anthony Martial, who all didn’t have enough international caps nor enough standing in their domestic league at the time of signing to get a work permit under those rules and would have become reliant on special exemptions being made in their case. In fact, the Guardian suggested in 2015 that dozens of players then playing in the Premier League may not qualify for work permits after Brexit.

The reality is the new signings for the big clubs are more likely to get exceptions made, whereas it’s the lesser teams in the Premier League and lower down into the Football League that are likely to be the ones to lose out on the European talent should these restrictions apply.

For instance, if we assumed these rules, Brighton may have found it hard to sign a player of Pascal Gross’ limited reputation due to his lack of international caps, low transfer fee and, I suspect, relatively modest salary in Premier League terms. But in contrast this would have likely led to the recently sold homegrown player Sam Baldock getting a first team chance instead, which was something that never looked likely last season while Gross stayed fit.

But at what cost? The smart recruitment of teams like Brighton from across The EU has meant they’ve been able to punch above their weight against richer more established clubs. To take another example, there is no doubt the signing of N’Golo Kante was pivotal to Leicester’s famous 2016 title win, suggesting that greater restrictions on work permits from players within the EU to the UK could make it harder for the smaller sides to upset the odds.

A recent piece of research carried out by the International Centre for Sports Studies found that almost two thirds of players playing in the Premier League were born outside the UK. But does this really matter? The diversity of nationalities is a valued part of the Premier League and something that has not just enriched the standard of domestic football, but broadened the outlook of the football supporting public across the country since it was founded. There were certainly no fans at the AMEX complaining that Pascal Gross was German when he scored the winner against United at the end of last season to secure the clubs Premier League survival.

Others figures in football have not been so forthcoming on their opinions. For instance, whilst on England duty at the Euro’s in 2016, Harry Kane’s answer to a Brexit question in the days following the referendum was to start talking about the upcoming game. Given that the game in question was the infamous knockout match with Iceland at Euro 2016, given the choice now, maybe he’d rather talk about Brexit.

European Super League

Something else that the likelihood of which could be affected by Brexit is the potential formation of a European super league, a breakaway competition involving the top European club teams in a competition that could supersede current domestic and continental football competitions.

A European super league has been seemingly on the cards for a while without ever materialising and the commercial success of the top European domestic leagues alongside the Champions league means it’s never been a likely outcome in the short term. In essence, if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. However, Brexit is likely to change things across Europe significantly. If this led to a lower quality and less commercially successful Premier league and in turn Champions league, this may lead to the top clubs pushing for this to happen in the medium to long term.

Adding further flames to the fire was a recent EU law change, which could stop governing bodies from threatening players and clubs with bans and suspensions for participating in an unauthorized event. This could mean clubs would be able to set up a rival competition outside UEFA and FIFA without being barred from its current competitions, something that in the past has been one of the only things halting a breakaway league for some interested parties. Whilst with Britain leaving the EU this may be a law change that is not implemented in this country and therefore the Premier League wouldn’t be governed domestically by those laws, UEFA and FIFA would need to ensure they are compliant, as will many of their members are EU member states and fellow potential European Super league members.

As a Brighton fan why should we care about this potential eventuality? The English domestic game is successful in its own right and you only have to look at the viability, longevity and sustainability of so many local football league and non-league clubs to quickly establish this.

However, the current standard and investment available to English football clubs is in large part down to the commercial viability of those top 6 clubs. The Premier League’s TV revenue rise since is foundation in 1992 has coincided with a significant rise in investment in English football, with much of this coming from overseas TV rights sales. The current Premier league TV rights deal totals £8.4bn spread over three seasons, with £3.3bn (or just under 40%) coming from overseas sales. Whilst domestically there is a high level of interest outside the top six, the same can’t be said internationally. But nonetheless despite recent rules to spread the revenue less evenly, the rest of the league still benefit financially disproportionately from the relatively low level of interest overseas.

Furthermore, with the revenue sharing between the Premier league and the Football league as well as grassroots football being significant if again slightly reduced recently, it’s not just those top-flight clubs that should be worried by a potentially diminished commercially successful Premier league. As well as the direct hand-me-downs, there is also indirect financial benefit via a trickle-down effect of the financial wealth, through the payment of transfer fees and subsidised loan deals to lower league clubs, which means the whole of English football would stand to lose from a less commercially successful Premier league.

But it’s not all about money, right? Of course not, football is in large demand in this country and even was throughout the dark years of British football hooliganism of the 70’s/80’s that preceded the formation of the Premier league. And there are those that suggest English football would be better off unburdened by the top clubs, more able to make rules changes such as bringing in English player quotas and bring back the game to its more traditional values.

But to look at things more tangibly the quality of players and quality of facilities in this country that exists within football, and as a result sport in general, is in a large part down to the commercial success of the Premier league and therefore more specifically those top 6 clubs. This eventuality would be something that would most likely lead many clubs and organisations having to cut back and learn to live without its current luxuries.

Ultimately this is all very speculative, a European Super league is not on the cards in the short term, but if Brexit were to harm the commercial viability of the Premier league it’s no doubt something that would become more of a threat.

Summing up

It’s quite clear that after looking at some of the potential eventualities, Brexit could have drastic and wide ranging effects on British football and British sport more generally. Therefore it’s something that will no doubt cause much conflict in debates between various organising bodies as suggested by the independent.

However, with just over 6 months until it is planned that Britain leaves the EU, we know very little of the specific practical implications that this event will cause. On being pressed to provide further clarity over the political future of the country, Prime minister Theresa May infamously said simply: “Brexit means Brexit”.

This lack of clarity coupled with the urgency of the event not only irritates and angers many on both sides of the debate, but it means future planning for all those involved is barely possible. The governing bodies and clubs will need to ensure they can plan for any potential eventualities to ensure they can safeguard the future of their institutions. But the lack of future planning available leaves open a wide array of opportunities and threats that are not being addressed that could lead to a great deal of damage caused by unforeseen circumstances.

Unlike currently is the case, for football to succeed in a post-Brexit Britain it needs to start openly discussing the potential eventualities and decisions it will need to make soon, before it’s too late.