How Could a Leave Vote Impact on the Premier League?

Currently there are no restrictions on Premier League clubs signing players from other EU countries as long as they have space in their squad and are complying to the ‘home grown’ quota, but that could and probably will all change if the UK votes to leave the EU.

Let’s get any notion that there are any certainties out of the way right from the off.  The truth is; no one actually knows what the exact ramifications of a ‘Brexit’ will be no matter what either the Remain or Leave campaigns say.  We don’t give a net figure of £350million-a-week to the EU, a lot of that is offset with subsidies; the net contribution is closer to £160million-a-week not taking into account any economic benefits we receive from being a part of the union – the UK could even be in profit depending on some figures doing the rounds.  Nor are ‘two thirds of British jobs in manufacturing’ dependent on the EU; a closer estimate is 15% and even then that doesn’t necessarily mean those jobs are dependent on being a member of the EU, although the consensus among the experts is the UK will be financially worse off in the increasingly likely event of a break from the Europe.

That’s just one myth from either side debunked amid these wild claims being thrown at us on all too frequent intervals.  Both have a flimsy facade of dealing in facts but really it is all just speculation.  I cannot state with any guarantee that the scenarios I envisage below will play out word for word, I’m in the fog of uncertainty but it seems safe to say leaving the EU would have an impact on the Premier League.

Players from the EU could be subject to the same restrictions as non-EU players

A club wanting to sign a non-EU player has to apply for a work permit and the following criteria must be met:

‘A player must have played for his country in at least 75% of its competitive ‘A’ team matches he was available for selection, during the two years preceding the date of the application; and,

The player’s country must be at or above 70th place in the official FIFA world rankings when averaged over the two years preceding the date of the application.’

Incidentally, Manchester City’s new signing Ilkay Gundogan wouldn’t fit the bill.  I’d argue he’s probably the best central midfielder Germany have to offer but injury means he’s managed just five appearances in 11 competitive fixtures. Pep Guardiola could technically have been denied the man he opted to move for first after his switch to the Etihad in a post-EU exit Britain.

These restrictions were initially in response to the suggestion British clubs were ignoring English talent in favour of foreign players.  Since 2013 those rules have been stringently enforced, although it is possible to appeal if a player does not meet said criteria, prior to that ‘having the capacity to invest’ £1million or more was a humongous loophole in getting a visa – basically a big wage and you were in.

Those rules are specifically phrased as ‘non-EU’ players so it makes sense to assume that would quickly become non-UK players in the event of a victory for the Vote Leave campaign in the EU referendum. It is less clear what would happen to players already under contract but I would imagine they would allow current deals to be honoured. My thinking is the FA would allow a footballer’s contract to supersede an out vote as moving the goal posts isn’t really on when there’s so much at stake for the player himself and, more importantly, the clubs who have invested in their squads. It would be grossly unfair on the clubs to be forced into fire-sales as they would lose valuable assets for cut-price fees.

If we leave, a German could be an Argentine or a Frenchman could be South Korean it won’t make any difference to clubs trying to employ them, they’d all have to be internationals who regularly play in qualifiers and tournament games.  The exact wording is ‘played for his country’ not selected in the squad, so you’re looking at the starters and regular subs, Manchester United could forget David de Gea and the concept of Bojan at Stoke would be as ridiculous as it was before it actually happened.

But would that promote English talent and as such make the England international side stronger?

On a grand scale, almost certainly yes, as there would be more English players in the top flight.  But in the microcosm of the best 23-man squad for a tournament the argument for a stronger England team is a little shaky.

On the one hand enforcing the current foreign player rules on professionals from EU states would provide a bigger pool of options playing in a top league for the Three Lions to call upon. On the flip side is the idea that the better the opposition the better you have to be as coming up against the best the world has to offer on a weekly basis breeds improvement.  Ultimately, the view you take on this is simply which side of the argument you agree with. 

My viewpoint is the cream of English talent will rise to the top regardless and putting further restrictions on foreign imports won’t be a huge benefit to the national side.  Rather than facing world-class defenders week in, week out, the likes of Harry Kane and Jamie Vardy would be up against centre-halves who currently play at Championship level. Would they be as good if that were the case? Pretty soon we may find out.

At the Premier League’s inception in the 1992-93 season only 11 players named in the starting line-ups for the first round of matches were from outside the UK or Ireland, approximately 4.5%, but by 2009 under 40% of the players in the Premier League were English (thanks Wikipedia). But is the England team now markedly worse than the national side from the early 90s?  I would argue not particularly, you could use Italia 90 as an example where they reached the semi-finals, but four years later England failed to qualify for the World Cup in the USA.

Consider the England squad at Euro 2016 as an example; a number of quality players were left behind so it can’t really be said Roy Hodgson doesn’t have enough options.  The likes of Phil Jagielka, Leighton Baines, Jermain Defoe, Ryan Shawcross, Theo Walcott, Mark Noble, Michael Carrick, Andy Carroll, Andros Townsend, Jack Butland, Alex Oxlaide-Chamberlain, Kieran Gibbs, Luke Shaw, Fabian Delph and Phil Jones are all missing (admittedly some due to injury), that’s not even mentioning the travesty that is Danny Drinkwater’s omission.

In the event of a Brexit I expect the FA to enforce the current non-EU rules on all non British players.  Their ‘home grown’ rule was designed to promote English talent and considering they are already planning on making that rule stricter* I can’t envisage a scenario where they would change that tactic to allow dispensations for the signing of EU players in the event of an exit.  Such a situation will almost certainly lower the standard of the Premier League as a whole.

It would have a knock-on effect right the way down the football pyramid; from around the late 1990s the standards further down the divisions have improved due to the influx of top European talent in the Premier League, as the better players from the home nations filter down the divisions.  Derby’s Will Hughes and Sheffield Wednesday star Fernando Forestieri, for example, wouldn’t be playing in the Championship that’s for sure, the former because he’d be in the Premier League and the latter would be playing in Europe.

The squads at Old Trafford, the Emirates, Stamford Bridge, the Etihad Stadium and Anfield would look a lot different, as would every Premier League clubs come to think of it.  I don’t think there is an argument to suggest the division would get stronger if the UK leaves the EU.  There’s also the chance the bigger clubs would be hit less hard than the smaller ones.  If only top internationals could be signed by the likes of the Manchester powerhouses and London’s big guns a huge schism in quality could be created – as if the case in La Liga with Barcelona, Real Madrid and (against the odds) Atletico Madrid vastly superior to their rivals, although that is down to raw financial muscle rather than employment restrictions but the end would be much the same.  A repeat of Leicester’s title success, regarded by many as one of the greatest/most incredible events in Premier League history, would be even more unlikely.

What would happen to the Premier League as a product?

Football is a commodity, to use that hoary old chestnut, and the Premier League draws a huge audience from across the globe.  Most figures suggest it is the most watched league in world football and the latest TV rights deal backs that idea up.  But if the quality of the product is lowered, will there still be such a great demand?

Probably not. Interest would drop and La Liga, the Bundesliga and Serie A would be the ones to benefit as attentions would be turned away from England and into mainland Europe.  It stands to reason and I’ll use chocolate as an example; Cadbury’s changed the recipe of their Creme Egg product by replacing the Dairy Milk shell with a cheaper variation, leading to a £6million slump in sales. No matter how good a marketing campaign is quality will eventually win out and if the standard is higher in Spain, Germany, Italy and perhaps France the fans across the globe will drift away from the Premier League.

If we make it harder to bring in Europe’s top stars to the Premier League the viewing figures from across the channel will surely slide.  Belgium have loads of their best players in England but would fans in Brussels and Bruges still tune in to watch Manchester City and Liverpool if Kevin De Bruyne and Divock Origi weren’t playing there? I doubt it. Consider when David Beckham played for Real Madrid, AC Milan and Paris Saint-Germain, suddenly stories regarding those teams were more prominent in the news… and I wonder how many Los Blancos shirts have been sold in Wales since Gareth Bale became a Galactico.

Lower interest will lead to less money, and with that inevitably comes a further drop in quality.  Indeed a nightmare scenario could see foreign investors, the Abramovich and Glazer types, losing interest and abandoning their respective clubs.  This is very much a worse-case outcome of course but the threat is certainly there in the long-term even if it isn’t an immediate concern.

On the other hand it could result in a cheaper overall experience for the British fan as ticket prices may be lowered and TV subscriptions could become cheaper.  My gut feeling is the clubs and broadcasters will try and charge as much as they can for as long as they can to resist any sizeable price drop but if fans feel they’re not getting value for money that kind of policy can’t last forever.

It may also lead to the top English players departing the Premier League in search of a higher standard of football.  Would you rather play for Manchester United and have a chance to win the top domestic prize but have no hope of European glory, or would you rather move to Bayern Munich and challenge for the Champions League on a regular basis on a higher wage?  I know which one I’d go for.

I had hoped to produce a more balanced view rather than the doomsday scenarios I’ve suggested above.  I’ve also worked under the assumption that ‘non-EU’ rules will be enforced on all non-UK players, given the developments in the ‘home grown’* rule and the fact EU nationals (from across the spectrum of society, not just in football) would have the same laws placed on them in regards to working in the UK as those from outside the union, and if that doesn’t happen then changes will be minimal – if there are any at all. It could also be said that the Premier League and FA will want to protect their product as much as possible, and as such it is entirely plausible that they’ll come up with a new set of rules to allow the system to stay similar to how it is now, if not exactly the same. The reason I think it will go the other way is based on FA chairman Greg Dyke’s home grown push and a belief that sport won’t be made exempt from any new employment laws in the result of a break from the EU.

For what it’s worth I don’t think ‘what could happen to the Premier League?’ should influence anyone’s decision ahead of the EU referendum, but to assume football would be immune from any adverse effects if Britain does break from Europe is probably very naive.

Follow/abuse us on Twitter @GonzoSportsDesk, we’re not fancy we follow back.

Picture credit: Gwydion M. Williams on Flickr.

Further Reading;

Foreign player rules in the Premier League, via Wikipedia.

Home Grown rules, via Wikipedia.

*Further changes planned to the Home Grown Rules, via The FA.



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