When he first became a handball goalkeeper, Maroš Kolpak probably never thought that his name would later become synonymous with a European Court ruling which has been crucial in allowing many sportspersons from countries outside Europe to play their sport within the EU. Not a bad claim to fame!
In 1995, the European Court of Justice made clear in the Bosman case that the principle of freedom of movement of workers meant that an EU resident should not be restricted from working anywhere within the EU due to their nationality and that sport was no exception.
In 2003, the Court was asked a slightly different question in Kolpak, as Mr Kolpak was Slovakian and therefore not an EU citizen (at that time). However, Slovakia had an Association Agreement with the EU. The Court found that the existence of the Association Agreement effectively extended the principle of freedom of movement of workers to Slovakian nationals and that having a quota on the number of foreign players (as was the case here) was a restriction to that freedom.
Therefore, in short, quotas regarding the nationality of players (e.g. no more than 2 players of foreign nationality in a team) could not be applied to EU citizens or citizens of nations with Association Agreements with the EU.
In the UK, this ruling has been most keenly felt by cricket and rugby. In both domestic cricket and rugby, teams had long been restricted to a limited number of overseas players, but suddenly this opened an inviting pathway to getting around such team quotas. This was particularly interesting for cricket and rugby given the identity of some of the countries that were signed up to applicable Association Agreements and those countries’ sporting pedigree.
South Africa is certainly one of them, with a long history of producing excellent rugby players and cricketers. If your county cricket team is restricted to just one overseas player, it is a nice loophole that allows you to bring in South Africans, as well as West Indians or Zimbabweans to bolster your squad without breaching the overseas rule. While the ECB tried to impose limitations, such as charging counties for each Kolpak player fielded, it did not wholly work. In one County Championship game in 2008, Leicestershire and Northamptonshire between them fielded 13 overseas players out of 22. A few more than the planned 1 per side!
I bring all this up because there has been a recent rush of South African Kolpak signings to English counties, with 3 recent Test players confirmed to be coming to the County Championship and more potentially seeking similar agreements for next summer.
There could be any number of personal circumstances that cause a player to want to come to England to play cricket and give up the chance to play international cricket for South Africa (a side effect of being a “Kolpak” player). However, it is being reported that this recent rush may well have a link with Brexit.
As the UK currently prepares to leave the European Union, it is uncertain what the position will be with regards to many of the legal aspects. One of them is the question of whether decisions made by the Court of Justice will any longer have any bearing in the UK. It could well be that rulings such as Bosman and Kolpak will no longer have any effect in UK law, which could mean the Kolpak route being shut.
If governing bodies no longer have the effect of their quotas curtailed by European laws, and no UK equivalent is put in place, they would then have the choice as to whether to strictly apply quotas and other nationality restrictions. Would they stick to the status quo that we have become used to over the last 10 years? Or would they remove the Kolpak option?
Some would argue that restricting overseas players allows more places for local players to come through, develop and improve which in turn can increase the quality and strength in depth of the national side. Others though would argue that judicious use of overseas players helps strengthen the team itself and many overseas players can provide valuable experience and mentoring relationships with younger players which again may help the development and improvement of local players.
Whatever else may happen with Brexit over the coming months and years, its implications for overseas players may be one for sports fans to watch out for.