Soccer_Football_PlayerIn the United States, there is a tradition that the new President’s performance is measured after 100 days in office.  Today (3 October 2016), marks 100 days since the British nation voted to leave the European Union on 24 June 2016.

On Sunday 2 October 2016, Theresa May (again) declared that Brexit really means Brexit.  So, are we now in a position to assess how British clubs’ abilities to sign European players will be affected?

Prior to that historic day, Karen Brady, the vice-chair of West Ham, had claimed that a vote to leave would have ‘devastating consequences’.  In particular, Baroness Brady was concerned about the impact which Brexit might have on English clubs’ ability to recruit talented European players without the need to request a work permit for them.  Similar concerns were raised by the Arsenal manager, Arsene Wenger, and the Premier League chairman, Richard Scudamore.

What are the key rules on player recruitment that may be affected?

There are two key rules that may be affected by Brexit:

Rule One: Presently, any British club who wishes to sign a professional football player who is not a citizen of an EEA country needs to obtain permission from the Home Office to do so (i.e. the player must be granted a work permit).  In order to obtain a work permit a player must be issued a Certificate of Sponsorship (“CoS“) by the football club for whom they are signing to.  The club cannot issue a CoS to a player unless that player has been granted a Governing Body Endorsement (“GBE“) by The FA (or the equivalent rules issued by the Scottish, Welsh or Northern Irish FA). The current rules as to when a player will be granted a GBE are available here and are updated each season.  However, in brief, a non-EEA player may only obtain a GBE if:

  1. They meet the ‘Automatic Criteria’ by virtue of having played in the required percentage of national team matches. If they do, The FA will automatically grant them a GBE; or
  2. They meet the ‘Discretionary Criteria’ by obtaining the required number of points under various criteria set by The FA prior to each transfer window. The Discretionary Criteria aims to ascribe a numerical value to the player based on an assessment of their international and club performances, transfer value and wages. If the player meets the required points under the Discretionary Criteria The FA may, but is not obligated to, grant them a GBE.

This rule has caused complications for British clubs when looking to sign non-EEA players who do not meet the Automatic Criteria. For example, in 2014, the Argentinian Marcos Rojo missed three games of his first season with Manchester United after he failed to meet the Automatic Criteria.

Rule Two: Under the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (“RSTP“), a club may not sign an international player unless he is over the age of 18.  There are three exceptions to that rule, one of which is that European clubs may sign a player who is 16 years old provided that the transfer takes place within the EEA and the club commits to meet various minimum obligations relating to that player’s education, accommodation and football training.

This exception has naturally been a benefit to many British clubs and is, for example, the reason why Arsenal was able to sign Cesc Fabregas as a 16 year old from Barcelona.

What impact may Brexit have on these rules?

Rule One: Some post-Brexit commentary has suggested that once the UK leaves the EU (in whatever form that may take) British clubs will immediately be required to apply for work permits for all of their existing European players and any new European players they choose to sign.  Assuming the current immigration rules were maintained, this would be incredibly problematic for British clubs: it would drive up costs in the transfer window (as they would be required to only sign players who met the stringent GBE criteria) and would add significantly to the administrative burden on clubs (owing to the increased number of GBEs they would need to apply for).

However, there are two arguments against this line of reasoning. First, it would seem surprising if any changes to the Home Office’s immigration rules were made so as to have retrospective effect that would require subsisting European players to pack their bags and leave if they did not meet the GBE criteria. Second, it would again seem surprising if the Home Office and The FA chose together to maintain or create immigration rules that put one of the UK’s greatest exports, the Premier League, at a disadvantage to its European rival leagues.

Rule Two: In this author’s opinion, this rule may be much more of a problem for clubs once the UK leaves the EU.  This is because it is a FIFA rule and, as such, is not within the control of the British government or The FA.  Arguably, The FA could seek to lobby FIFA to change the FIFA RSTP so that British clubs continue to benefit from the exception to transfers of minors.  However, such an amendment would require the approval of the FIFA Executive Committee and it seems unlikely that an amendment, benefitting only one of FIFA’s Member Associations, would be approved.  After all, the British cannot have their cake and eat it!

If British clubs do lose the benefit of the ability to sign 16 year old players, this will naturally necessitate a change in the tactics of clubs during the transfer window.  MP Andy Burnham has suggested that Brexit may mean a greater investment in youth academies and home grown talent. Given the English performance at Euro 2016, this may be no bad thing (Scottish fans will no doubt agree; Welsh and Northern Irish fans, perhaps your club and national academies will become future inspiration!).

The first 100 days have not therefore given British clubs clear guidance on how player recruitment will be affected by Brexit.  This is, however, not surprising given the state of flux of other Brexit related issues…