This past Wednesday afternoon Britain triggered Article 50, formally starting the process to leave the European Union. The preceding nine months have been coloured by naked bigotry, craven posturing, pointless optimism, and an increasing sense that the negotiations by UK Prime Minister Theresa May will be deliberately scuppered, as Britain realises it doesn’t have the expertise or ballast to act constructively. No deal, apparently, is better than a bad deal.
While football is well down the list of economic importance, it remains culturally vital to Britain—how will it be affected by Brexit?
There are a few obvious ways. First, there is the question of whether and how overseas footballers will be allowed to play in Britain. Second, there is the question of whether there will be enough money around to sustain football the way it has over the past two decades. And third, there is the question over whether players will even want to come to Britain anymore.
The immigration debate in Britain can be summarized in one sentence: barely disguised racism combined with undisguised xenophobia. Public discourse is discriminatory against Muslims and people of colour (Britain’s biggest private landlord said this week he did not want ‘coloured’ people with their ‘curry smell’, and a wanker from Sheffield targeted a Muslim woman who had offered assistance after the Westminster terrorist attack). UKIP, Labour, the Lib Dems and the Conservatives try to outdo one another with anti-immigrant sentiment, as even the nominally leftist parties make veiled threats to foreigners.
Currently, non-EU sportsmen have to tick off a set number of points, made up of how much they played for their national side, how much cash they have to sustain themselves, and how proficiently they speak English. As for EU nationals, they face a number of possible outcomes once Britain departs.
First, those players and coaches who are already here might be entitled to stay on the terms they arrived.
Second, EU sportsmen would subject to the same rules for non-EU players. This would not be a huge obstacle for elite European players, but it would hamper players a tier or two below them (players under 21 have to meet less exacting standards). In theory fewer foreign players would come, which would mean more playing opportunities for younger, British players in youth teams, and British players in all teams. Looking at Manchester United and Chelsea, however, it is hard to find a player who would not qualify under existing non-EU talent rules.
The third possibility, and one that seems most likely, is a new set of measures would be introduced for EU residents. While the Conservative government uses cruel, self-harming rules to batter down immigration numbers, even hardline politicians acknowledge that immigration will be inevitably required to supply low-skilled workers, so footballers are even less likely to be negatively affected (even if the British public will resent it).
The answer therefore to the question of foreign players under Brexit is the entirely correct and largely vague one: it depends.
What about the economic impact of Brexit on football? The news on that front isn’t good. If immigration is seriously reduced, chances are the economy in Britain will suffer greatly. Liam Fox, a key player in Brexit negotiations, wants to prepare the country for its glorious new era of prosperity by removing workers’ rights from young people. If Britain, a small country whose biggest trading partner is the EU, reverts to WTO trade rules, then its economy will doubly suffer. You can argue that in the long run Britain will benefit from being able to make its own trade deals, but it seems like a bit of a punt to think it is worth the hassle of finding out at the expense of losing out on trade within the EU.
Perhaps most significant blow to Britain’s economy is that roughly a third of tax raised is from London, and 10% from the City of London (Britain’s financial service sector). This bounty comes in great part because Britain provides access to the EU for many foreign firms headquartered London. That could soon end if no passporting arrangement is agreed, and there is little guarantee it will—it doesn’t benefit the EU to maintain the deal when both Frankfurt and Paris are lobbying to become the new financial centre of Europe.
If there is a loss of tax income, the cost will be passed on to other people and businesses in the form of higher taxes and service cuts. Britain could become an awful lot poorer, and the billions in ticket sales, sponsorship and tv rights would be significantly affected. Discretionary spending would be at risk. As Europe enters a new economic boom, then Germany, Spain, France and Italy could start to dominate the transfer world in a way that the Premier League has for much of the last decade. Apart from the EU negotiations, the British economy is due to suffer a downturn based on a few factors, which would exacerbate any Brexit-related problems.
Finally, for those who are tempted to join because of the money and competition on offer, there is something else to consider. Post-Brexit, hate crimes are anecdotally and statistically on the rise. The Sun is campaigning to put Europe’s security at risk. The Tory Party has floated the ideas of public records of foreign workers. There is an anti-foreigner sentiment in the UK that has been worsened by the choice to leave the EU, as if the country has decided it can go back to the good old days of prejudice.
While other countries are by no means without blemish when it comes to racism and xenophobia, with less money to spend and more immigration obstacles to jump through, it wouldn’t be huge surprise to see English football become less diverse, and poorer for it in many ways. There is already a notable decrease in immigration outside football. Few will have figured sport into the decision to leave the EU or remain, but it will be significantly impacted all the same.