Could ‘Brexit’ help England win the FIFA World Cup?

01/09/2017

England has not won the FIFA World Cup since becoming a member of the European Union (EU). The last time England took home the title of world soccer champions was 1966. The country, as part of the United Kingdom, joined the EU in 1973, seven years — or one World Cup — later.

While some blame under qualified coaches, or lack of facilities, there may be a more politically-oriented theory--- England has not won the FIFA World Cup because it became a member of the European Union.

While at first sight this may appear hyperbolic, a case can be made to this effect. It moreover is reflective of the wider debate that has engulfed English soccer in the months following the ‘Brexit’ referendum, between the Premier League — a professional league for men’s association soccer clubs — and the Football Association (FA) — English soccer’s governing body, and their respective positions thereto.

The Premier League relies for its reputation as the wealthiest and most watched domestic soccer competition in the world upon European players. According to Politico, of the 647 players who appeared in the 2015-2016 season, almost one-third — 208 — were from the EU.

Similarly, five managers of the league’s current top seven teams are non-British, EU nationals. The likes of Arsene Wenger, Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte, all European, are the finest managers in the land.

As EU citizens, players and coaches alike benefit from the free movement of persons — one of the EU’s ‘four freedoms’ — giving them the (near) automatic right to reside and work across 28 Member States. Per contra, for those hoping to sign from outside Europe, the Home Office requires that they obtain governing body endorsement [‘GBE’] from the FA before applying for a visa.

Players will automatically qualify if they have participated in a minimum percentage of senior competitive international matches for their national team in the preceding two years. The specific percentage is dependent on the country’s world ranking average, with the higher the ranking, the lesser the percentage required. Should they fail to qualify for automatic endorsement, players will be subject to a review system, where points are awarded based on, inter alia, their transfer fee, relative salary and the level at which they played for their previous club.

 A much more demanding standard, the New York Times has estimated that 135 first-team Premier League players may not prove eligible for GBE. Chelsea is reported to be the team that would be most affected, with 76 percent of its goals scored last season by EU nationals, while “fairy tales” like Leicester City’s “shock” success in the 2015-2016 season may be the first and last of its kind as neither Riyad Mahrez nor N’Golo Kanté — winners of the Professional Footballers’ Association Player of the Year Award — would have qualified for work permits.

Since Premier League teams can qualify for UEFA competitions, this would put English clubs at a competitive disadvantage compared to their continental rivals, who will continue to benefit from the free movement provisions.

A further consequence of non-membership will be removal of a loophole to FIFA’s prohibition on the international transfer of players under the age of 18. An EU exemption has allowed English academies to scout, recruit and sign young European talent. Cesc Fabregas, for example, signed for Arsenal from the Barcelona youth academy when he was just 16. “Post-Brexit,” this would be impossible. European clubs will now have an additional two-year window in which to secure the best potential the continent has to offer.

For these reasons, Premier League executive chairman, Richard Scudamore, endorsed the “Remain” campaign, as did all 20 of the teams individually. Nonetheless, on June 23, 2016, the British public voted   52-48 percent to sever the country’s then 43-year relationship with the EU, and the League has already experienced ramifications.

A collapse in the value of the pound has meant players have become more expensive to buy, while existing players are demanding a pay-rise to make up for the loss. Clubs will be hoping that the British government listens to their demands made on March 30, 2017 — one day after the Article 50 Treaty on European Union was triggered, thereby starting the two-year clock on the UK’s departure from the EU — for immigration exemptions particular to European soccer players.

The FA, the bastion of the national side, on the other hand, will be celebrating the referendum result. Tasked with promoting the development of English soccer and the advancement of its players, it has previously called for an increase in the minimum number of “Home Grown Players” required on a squad’s first team and in 2015 successfully lobbied the government to tighten the visa requirements applicable to players signing from outside Europe.

As hurdles are introduced, domestic players will become more desirable. With the Premier League inclined to look closer to home, greater funding for youth development can be expected. Further, with reintroduction of the FIFA proscription on international transfers of 16- and 17-year olds, English academies will contain a greater proportion of British youth. The increase in opportunities for home-grown talent will, in turn, enlarge the pool of players available for a national team. The vote, consequently, could represent a new dawn for English soccer. Therefore it is to be expected that the FA will oppose any relaxation in the immigration rules insofar as they apply to European players.

This present power struggle between the Premier League and the FA can be compared — on a smaller, soccer-specific scale — to the two main issues around which the referendum campaign centered--- money versus sovereignty, with big business, including the leaders of 50 of the FTSE 100 — publicly coming out in favor of “Remain.” Ultimately however, “Leave” won out. It remains to be seen whether the same will prevail on the soccer stage.

The FA included in its Strategic Plan for 2016-2020 getting “England’s men’s and women’s senior teams ready to win in 2022 and 2023.” With the exit deadline timetabled for March 29, 2019, this may prove too early to see any concrete improvement. Yet 13 years from now, as an influx of English children graduate from the better-funded training academies, perhaps 2030 will see England once again bring soccer — and the World Cup — home.

The article above was published in the US Sports Litigation Alert in September 2017.