In less than four weeks, barring some sort of rethink or extension, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. The impact extends to football. For example, as part of the EU, the Premier League could not impose restrictions on hiring foreigners from within the union and the larger European Economic Area (EEA). Now, it can set itself whatever rules it likes, subject to approval from the Football Association (FA) and, of course, the UK government.
On Tuesday, following months of negotiations, the FA, Premier League and Football League unveiled a new framework of regulations to govern the post-Brexit era. They cover the men’s and women’s games and aren’t limited to players, but provide guidelines for managers, assistant coaches, directors of football and performance managers too. Basically, work visas will be handed out based on a points system, which considers club and international appearances, age and the quality of the league a player joins from. It’s a similar principle for the non-playing positions.
The idea is to help further develop the game in England, by limiting access to the best and brightest. In reality, it’s most likely a great big nothing-burger, with a dollop of posturing and politics layered on top. Most of the regulations have little effect and, for those who do, there’s a convenient “exceptions panel” that, if appeals panels under the old work permit rules are anything to go by, will be closer to a “rubber stamp” panel. Oh, and on top of that, virtually all the EU players already in the United Kingdom will be grandfathered in, so most of the effects of these regulations won’t be felt for several years — by which point there could be a bunch of entirely new rules.
That’s a bit negative. What’s the most significant change?
The biggest change has nothing to do with the new regulations, but is a natural result of Brexit. With very few exceptions, FIFA bans the transfer of underage players from one country to another. It’s only allowed if the player resides near a land border (and the club he joins is less than 30 miles away) or if his parents move for “legitimate non-footballing reasons” or if the move is within the 30-nation EEA, which the United Kingdom will leave as of Jan. 1, 2021.
Had the rule been in place earlier, players like Paul Pogba (the first time around), Cesc Fabregas or Gerard Pique could not have come to the Premier League. But, in fact, transfers of minors across borders are increasingly rare anyway; they usually occurred because clubs found a loophole. Considering that in most countries you can’t sign a professional contract until you turn 16 or 17, they’d wait until a kid’s 16th or 17th birthday and sign him as a free agent, paying only minimal compensation to his previous club. That doesn’t really happen much anymore.
Plus, there are workarounds.
You can reach a deal with his club, sign the player and leave him on loan until his 18th birthday. Or you can use a “bridge club,” a team within the EEA that signs the player on your behalf and then moves him on when he becomes of age. Some English clubs have partnerships with EEA clubs, others (such as Watford or Manchester City) have common shareholders. It may cost you a bit more, but you can get around it.
The single most significant impact might be felt by clubs who scout heavily in the Republic of Ireland. Traditionally, a number of Irish players join English academies at the age of 16 and complete their development there. Now, that’s more difficult.
What about the points system? Won’t that ensure quality control on the players who come in?
For a start, the regulations are pretty generous. The vast majority of players who signed for Premier League clubs in the past four or five years would have fulfilled the criteria. And, like I said, for those who don’t, there’s the exceptions panel.
OK, but what about managers? I read that Manchester United would not have been able to hire Ole Gunnar Solskjaer, for example.
More accurately, he wouldn’t have met the criteria, but again, I refer you to the exceptions panel. We don’t know what they would have done, but I’d find it extraordinary if they had the intestinal fortitude to go to Manchester United — a club that generates considerable revenue for the league and English football as a whole — and tell them who they can or cannot hire. It’s their money. The same, frankly, applies to the all those requirements for assistant coaches, directors of football and performance managers (whatever that is). And even in the extremely unlikely scenario where the exceptions panel says no, there’s nothing stopping the cub from hiring a figurehead for the role and paying the guy they want as a consultant. This used to happen all the time when there were strict rules requiring coaching qualifications and a club wanted a guy who hadn’t yet obtained them.
There are limits on the number of foreign under-21 players a club can sign. Surely that’s significant?
That might be the biggest joke of all. The limit is six per season. Do you know how many foreign players aged between 18 and 21 the Premier League’s Big Six signed during the entire 2019-20 campaign? Three: William Saliba and Gabriel Martinelli at Arsenal, and Pedro Porro at Manchester City.
You assume the limit was introduced with the thinking that, considering clubs can no longer sign under-18s from abroad, they’ll suddenly try to hoard under-21s. But it doesn’t really make sense because it’s not as if they were importing boatloads of under-18s. Last year, the Big Six signed a grand total of 16 under-18s from abroad. Chuck in the three guys in the 18-to-21 age group and that takes you 19. So why put a cap of six in a category where the six biggest — and most active — clubs only signed 3.1 each last season?
It sounds like these restrictions aren’t really restrictions at all. Premier League clubs can still mostly do exactly what they want. So what’s the point?
You’re right. And the Premier League can do what they want because, ultimately, they have all the leverage. They drive elite English football, not the Football Association. But, hey, they had to come up with something and they didn’t want the FA to lose face entirely so they made a bunch of largely irrelevant rules.
And, to be fair, deep down, I think the FA was OK with that and not just because they weren’t humiliated.
Because the more intelligent folks at the FA know that markets and competition work and quotas, generally, do not. England have the best crop of young players that they’ve had in years. At U21 level, they qualified for the past seven European Championships. Prior to that, they had qualified for just two of the previous nine. They’ve reached five of the past seven U20 World Cups. Before that, it was three out of six. They’ve qualified for four of the past seven Under-17 World Cups, becoming world champions in 2017. Before 2007, they had never even qualified for one.
How did England produce all these gifted youngsters? By having world-class training facilities and world-class coaching. That costs money, and much of the tab was picked up by Premier League clubs, who have been wildly successful in the past two decades. Being able to play and train against more of the best in the world has made English players better.
The FA know this and they don’t want to lose that competitive advantage. So they pretended to do something with their new regulations but, in fact, all they’re doing is largely preserving the status quo. Which, of course, suits the Premier League just fine.
So yeah, to quote the Bard: “Much ado about nothing.”