In or out? Understanding the footballing impact of the EU Referendum

In or out? Understanding the footballing impact of the EU Referendum

On the 23rd June 2016 we face one of the defining political decisions of a generation. Political commentators outline a choice between sovereignty and binding supranational rule, between economic uncertainty and prosperity. A debate fuelled by hyperbole, with little to substantiate so many of the bold claims of our political class.

Little though has been made of the sporting impact of a vote, an area of debate where many of the laws are clearly defined. With a potentially imminent departure from the single market, what are the likely impacts on the nations most popular sport?

Movement of players

Currently, almost any EU national has the right to travel to and be employed within any British football league. There is no need for a work permit, (a decision that has often delayed or in certain cases prevented player transfers from outside of the Union), making player registration for internal EU transfers a reasonably simple task. In the top two divisions of English and Scottish football there are currently 332 EU national footballers, with as many as 100 from the Premier League, all of which are likely to be affected by a departure from the EU. Under current FA laws, consideration of a players international appearances as well as transfer value would be made ahead of any potential move. You could be forgiven for thinking this would only affect the most obscure of football league players, but actually David de Gea, Juan Mata, Kurt Zouma, Jesus Navas and Hector Bellerin would all face increased FA scrutiny.

Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London and Conservative MP, has fronted the Leave campaign

Boris Johnson, former Mayor of London, has fronted the Leave campaign in a daring political move against his party

So how have clubs reacted? Karen Brady, Chairwoman of West Ham United made the following assessment in a letter to Premier League clubs:

“For clubs, free movement plays a big role in transfers and players’ contracts. Players from the EU can sign for UK clubs without needing a visa or special work permit, making it quicker and easier to secure top talent from across Europe to come and play in our leagues.

“Indeed, there are nearly 200 Premier League footballers alone who have benefited from this arrangement. Leaving the EU could have a big impact on foreign players, as independent analysis has shown that two-thirds of European stars in England would not meet automatic non-EU visa criteria and therefore might be forced to leave. Losing this unhindered access to European talent would put British clubs at a disadvantage compared to continental sides.”

Karren Brady, Chairwoman of West Ham United

Karren Brady, Vice-Chairwoman of West Ham United and Remain advocate

What is worth bearing in mind though is that these FA laws were built on the basis of EU membership; many of which have been in existence for well over 20 years. Would amendments to current laws be such a huge assumption to make and in any cases would a change be of benefit anyway?

One could argue that the current laws are hugely discriminatory to would be footballers from non-EU nations (an argument of the Brexit campaign generally), the suggestion being that players regardless of nationality should be on an equal footing when it comes to employment in this country. This seems to be the crux of the immigration debate, and one that is likely to prove one of the more divisive aspects of the referendum. Naturally, there would be a huge administrative burden, but in the long run the changes could lead to a far more equitable system of player registration.

The single market

The impact of a single market really highlights the motivational difference between Richard Scudamore’s Premier League and the interests of the FA. The former are concerned with the marketability of the league, ensuring the best product and the optimal revenue streams. Interestingly though, Scudamore has attacked the single market for telecommunications; something that erodes the profitability of the league’s global broadcasting deals. A number of EU led lawsuits have highlighted the potential loophole that a single market creates, something that could be prevented by a Brexit vote.

Richard Scudamore, Executive Chairman of the Premier League, has different motives to that of Greg Dyke and the Football Association

Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) is another area of concern that could be affected by tariffs and exchange controls. That said, the suggestion from Brexiters is that an independent Britain would do it’s upmost to encourage foreign investment especially from those outside of continental Europe. For most though, the main pull to invest is the ‘product’, something that is driven by attracting the very best footballers the world over. The ability to maintain the Premier League as the pinnacle of domestic club football will define the impact of the referendum; the way the FA and the government can adapt existing laws to maintain the competition’s draw.


Provided the standard of the English game is maintained, the impact on the footballing fan should be minimal. Some have pointed to an increased expense to travel to European games, which is likely, but this in itself only affects a minority of football fans. Moreover, a weakening of the pound and increases to tariffs on English flights are unlikely to affect prices beyond recognition. From a macro perspective, tariffs are just as likely to be in effect for travel to the UK which largely negates the effect of continental barriers to trade.


Like so much of the current debate, the impacts on football long term are largely unknown. In the short term, there will be significant logistical and administrative challenges for both the league and FA to overcome. Yet such hurdles shouldn’t necessary shape the overall view on the footballing debate. A potential Brexit vote could allow the various bodies to reshape our attitude towards player registration, creating a more equitable system and even one where the onus is on developing our own domestic players as opposed to an overreliance on ready made foreign imports.

Football shouldn’t be the crux of the EU debate, nor should it be completely dismissed. A topic that underlines some of the key voter issues within the general debate, a vote to leave will surely have a profound impact on not just the nation in general but the game that defines our culture.

We couldn’t publish this article without including the best of Boris Johnson’s sporting career.

What impact do you think leaving the EU will have on British football?

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