Premier League’s Brexit battle with FA over foreign stars

Enzo Fernandez – Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

The Football Association will fight any attempt to make this happen easier for Premier League clubs to sign even more foreign players to fill their squads for fear of damaging the English national team.

The governing body will strongly advocate this point of Brexit and exit from the European Union it hasn’t hurt England’s chances of developing players and winning major tournaments and there is a danger of that happening.

While the FA agrees that the current system needs to be simplifiedwill argue that it must take place alongside a full review of player development in England.

In announcing its long-awaited plans for an independent football regulator last week the government also revealed that it was considering amending the rules on visas to make it easier for clubs to hire foreign players.

It follows a request by the Premier League to change the so-called Governing Body Approval (GBE) system set up after Brexit to oversee the issuing of work permits.

The GBE system was set up by the Home Office and is overseen by the FA for football and there are already concerns that there is a lack of opportunities for young talent as England lags far behind the other major European leagues.

The FA has a target of 38 per cent of English players in the Premier League. Currently, that total share is 32 percent and only 28 percent in the top six teams – far lower than European leagues.

Before Brexit, all clubs had access to European markets and limited access to non-European markets. There is now a points system based on a weighted system including the strength of the league they come from and number of international appearances. The FA will oppose the reduction of the total number of points.

Premier League clubs will lobby to change this to, for example, allow more players from the lower leagues – a case cited is Riyad Mahrez signed by Leicester City from French Ligue 2 – and, crucially, to change the so-called an “exceptions panel” that looks at young players. It seems that the Government wants to abolish such boards because some sports use them arbitrarily.



The FA argue that clubs are not really using the system effectively enough and that if the rules are too loose it will hurt England. For example, clubs can already sign up to six under-21 players from overseas – which would make a total of 120 across 20 clubs – but have only brought in eight this season.

At the same time, they signed 142 foreign players – more than any other season in the last decade and almost double the last year before Brexit. There has been a tripling of non-EU players (77) since the 2019-20 season.

An FA source said: “We want to help the Premier League clubs but we cannot allow the England team to be damaged along the way. We think there is a way we can protect the England team and help the clubs, but a compromise will be required.”

The FA is determined to prevent the recruitment of foreign ‘team additions’

The FA is therefore determined to prevent what it calls “squad fillers” – mediocre players or assistants – coming in from abroad that will deny homegrown talent a chance.

The FA insists that any changes to the visa system must benefit the development of young players, not just lower the bar to allow more players from abroad.

Richard Masters, chief executive of the Premier League, said the current rules represented a “pretty rigid system” that needed “moderation to make it work better”. He told the Financial Times Business of Football Summit: “If you’re outside of Europe, you can’t buy younger players, in the same way you could before.”

The point of Brexit wasn’t to hurt the English team – but that’s what the clubs will do

When Chelsea signed Andrey Santos for £16m in the January transfer window, it appeared the hugely talented Brazilian had been denied a work permit due to the unfair system in place.

The fact is the 18-year-old would have been accepted had Chelsea not already filled their quota of six foreign under-21 players this season with Wesley Fofano, Cesare Casedei, Gabriel Slonin, Benoît Badiashile, Mykhail Mudryk and Enzo Fernández.

Therefore, Chelsea’s decision to register a record £106m signing of Fernández, rather than Santos, to take the sixth and final spot, dented his chances. And that is a Premier League rule, not a rule imposed on Premier League clubs by the Government or the Football Association that the maximum number should be six.

Vested interests collide

The case highlights the complicated and conflicted world of transfers and work permits post-Brexit where interests collide. In a way the system has freed the Premier League clubs, but they don’t seem to see it that way.

Instead they want the rules to be looser; some mostly want a free-for-all where clubs can buy and sell whoever they want, from where they want – and do so because they have the financial power as part of the richest league in the world.

But there is a genuine fear that it will have a disastrous effect on England players and the England national team. And surely that wasn’t the point of Brexit?

The system is under discussion and will change. The government signaled this by publishing its White Paper, primarily around the introduction of an independent regulator.

Premier League clubs undoubtedly want what is called a “lower bar”. The FA will counter by asking: who are the players you are not getting through the system? In a sense it’s a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario because clubs can counter that by saying: we didn’t try to pursue them because we can’t get them.

‘Post-Brexit rules make it easier to sign non-European players’

However, Brighton made good use of it. They identified and exploited the South American market – Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo and Facundo Buonanotte – and the fact that post-Brexit rules now actually make it easier to sign non-European players.

Meanwhile, Fernández is an interesting example. Wolverhampton Wanderers are understood to have considered signing the Argentine midfielder last summer, but a deal failed to materialise. There was similarly Premier League interest in Mudryk. Both would have gone through the current government body support (GBE) system, but instead, Chelsea paid £200m for them in January and that £200m left the Premier League.

Chelsea's Ukrainian midfielder Mykhailo Mudryk (L) and Chelsea's Argentine midfielder Enzo Fernandez (R) warm up before the start of the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Fulham - GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Chelsea’s Ukrainian midfielder Mykhailo Mudryk (L) and Chelsea’s Argentine midfielder Enzo Fernandez (R) warm up before the start of the English Premier League soccer match between Chelsea and Fulham – GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

It’s also, at least in this case, a Chelsea problem, not a system problem. In theory, among them, the 20 Premier League clubs could have signed 120 foreign players under the age of 21 this season, but they signed only eight. The system does not appear to be down. In fact it was barely used.

At the moment it is in danger of being a ‘lose, lose, lose’ situation for the FA, the Premier League and the EFL as young domestic players are not getting opportunities and clubs are having to pay more and more money to get players from abroad.

Let’s take another example: Pedro Porro. The 23-year-old Spanish defender was at Manchester City but had to move to Spain and then to Portugal due to a lack of playing opportunities. In the end, Tottenham Hotspur bought him for £40m from Sporting – and that’s £40m lost to the English game from a player who was in the system. More relevant is the case of Jadon Sancho – who left City for Germany only to be brought back to England by Manchester United from Borussia Dortmund for £73 million.

There is a huge trade deficit for the Premier League – £739m has been spent on players this season, with just £101m in sales. This is partly because the system fails to develop value in young players and does not give them a chance to play.

The numbers are alarming: the number of minutes played by English players under the age of 21 this season in the first division is slightly more than 20,000. For France, it is 70,000 minutes for players under 21 years of age, and for Spain, 40,000 minutes.

This means that only 30 percent of the minutes under the age of 21 in the Premier League are played by English players. In both France and Spain it is more than twice as high as 69 percent.

The depth is simply not there for England compared to other countries. Only two – Phil Foden and Conor Gallagher – from the 2017 Under-17 World Cup-winning squad made Gareth Southgate’s squad for Qatar.

Partly it is also, arguably, a product of the Premier League being so strong and a magnet for top talent – something that nobody wants to stop. It’s a phenomenally successful league and it would be reckless to ban it from continuing to do so. But she should not be allowed to use that economic power to buy and sell as she pleases.

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