18 July 2019
There are fears that dozens of overseas players, including German international Mesut Ozi (pictured here), might be forced to leave Britain when the country departs from the EU. Photo: Reuters
There are fears that dozens of overseas players, including German international Mesut Ozi (pictured here), might be forced to leave Britain when the country departs from the EU. Photo: Reuters

Football in post-Brexit Britain

It is now a year since the British electorate voted to leave the European Union (EU). The government has since triggered the EU article that is needed to finalize the country’s departure from the world’s largest trading block, a process commonly referred to as Brexit.

To ease Britain’s exit, Theresa May, the country’s prime minister, recently called a general election with the aim of increasing her majority in parliament. However, May misjudged the situation, her party winning fewer seats in the parliament than she had anticipated, resulting in her needing to form a coalition government. Observers argue this coalition is fragile and that it will collapse within a relatively short period of time.

For outsiders, this might seem like political intrigue at its best. From inside Britain however, the story is not quite so entertaining or compelling. Indeed, the difficulties that Brexit and the general election have brought are creating divisions and a dip in economic performance that has left many Brits fearful of the future.

As the country has focused on the big issues, industries in general have been trying to second-guess what will happen next. With the Brexit clock now counting down to March 2019 (by which time Britain must leave the EU), there is little time to resolve a multitude of issues ranging from access to the EU’s free market to challenges associated with the free movement of labor to the nature of regulatory interventions the British government will make in the country’s post-EU incarnation.

Nowhere are such matters more relevant than in football. For more than a year, speculation has been rife about the impact Brexit might have on sport in Britain. Initially, several studies identified that hundreds of overseas players might be forced to leave the country when Britain departs from the EU as they would fail to meet the country’s current non-EU work permit requirements. Amongst the players originally mentioned in this context as being in danger were German international Mesut Ozil and Frenchman N’Golo Kante.

Whilst these fears appear to have somewhat subsided, it remains unclear what the position of many overseas players in Britain might be after 2019. Indeed, there is now a general silence around the matter, presumably because the government is not really clear about what its actual position on this matter is. Based on experience, some sort of exemption will be negotiated with relevant bodies from football to ensure that an important source of resource is not prevented from entering the country.

Previously, the British government has negotiated a path through immigration problems with the likes of English football’s Premier League (PL). It therefore seems likely that this will happen again in the run-up to and post-Brexit. However, both parties will still be anxious to ensure that a solution is quickly developed and effectively implemented. After all, the Premier League is a source of competitive advantage for the British economy, generating hundreds of millions of pounds for the country each year.

The PL will not want its self-styled positioning as ‘the best in the world’ to be undermined by the loss of its stellar cast of international stars. These players and managers are important brands in their own right, but are also constituent parts of the PL brand too. Should Brexit threaten the relatively free movement of players and coaches into Britain, then it would no doubt threaten the long-term economic security of the competition.

May and her advisors will be acutely aware of this, especially given the government’s use of PL football as a soft-power tool. Not only does English football sell and contribute to national economic well-being, it also helps sell the country, its businesses, its language and its values in general to the rest of the world. The pressure is on May to get this right, and football fans (as well as those who have invested millions into the sport) will be watching closely.

As the British government and the country’s football authorities ponder steps they will need to take to maintain their market positions, it seems that the sport and its clubs may already be suffering the consequences of last year’s Brexit vote. Football in Britain is dependent upon foreign talent, recent figures from UEFA indicating that almost 70 percent of PL players are foreign.

Yet with the post-Brexit value of the pound having fallen by around 20 percent against the US dollar, these players have become markedly more expensive to acquire over the last year. Not only has the weak pound affected transfer fees, it has also made wages more expensive too. Among the consequences of this is a sense that several players have already decided to sign for clubs elsewhere, rather than moving to England.

Furthermore, with further economic difficulties being forecast for 2019, accompanied by a period of fiscal austerity, Britain may cease to be the preferred destination for international football players seeking a financial bonanza.

Some commentators will see this as a much-needed moderation of what has, at times over the last two decades, seemed like a massively over-heated market for playing talent. At the same time, other people will claim that fewer international players signing for British clubs will be a good thing, as it helps to provide more opportunities for domestic talent to develop. In turn, the feeling will be that this should positively influence performances among the national teams of Britain (England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales).

Whatever the outcome, little could most voters have known how profoundly their vote in 2016′s referendum could affect football. But it has and it will. What is significant from now on is the way in which May and her government responds. The problem is, as with virtually every other aspect of life post-Brexit, it remains unclear what happens next.

To use a football metaphor, Britain and its football is not quite yet in injury time. But the clock is ticking and someone needs to score, especially if the country is to remain at the top of the global football game. Theresa May needs to put the ball in the back of the net!

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The Premier League is a source of competitive advantage for the British economy, generating hundreds of millions of pounds for the country each year. Photo: Reuters

Given that Premier League football serves as a soft-power tool, Theresa May faces pressure to resolve the issue of overseas players. Photo: Reuters

Simon Chadwick is Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford University Manchester in the UK, where he is Co-Director of the Centre for Sports Business. He is also a Senior Fellow of the University of Nottingham's China Policy Institute.

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