Anxiety over the economic impacts of Brexit
have plagued businesses in the UK, Europe and around the
world since the 2016 Referendum. The UK government’s lack of clarity and failure to negotiate a
smooth transition out of European Union has left
an immeasurable amount of potential impacts on businesses.
English football is not immune from these impacts, with the Premier League’s brand
as ‘the best league in the world’ through its multinational inclusion
of the best footballing talent under threat. Through the Maastricht treaty, and the subsequent
Bosman ruling in 1995, the Premier League has hugely
benefitted from the freedom of labour movement within the EU. Brexit, for obvious reasons,
would hinder movement.
EU players and those from European Economic Area countries will now likely be subject
to the same visa and work permit restrictions as players from
countries outside of the EU, making the criteria for signing
players stricter. According to football finance lecturer Kieran Maguire, this would potentially
push up the price of imports by “10 to 15 percent”
due to the extra paperwork. The FA, however, see Brexit as an opportunity.
The number of English players playing in the Premier League
has been negatively affected by the appetite for foreign players.During the inaugural Premier
League season in 1992-93, English players started 70% of
games. In the 2017/18 season, English players started just 33% of
games, a significant reduction and far less than the proportion of native talents in the
Bundesliga (47.1%), La Liga (58%), Serie A (42.8%) and Ligue 1 (53.2%).
In November 2018, the FA published its plan to reduce the current threshold of non-homegrown
players in a club’s 25-man squad from 17 to 13 by 2021
and have stated that these changes are regardless of any
specificities in a deal negotiated between the British government and the European Union.
The FA believe that Brexit would allow English players to
receive more game-time and, therefore, better development. The
Premier League has categorically rejected this view, stating that there is “no evidence
that stronger quotas than exist now would have a positive impact
on national teams”. While the FA’s argument seems logical it
is likely based on a series of ideas driven by confirmation bias.
The English national team has underperformed relative to public expectation since the inception
of the Premier League. This view was exacerbated
by the fortunes of the ill-fated ‘golden generation’ of the midto-
late 2000s. English clubs, littered with integral English players, were performing exceptionally
in European competitions. Between 2004/05 and
2008/09 there was an English club in every final of the
Champions League and an incredible three out of four in the semi-finals of 07/08 and 08/09.
The likes of Gary Neville, Rio Ferdinand, John Terry, Ashley Cole, Steven Gerrard, Frank
Lampard, Paul Scholes, David Beckham and Wayne Rooney were
all star quality players able to be decisive for the clubs on
the grandest of stages. For the national team, however, the group disappointed. Speaking
before the lowlight of the generation, the defeat to Croatia which
confirmed England’s failure to qualify for Euro2008, Gerrard
aired his views on England’s struggles: “I think there is a risk of too many foreign
players coming over, which would affect our national team eventually
if it’s not already. It is important we keep producing
players.” This theme of thinking was echoed by numerous
other figures in the game, including Sir Alex Ferguson,
Sepp Blatter, Michel Platini and the FA’s chairman Greg Dyke.
Stefan Szymanski and Simon Kuper’s Soccernomics highlights the problems with import substitution
in specific reference to English football. If
English clubs were allowed to discriminate against players from
foreign countries, they claim, the quality would decline due to not just factors relating
to quality, but motivation for native footballers; “If inferior
English players were handed places in Premier League teams,
they would have little incentive to improve.” Due to the transparent nature of football’s
labour market, economic theory dictates that, in the instance of
free labour movement, the best players naturally congregate in the best quality leagues due
to the meritocratic nature of football’s finances
and the promotion and relegation structure. Therefore, English
footballers’ have the distinct advantage of the world’s premier football competition
in their back garden; the highest development standard is set for them.
Szymanski and Kuper back up their hypothesis with statistics, comparing England’s performances
in the era of a ‘British league’, from 1968 to 1992,
with their performances since 1998 (deliberately leaving out the
1966 World Cup as it was an anomaly played exclusively at home). They found that ‘In
that first ‘British’ period up to 1992, England reached just one
World Cup semi-final, in 1990. However, that was an exception.
In those years, England reached the quarter-finals of major tournaments only four times in 13
attempts. By contrast, in the ‘international’ period
since 1998, they have reached four quarter-finals in just eight attempts.
Moreover, their win percentage at major tournaments jumped from 52% in 1968-1992 to 62% in the
‘international’ period The figures suggest that if anything, the
international league has been good for the England
team.”. Furthermore, Szymanski and Kuper’s statistical research took place before the
2018 World Cup, a tournament in which England reached the semi-final.
The Premier League’s claim that there is “no evidence that stronger quotas would
have a positive impact on national teams” certainly passes the eye
test. The very fact that the Premier League is so
fiercely competitive on a weekly basis both improves the
development of English-born players by setting a higher bar, but negatively affects the national
team in a way unrelated to talent development – exhaustion.
Wayne Rooney playing successive World Cups while
half-fit is a classic example. The Premier League’s competitiveness also makes clubs’
reliance on key players integral, sometimes in the form of rushing
them back from injury early. This can lead to severe drops in form
or reoccurring injuries, neither of which are particularly useful to the national team.
To combat exhaustion, the FA have agreed with the Premier League to introduce a ‘winter
break’, a ten-day hiatus in February, from the 2019/20 season
onwards. While this is a very short break in comparison to other
European leagues (for the 2018/19 season: Germany=22 days; France=16 days; Italy
=14 days; Spain=11 days), it is a significant step in the
right direction coupled with the scrapping of 5th round replays in the
FA Cup. It seems, therefore, that England’s ‘perceived’
underperformance less the fault of foreign imports in the
Premier League but more related to the unforgiving nature of the English football calendar and
managing squad harmony. Meaning, of course, that whatever
talent drain results from Brexit is unlikely to directly
linked to a dramatic improvement in the national team’s fortunes.