As the British parliament prepares to vote on Theresa May’s Brexit deal on January 15th and as the March 29th deadline swiftly approaches, it is worth considering how Brexit will affect the European soccer landscape. Brexit, the United Kingdom’s landmark decision to abandon the European Union, has left many things in flux, from trade deals to freedom of movement; one of the untoward consequences of a potential Brexit is a weakened Premier League. Under the current plan for a post-Brexit Premier League, the center of power could shift quite a lot, as mid-table Premier League clubs especially will lose buying power; however, La Liga and Ligue Un in particular could see the quality of their clubs surge.
Ever since the Bosman ruling in 1995, which granted freedom of movement for players without a contract, the EPL has seen an influx of international players join the league. Because of freedom of movement within the EU, players from Spain and France especially have flooded the “English” league. In fact, the Premier League has the fewest proportion of native players of any of the top five leagues in Europe, with only 34% of players being English in 2017. Meanwhile, 6% of the league is Spanish and 5% is French.
If Brexit went into effect, other EU nationals would have the same classification as a player from Brazil for instance. A Brazilian seeking to play in the Premier League would need to get an endorsement from the FA, which releases guidelines every year to help clubs meet the criteria for endorsement. The easiest path to endorsement is for the player to be a regular with his national team, with the requirements scaled to the quality of the national team (see table below). However, a club can appeal this requirement if the proposed transfer fee is above average for the Premier League, and the team is willing to make the player one of the highest earners in the squad.
With the same work permit requirements as non-EU players have today, a huge number of current Spanish and French players would struggle to qualify to play in England if they were transferring now. For a player from No. 2 ranked France or No. 9 Spain to get a work permit they would have needed to play in 30% of national team matches in the last 24 months. While many top six sides can buy superstars like Paul Pogba or David Silva, who are leaders of their national sides, consider the case of Manchester United’s Spaniard Ander Herrera.
He has only a single Spain cap in the past 24 months, only two in his entire career, and most importantly none when Manchester United bought him in 2014. Although his transfer fee was 36 million, well above the league average, he is certainly not one of the club’s top earners nor do I think the club would try to make him one just to make the transfer go through.
If Herrera was unable to move from Athletic Bilbao to Manchester United, wouldn’t the player rather stay in Spain or move to a top five league other than England than become a top earning player at some mid table Premier League side? In his case, unless he wanted to play below his level, the Brexit rules would seem to support his staying out of England.
Really, these new rules would hurt the smaller clubs in the EPL most. For example, while Watford might be willing to make four-cap Spanish winger Gerard Deulofeu a top paid player at the club, his countrymen Kiko Femenia and Marc Navarro probably wouldn’t make the cut. Additionally, uncapped Frenchman Abdoulaye Doucoure and his compatriot Etienne Capoue, who hasn’t played for France in years, would likely struggle to get in the door.
There are countless non-British EU players who play for teams outside the top six who would struggle to get work permits under the new rules. Therefore, more of these players would probably remain in their own domestic leagues, or they would head to other highly competitive leagues – e.g. the Spanish and French leagues – in the future. The effect of Brexit then could be to gut the competitivity of the Premier League while increasing quality and parity within La Liga and Ligue Un.
Would these changes be good for soccer? Hard to say. While La Liga would likely get a huge new TV deal, and Ligue Un would benefit massively from actually retaining some of its riches, the Premier League could be in deep trouble. As a result of the current TV deal for the EPL, even a newly promoted side like Fulham can spend over 100 million in the summer window. With a weakened ability to buy foreign players, the runaway premium on English players that we have seen in the past few years could yet increase further – see the ludicrous fees for average players like Michael Keane or Jordan Pickford. In an ideal world, teams would begin investing heavily in youth; however, there is a future where clubs like Burnley and West Ham get into a bidding war somewhere into the 40 million territory over players like James Ward-Prowse or Will Hughes. Essentially while Manchester City, Liverpool, and the rest of the top six clubs can still buy whomever they want, the rest of the league will likely waste money in an ever-inflating, internal market for British players.
If this version of events comes to pass, could we ever see another Leicester-like team challenge the systematically entrenched giants? Leicester, who won the Premier League in 2016, would not have been able to put together their championship side if the post-Brexit rules applied. N’Golo Kante, now a household name, was an uncapped and unknown Frenchman when the Foxes signed him from Caen in 2015. His midfield play along with the attacking talents of Jamie Vardy and Riyad Mahrez and the defensive sturdiness of Wes Morgan were key to Leicester’s success. Under Brexit rules, Leicester would have struggled to sign Kante. How many Leicesters-in-waiting will never come to fruition without freedom of movement? After the vote on January 15th, we may begin to find out.