My Column – Soccer Scaremongering: The New Political Football

They were bound to have a go, sooner or later. The campaign to stay in the European Union has resorted to fear and scaremongering on almost everything else, and in my experience there are a lot of staunchly anti-EU football fans, so a ‘Brexit would hurt football’ follows as surely as the playoffs follow the regular season.

The argument, such as it is, is that ‘if we leave the EU two-thirds of EU footballers playing in British leagues will have to leave the UK’. Firstly, that’s self-evident nonsense: those already living and working in the UK will, post-Brexit, still have the right to live and work in the UK. What the pro-EU campaign actually means to say (but won’t say, because it doesn’t sound scary enough) is that they fear new footballers coming to the UK might find it harder to get a work permit.

Footballers like Oscar, Pereira, Aguero, Zabaleta, Falcao and Coutinho are able to ply their trade in the Premier League, despite hailing from Argentina, Brazil and Colombia. We don’t have to be governed by Argentina, Brazil or Colombia in order to allow footballers from those countries to play in the Premier League. In fact, the Premier League is one of the most cosmopolitan in the world; players from over 100 countries have played in it. The real question is whether all footballers from other European Union countries, irrespective of ability, should have the automatic right to play in the UK.

To me, that’s not a level playing field. Why should any Latvian footballer be able to play in League 2 if they want, but a Brazilian might not get a work permit to play in the Championship? That’s the system that those who want us to stay in the European Union are defending. They’re defending a free-for-all from some countries, whilst insisting on tough work permits from others.

This matters because more foreign footballers want to come and play in the English leagues than there are English footballers wanting to play abroad. It’s partly the prestige of the Premier League, but also probably in part the fact that across the world, English is taught as a foreign language in most schools. Looking to move elsewhere to play? It’s quite important to be able to communicate with your new teammates. Because there’s a disparity in numbers, there are advantages and disadvantages to English football of foreign players in our leagues. The advantage is best seen in the Premier League, where the overall standard is much higher than it would otherwise be. The disadvantage is that it’s that much harder for English footballers to get the game time that they need. Scouting networks across the world become as important to clubs as developing talent locally in England, and the knock-on effect is that our own youth players find it harder to develop and gain experience. In the lower leagues, That said, having top foreign players in the Premier League can provide some benefit; those young players who do shine through have the opportunity to test themselves against the best in the world before they ever get chance to pull on an England shirt.

Wouldn’t it be better if we could control this a little better than we do; for the FA to negotiate with the government a work permit policy which allow in the right number of foreign players to develop the game (irrespective of which country they come from), whilst maintaining a semblance of control that is badly lacking. To see that this is a genuine problem, look no further than Greg Dyke, the Chairman of the FA, who said “my fear for the future of English football is the Premier League ends up being owned by foreigners, managed by foreigners and played by foreigners.” In fact, over 150 times a Premier League starting 11 hasn’t included a single British footballer.

The Bosman ruling is another example of how forcing a single system upon the UK can cause problems. It had an enormous impact upon British clubs, leaving lower-league clubs in financial difficulties. As Sir Alex Ferguson described it, “Once the European Court of Justice ruled that clubs no longer had to pay transfer fees after the expiration of a player’s contract, all hell broke loose. Suddenly it was a free-for-all.”

Prior to the Bosman ruling, the Bosman situation could not have occurred in English football. Jean-Marc Bosman played for Belgian side Liege. His contract expired, and French outfit Dunkirk offered him an improved deal. Liege demanded a huge transfer fee which Dunkirk couldn’t pay, then cut Bosman’s wages by three quarters. This injustice couldn’t have happened in the UK; at the time, there was already some protection at the end of a contract.

Bosman won his case in the European Court of Justice, but it led to the pendulum swinging in the other direction. Bosman himself described what followed: “Now the 25 or so richest clubs transfer players for astronomical sums and smaller clubs cannot afford to buy at those prices. So the 25 pull further and further away from the rest, deepening the gap between big and small. That was not the aim of the Bosman ruling.” Inside the European Union, the Bosman ruling is a fact of life. Outside the European Union, we would have three choices: Keep the Bosman ruling as it is, scrap the Bosman ruling, or come up with our own system that’s fair to everyone.

With both foreign footballers and the Bosman case, there is a common theme. Stay in the European Union, and we are forced to keep the current system; whether that’s discriminating between EU and non-EU footballers or the Bosman ruling. Leave the European Union, and we’re not forced into anything. We can choose whatever system actually works for us, rather than having to fit into the EU one-size-fits-all straitjacket.

This article was originally published on the Huffington Post website.  You can view it here.

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