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What effect could Brexit have on football transfers?

With only one transfer window remaining before the UK leaves the European Union (EU), Alex Walmsley, of Harrison Drury’s sports sector team, looks at what this will mean for football clubs come next summer’s transfer window and beyond.

Leaving the EU, or at least the European Economic Area (EEA), could potentially make it harder for British clubs to sign foreign players and may also halt the recruitment of young talent to British clubs.

The FIFA exemption, which allows clubs in the EEA to transfer players under 18-years-old, may no longer be applicable to British clubs. This may have both positive and negative implications.

Article 19 of the Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players bans the transfer of minors (i.e. players under the age of 18) and so, should this now be enforced against British clubs, young British players may have more opportunities and better access to academies.

However, this is balanced against the desires of clubs to have access to the best foreign players on offer, which in turn will help to raise the standard of British football. There are three exceptions to the ban. One: minors moving for non-footballing reasons; two: minors residing near a border; and three: transfers of minors between the age of 16 and 18 within the EU or EEA.

Will players from the EU require a work permit?

For players over the age of 18, difficulties and uncertainties still lie ahead post-Brexit. Should free movement not be agreed between the UK and the EU for their respective citizens, potential signings of EU migrants are likely to require a work permit.

This has often been the downfall of attempts to sign younger foreign players from outside of the EU in the past, particularly at short notice. However, the position with UK work permits has not yet been determined post-Brexit.

Therefore, foreign footballers may prefer to build their careers in Spain, France or Germany, where the immigration route is clearer, rather than the British leagues.

To get a work permit, a player must obtain a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the Football Association (FA) and must meet strict criteria based on what proportion of their national team’s competitive games they have played in the last two years, with higher percentages required for lower-FIFA ranked nations.

It is thought the FA would seek to negotiate an exemption with the government to work around these visa rules, but currently there is no indication of whether this will happen or, if it does, how long it would take to finalise.

What would this mean for current Premier League players?

This would mean around a third of current Premier League players would need to obtain a work permit as of next season and it is estimated that around 25%, who previously did not require a permit under freedom of movement, would not obtain a permit upon application.

However, if a player does not automatically qualify for a permit, their prospective (signing) club can apply to the exceptions panel, arguing that the player’s experience and value mean that they should be granted a GBE, despite their lack of international experience.

The panel operates on a points-based system, awarding points if the club is paying a relatively high transfer fee for the player or relatively high wages, or if they have previously played for a club in a top league or competed in the Champions League.

The Exceptions Panel may award a GBE if the player has enough points, but it is at the discretion of the panel, which means it is impossible to say whether any player would definitely get a work permit at this stage. It is clearly a decision that would need to be taken on a case-by-case basis.

What does it mean for lower league clubs?

There is however a particular risk to the lower English and other British leagues, as the vast majority of EU migrants playing in these divisions may not qualify for a work permit, as they will be uncapped for their respective native countries.

For example, Riyad Mahrez, who was the PFA Player of the Year in Leicester City’s title win in 2015/16, would not have been able to play when he was signed from Le Havre in 2015. However, due to his £60m price tag and high wages in his move to Manchester City in 2018, he would be likely to qualify for a GBE in that case.

Could this spell the end for clubs obtaining undiscovered foreign talent? Is it also possible that the divide between the Premier League and the lower leagues will grow even larger?

An FA spokesperson said: “We are continuing to work with the Premier League, English Football League and a range of Government departments during this consultation period.”

Whatever is resolved, it seems likely at this stage that EU footballers aged 18 and over (and those under 18 within the EEA) will remain free to move to British clubs until the end of 2020, when the transition period proposed by the UK Government ends. After this, British clubs could well be at a serious disadvantage to their European counterparts, should no resolution be reached.

Harrison Drury’s sports law team can assist sports clubs, players and regulatory bodies with dispute resolution matters. For more information please contact Alex Walmsley on 01772 258321.

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