Brexit divides EPL, FA over player visas

Even English soccer is split over what do to about Brexit.

As the U.K. government struggles to forge its own plan to leave the European Union, it’s told the Premier League to put together a joint proposal with the sport’s national ruling body for dealing with player visas after Brexit, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur pokes Roberto Firmino of Liverpool in the eye as they battle for the ball during the Premier League match between Spurs and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium on Saturday in London. Post Brexit, the Premier League wants its clubs to be free to sign any foreign players they choose, whether from Europe or outside Europe, without being forced to submit criteria to support their application.
Jan Vertonghen of Tottenham Hotspur pokes Roberto Firmino of Liverpool in the eye as they battle for the ball during the Premier League match between Spurs and Liverpool at Wembley Stadium on Saturday in London. Post Brexit, the Premier League wants its clubs to be free to sign any foreign players they choose, whether from Europe or outside Europe, without being forced to submit criteria to support their application.  (Julian Finney / GETTY IMAGES)

The Premier League’s worry is that limits to freedom of movement, a hallmark of EU membership, will reduce the number of European players available from the $5 billion global transfer market. For its part, the Football Association has concerns about the chances of English players and sees Brexit as an opportunity for home-grown talent.

Like the political leadership, the two organizations are hoping for a compromise that can ultimately benefit the England international team while clubs in soccer’s richest competition can still keep maximum access to the EU’s single market.

English players in the Premier League account for only about a third of available game time. The FA oversees the England team and is looking to build on successes at junior level and in this year’s World Cup in Russia, where one of the youngest squads in the 32-team tournament reached the semi-finals.

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“To regain the trust of the public post-Brexit, businesses will have to balance their desire for skills from outside the U.K. with a commitment to developing skills in the local population,” said Mark Gregory, EY’s chief economist. “Football fans are likely to respond positively to plans that allow them to see the best players while supporting the growth of local talent and boosting the England team.”

Immigration was one of the key drivers of Britain’s vote to leave the EU. Swathes of the country protested the influx of people into the labour market, particularly from eastern Europe in poorer regions of the U.K. But the Premier League trades on its global appeal and its proliferation of international stars, with even smaller clubs fielding a minority of domestic players.

At the moment, clubs can buy players from within the EU without the need to meet any of the strict qualifying criteria that restricts signings from outside Europe. Clubs can also sign players as young as 16 from the EU for their academies. Examples include Chelsea midfielder Cesc Fabregas, a Spaniard who came through neighbouring Arsenal’s ranks.

The Home Office, which is responsible for immigration issues in Britain, said in a statement that it recognizes “the need for sports, including football, rugby and cricket, to continue to access talent from the EU and globally and are in ongoing discussions with professional sport about this.”

Post Brexit, the Premier League wants its clubs to be free to sign any foreign players they choose, whether from Europe or outside Europe, without being forced to submit criteria to support their application. But in return it might be ready to accept a higher number of domestic players in squads, according to the person familiar with the situation, who declined to be identified because the talks are private.

Currently, they must name at least eight out of 25, though the rule has failed to prevent some teams from taking the field without a single home-grown player, as London club Chelsea did last weekend against Cardiff City, before Ross Barkley emerged as a second-half substitute.

An FA spokesperson said the organization was working with the Premier League, the lower-tier English Football League and a range of government departments, including the Home Office and Treasury during the consultation period.

A Premier League spokesman said its 20 clubs are waiting for more clarity on the “political and regulatory landscape” after the U.K. leaves the EU.