Of all the unimportant things, football is the most important. This is a common saying in Brazil and was heard often in the aftermath of their 1-7 loss to Germany in the 2014 World Cup semi-final.
In the light of Brexit, would it also echo through Britain, especially in the cocooned-with-cash bubble that the Premier League is?
Reports in the British media have said that the Premiership, by its estimates, is broadcast to 730 million homes in 185 countries. That is obviously because of the quality of the players involved and revenues could be hit should that be compromised. A BBC report on March 31, 2016, said 332 players in England and Scotland would be threatened by Brexit.
More than 100 of them would be in the Premiership, the report said. Of the 180 non-British EU footballers in Britain, only 23 would have been eligible for the work permit. A report in The Guardian said Brexit would lead to Sunderland losing all goalkeepers, Newcastle six midfielders and Swansea being down to just one attacking player.
Decent, ordinary people have won, said Nigel Farage, one of the ‘Leave’ campaigners, on Friday morning. That could leave out the Premiership clubs because they wanted to ‘Remain’.
The Premier League chairperson, Richard Scudamore, had spoken about the need to ‘Remain’ as had David Beckham, who explained his decision by mentioning the help he got from European teammates as Manchester United made winning the Premiership a habit.
As this was being written, the pound slumped to a 31-year low and given that football and business have been linked since the 1974 Fifa presidential election, this could affect the world’s most watched league. There will be at least a two-year window for Britain to sever ties from the European Union (EU) so nothing may really happen by the time the big ball starts bouncing on August 13 this year.
Arsenal play Liverpool on the opening day this time but exactly how momentous this is can be understood if we say that Philippe Coutinho would have been ineligible for the Reds had Britain not been part of the EU when his deal was completed. Maybe Hector Bellerin too. Coutinho has dual citizenship, one of them EU’s, and that helped him move to England without a work permit. And Bellerin may not have been allowed to join Arsenal when he did. More of that later.
Going forward, whenever that happens and a former British civil servant pointed out to BBC on Friday that it took Greenland three years to opt out and the only issue they had to deal with was fish, the work permit thing may become contentious.
Remember, how difficult it was for Bhaichung Bhutia to get one when he wanted to shift to England? One of those who helped facilitate it termed Brexit “catastrophic.” He answers to the name of Keith Vaz and is Britain’s longest serving Asian MP. The difference between Bhutia and, say, Eric Cantona, who joined Manchester United in the same decade that the India striker moved to Greater Manchester, was that Cantona didn’t need a work permit.
Work permits dilemma
Work permit rules stipulate that players must have represented their country in a particular number of games before they are eligible to play in Britain. So long as Britain was part of the EU that was not needed and that is why Diego Costa and Coutinho got European citizenships before joining English clubs.
When Brexit becomes implementable and should the rules not be revisited, all EU footballers would need to have work permits to play in England. N Golo Kante and Dimitri Payet for instance wouldn’t have been eligible for that because they haven’t had adequate international games.
Kante has played six games for France having made his international debut this year. For him to have joined Leicester City in 2015-16, he needed, according to existing rules, to have played 45% of all their games for two years before that. How Britain resolves this work permit issue for footballers could be as vexing as India’s attempts to amalgamate the Indian Super League (ISL) and the I-League.
And that’s not all. There is a Fifa rule that prohibits buying footballers who are between 16 and 18 years old but that rule does not apply to within the EU. That means a Premiership club can buy a player who is in that age-group if he is from an EU country, but not if he is from outside. Hence, the example of Bellerin.
Till the pound stabilises, it would be a good time to buy a club in the Premiership but if the current owners are not selling, they will have to shell out more to get foreign players. That could affect how clubs across Europe conduct their deals with Premiership clubs.
A report in the Deutsche Welle said Bundesliga clubs earned nearly $226 million (Rs 1533 crore approximately) from transactions with Premiership clubs last term. Once Britain moves out, that could change because of the work permit situation.
Like in every argument, there is the other side. That is, whenever this happens --- and you can bet your last crashing pound on the Premiership trying its best to stretch the exit for as long as possible --- it will help homegrown players to come through. That would be something the national team coaches of the British Isles would like to hear.