Image: Wikimedia Commons / Eric The Fish
Image: Wikimedia Commons / Eric The Fish

As the UK edges towards Brexit, how will British sport be impacted?

Ten months ago, following Cardiff City’s 0-0 draw against Huddersfield Town, Neil Warnock waded into unfamiliar waters by throwing his hat into the proverbial ring of Brexit discussion. Warnock has since departed South Wales, but his now infamous political pontifications live long in the memory of sports fans on both sides of the Brexit divide.

“I can’t wait to get out of it, if I’m honest,” Warnock began, before adding: “We’ll be far better out of the bloody thing. In every aspect. Football-wise as well, absolutely.” Had Warnock decided not to utter another word on the issue, his outburst would already have been seen as a remarkable intervention into the world of politics by a Premier League manager. However, there was yet another flurry on the way: “to hell with the rest of the world”, Warnock concluded.

It has been ten months since Neil Warnock entered the political domain, in which time both he and Theresa May have been ejected from their respective positions, and Brexit continues to feature highly among the sporting agenda. In the midst of the 2019 General Election, the issue of the United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union remains undeclared, which has left us at Boar HQ wondering how Brexit could affect Britain’s sporting landscape in the years ahead.

Cast your mind back to the Premier League season of 2015/16, are there any players that immediately spring to your mind? Perhaps you were thinking about N’Golo Kante, Anthony Martial, or Dimitri Payet. Now imagine that none of those players had been able to move to the Premier League because of issues pertaining to the right to work in the UK.

More than 100 Premier League players would have failed to meet the criteria

It might sound far-fetched when you consider the impact that Kante, Martial and Payet have had on English football, but none of them have qualified for a UK work permit had they not been European citizens. The Home Office’s current criteria for non-EU players requires that new arrivals into British football have had to have played 75% of their national team’s matches over the previous two years.

In 2016, more than 100 Premier League players would have failed to meet that criteria. N’Golo Kante wouldn’t have signed for Leicester, Claudio Ranieri might not have won the Premier League, and therefore Jamie Vardy wouldn’t have had any of his parties. A counter-factual less alluring to fans of the underdog story.

There’s more to sport in this country, however, than just the Premier League – which unequivocally backed Remain in 2016 – and there are some indications that Brexit could help homegrown players receive more game-time across a number of sports: ice hockey, and rugby to name just two. The question that immediately arises from this suggestion, however, relates to the impact that a loss of foreign players could have on the quality of sport in the UK.

Brexit could change the face of rugby and cricket significantly dependent upon how the government approaches the Cotonou Agreement and the Kolpak Ruling. In 2003, Cotonou and Kolpak paved the way for sportspeople from Africa, the Caribbean, and Pacific States (ACP) to enjoy the same rights as European athletes across the 28 member states of the European Union.

This EU provision has impacted not only British-based competitions, but also the national teams of the constituent parts of the UK. Between 2004 and 2015, England’s national cricket team featured at least one South African-born player in the squad for 139 consecutive test matches.

Back to the football, Brexit could also impact the way that clubs around the UK are able to register their players. Current Premier League rules state that each club must register a minimum of eight “homegrown” players in their squad, who regardless of nationality or age, have been “registered with any club affiliated to the Football Association or the Football Association of Wales for a period, continuous or not, of three entire seasons or 36 months prior to his 21st birthday”.

The United Kingdom’s relationship with the EU remains unclear

This becomes exceptionally significant when you consider that a number of European players have come to be registered as “homegrown” to the Premier League after signing for English clubs while 16 or 17-years old, something that English clubs have only been able to do as a result of EU membership. On this issue, Paul Shapiro told the Guardian that: “British football clubs may find themselves only able to sign foreign players over the age of 18 as, outside the EU/EEA, they would no longer be able to benefit from the exception under the current FIFA regulations given for transfers involving 16 and 17-year old footballers within the EU/EEA.”

The United Kingdom’s relationship with the European Union remains unclear, for now at least. If the Conservatives are elected to government with an outright majority of seats in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson has claimed that his party will “get Brexit done” by January 31st. In their ‘contract with the people’, the Brexit Party have restated their support for a “clean-break Brexit”, meaning that the election of any Brexit Party MPs could result in a more rapid change to the status-quo.

Alternatively, a Labour government would seek to renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement, before putting their deal to a referendum later in 2020. The Liberal Democrats, meanwhile, have pledged to revoke Article 50 if they upset the polls to win the election. Finally, the Green Party have continued to advocate for a ‘People’s Vote’, in which they campaign to remain in the EU

Perhaps the only thing that I can say with absolute certainty is that no one knows where this story will end. Brexit could result in a reduction of foreign players competing in British competitions, which could help to give more opportunities to “homegrown” players – potentially to the advantage of athletic development in the UK. On the other hand, Brexit could be postponed, halted, or the Withdrawal Agreement changed entirely.

In these times of political uncertainty, every aspect of life in the UK could be affected by the outcome of the 2019 General Election: the world of sport is no different.


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