KEIR RADNEDGE COMMENTARY —- Cricket will be affected by uncertainty over the British vote to quit the European Union and so will rugby union. But the significant effect of the questions these sports cannot answer are as nothing compared with those which will assail English professional club football over the coming months and probably years.
As in every other sphere of national life, no-one can predict how the ‘new world’ future will play out.
Britain will continue to compete at the Olympic Games; the four British home nations will continue to play football’s World Cup; the clubs will continue to contest the UEFA Champions League and Europa League; it means nothing in terms of the golf and tennis majors, the Ryder Cup and Davis Cup.
Domestic professional football is an exception because the clubs have capitalised on the European freedom of movement of labour laws with the wholesale import of both outstanding and mediocre players.
Last season 432 players from EU countries were registered to play in the 20-team Premier League. Ultimately, when work permits are needed, permissions may not be so easy to obtain.
Gordon Taylor, veteran chief executive of the Professional Footballers’ Association (the players’ union), remains positive. He said: “There is no reason why the clubs here still can’t recruit the best quality foreign players if they want to come here.
“We are proud of our leagues, which are the most cosmopolitan in the world. We have provided more players to international tournaments including World Cups and Euros, than any other country. There is no reason that cannot continue under a revised arrangement.”
If the current stringent restrictions on non-EU players had been applied last year Leicester would have been unable to acquire key midfielder N’Golo Kante and West Ham could not have bought Euro 2016 star Dmitri Payet. They would not have met the international appearance criteria, along with more than 300 other EU players in the top two divisions in England and Scotland.
Top agent Jonathan Barnett is not as confident as Taylor about a ‘new deal’ for foreign players.
Barnett said: “For the Premier League as it stands, and in the longer run, Brexit will weaken it. No question. Good players will not be able to come here. It might not change things straight away, but eventually it will take effect. It will reduce the market for clubs.”
The divergence of views between Taylor and Barnett illustrates perfectly the dynamic of uncertainty about the consequences of Brexit – not only in terms of football.
The Premier League took an optimistic view, taking a cue from executive chairman Richard Scudamore who believes the need to maintain such a high-profile ‘brand’ will enable it to renegotiate work permit restrictions. EU footballers may ultimately enjoy some form of ‘favoured player’ status which would plainly be in the interests of clubs on both sides of the English Channel, both buyers and sellers.
A spokesman said: “The Premier League is a hugely successful sporting competition that has strong domestic and global appeal. This will continue to be the case regardless of the referendum result.
“Given the uncertain nature of what the political and regulatory landscape might be following the ‘Leave’ vote, there is little point second guessing the implications until there is greater clarity.”
A similar stance was taken by the Football League which runs the second, third and fourth divisions. Chief executive Shaun Harvey said: “The ramifications of leaving the European Union may prove to be significant for every industry in the UK, including football. However, at this stage, it is fairly unclear what the precise impact will be.”
One specific issue concerns whether clubs would find it more difficult to sign teenage European youngsters. However the likelihood that the UK will shift out of the EU to the European Free Trade Association means it would still benefit from the enabling agreement between the EU and the European Economic Area.
More of an immediate issue may be the instability of the financial markets and currency values which could push up euro transfer fees. For example, the €40m offer made by West Ham for Marseille’s Michy Batshuayi has already risen from £31m last week to £34m because of the immediate fall of the pound against the euro.
Of course, it is also possible that the uncertainty of the effect of Brexit on the Eurozone will also drag down the value of the euro, meaning little change. But economic crises are not, of course, unknown. Sport has always survived whatever problems bankers and politicians have created.
On the brighter side Greg Dyke, chairman of the Football Association, thinks a reduction in the number of foreign players would offer more opportunities for young English players to follow the breakthrough examples of the likes of Harry Kane, Dele Alli, Raheem Sterling etc.
Dyke said: “It could take two years to really know the impact on English football of Brexit. It would be a shame if some of the great European players can’t come here but I don’t think that will happen. Whether the total number reduces will depend on the terms of the exit.
“My personal view has always been that the decline in the number of English players in Premier League first teams – we’re down to about 30 per cent now – is a shame. Of course, we won’t want to lose the best European players coming here but if this increases the number of English players, that is to be welcomed.”