LONDON (AP) — Just like the politicians, English soccer is divided by Brexit.
With four months until Britain withdraws from the European Union and no consensus over the terms of the split from the bloc, there is also uncertainty about the players Premier League clubs will be able to recruit.
With free movement of people from the European single market to work in Britain set to end, players from the continent could become subject to the same soccer-specific immigration requirements as counterparts from the rest of the world.
After a quarter-century of growth, the Premier League sees maintaining the free-flowing pipeline of talent from Europe into its clubs as essential for maintaining the appeal of the competition worldwide.
“It’s working,” West Ham co-owner David Gold said. “Why would you change it?”
But the English Football Association is seizing on Brexit to try to ensure players eligible for its national team gain more playing time in the Premier League and build on the semifinal run at this year’s World Cup in Russia.
Currently, the FA runs the visa system for non-European players in conjunction with the government’s Home Office. Unless a deal is reached between the FA and the Premier League, those eligibility requirements could apply to any foreign player after Brexit in March.
Players from the top 50 FIFA nations are considered for work permits, with a sliding scale of appearances required — from 30 percent of games over two years for the 1-10 teams to 75 percent for 31-50 teams. According to FA research seen by The Associated Press, 65 percent of Europeans currently playing in the Premier League would have failed if the criteria were applied to them.
But for players who don’t meet the threshold, clubs can seek an exemption by arguing the case for a work permit in front of a panel. The FA hopes to persuade the Premier League to scrap that system, known as the governing body eligibility endorsement.
Under the FA’s post-Brexit proposals, Premier League clubs would be allowed to sign whoever they want from abroad but only be allowed 13 non-homegrown players in the squad. That number is an average based on the 262 non-homegrown players currently in the 20 teams.
“Brexit should not be used to weaken playing squads in British football, nor to harm clubs’ ability to sign international players,” the Premier League said in a statement.
Most of the 20 teams do not currently use their full quota of 17 non-homegrown players, a status which means they have not been affiliated to an English or Welsh club for three complete seasons or 36 months before their 21st birthday.
According to the FA’s research, which was presented to Premier League clubs last week, restricting them to 13 homegrown players last season would have affected only 42 player appearances out of more than 10,000. Only 24 were starts. From Premier League champion Manchester City, only backup goalkeeper Claudio Bravo would have missed out on his three appearances.
The FA calls this a “pragmatic” solution: Clubs could still sign whoever they want from Europe, but the freedom over recruitment is extended worldwide, as long as they abide by new squad limits.
“The FA believes increasing access, but preventing an increase in current numbers of overseas players, would benefit all of English football,” the governing body said in a statement.
The limited opportunities for English talent at home were underscored when Jadon Sancho left Man City last year for Borussia Dortmund in Germany. The 18-year-old winger has since won the Under-17 World Cup and gained regular top-flight experience that saw him fast-tracked into Gareth Southgate’s senior England side.
“I’m just grateful he’s seen my progress in the Bundesliga,” Sancho said. “My focus was getting minutes as a player and playing first-team football, which is what I’ve done.”
FA chief executive Martin Glenn pitched his plans at a meeting of clubs last week but the Premier League remains unconvinced that stronger quotas will have a positive impact on the national team.
“There is no evidence so to speak to support his proposal,” said Gold, whose West Ham squad features 16 non-homegrown players. “We are very supportive of English football. We want it to be successful. But we don’t want to be doing things that isn’t going to work.”
The FA leadership can’t even rely on Southgate for support, despite less than a third of the players featuring in the Premier League before the international break being English.
“Most of the data I have seen suggests quotas on squads would not make a difference because you could still field a team outside the base of British players,” Southgate said.
Lawyers have questioned the merits of the FA’s quotas proposal.
“(It) is completely at odds with the rest of the immigration system which requires employers to only sponsor workers at certain salary levels and to have academic qualifications or skills,” said Andrew Osborne, head of immigration at London-based law firm Lewis Silkin. “Non-football employers do not have freedom to recruit who they want subject to a numerical limit.”
Premier League clubs, like European counterparts, are currently allowed to transfer 16- and 17-year-old players between countries in the region under an exemption from FIFA regulations. But after Brexit, British clubs will only be allowed to sign foreign players over the age of 18, like the rest of the world. Manchester United, a record 20-time English champion, fears European rivals will be handed a competitive advantage.
“If you have 16-year-olds going to play for them and if we have to wait until 18 there are clearly practical issues there,” United chief financial officer Cliff Baty has said.
Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore endorsed the campaign to remain in the EU ahead of the 2016 referendum. That reflected the competition’s focus is maintaining the allure to domestic fans and the global television audience, with broadcast rights generating more than $3 billion per season.
“Access to talented footballers from across Europe has played a key part in the growth of the Premier League, with match attendance and global interest increasing significantly as high quality foreign players have taken their place in the competition with and against the best British and Irish players,” the league said.
The government, which wants to end preferential immigration access for workers from the EU, uses the power of the Premier League to project soft power and promote British culture internationally.
“We have held positive discussions with government about the importance of access to European players for our clubs,” the league said, “and the many cultural and economic benefits a globally popular Premier League brings to the U.K.”
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