The business of European football faces an uncertain future post-Brexit
BY Bilal Aziz
Some say football and politics should never mix. Others say that football is political in its nature, but on English fans in Marseille, Brexit had evidently had an impact.
As rowdy England football fans paraded their flags, bruises and scabs through Marseille at the start of the European Championship in June, defiant cries of “We’re out of Europe, why the f*** should we be here?” rang out around France. This response showed that Brexit was not only a political matter but a social one that had affected British culture and identity.
You see, the British don’t take it lightly when they become the butt of a joke. But the football team’s swift exit from the European Championship had closely mirrored the country’s decision to leave the European Union. Britain had become the laughing stock of Europe.
Now, as English fans are readying for the new Premier League season, Brexit again looms large. What will the immediate and long term effects of Brexit do to the most marketable league in the sport?
When Britain joined the European Union in 1973, it was commemorated in the football world through an exhibition game between the standing members of the union (West Germany, Netherlands, France, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg) and the newest members (UK, Republic of Ireland and Denmark). The game was a display of unity that European sports hadn’t seen since before World War 2, which halted club and international football. Political instability in the region had hitherto played a colossal part in preventing the development of European football as a global, unstoppable brand.
Even though football has witnessed natural growth in the years following Britain’s membership of the EU, political instability and economic volatility, through Brexit, could yet again stunt the growth of the well observed sport. Until Article 50 of the EU’s Charter is triggered by the British government, the exit from the EU will leave English football in a period of uncertainty that does not correspond with the current stable nature of the game.
On the effects of Brexit, “It’s too early to truly say, we have to wait until Article 50 is triggered, we can’t make any decisions or predict the outcomes without direction from the government,” says Tony Snow, communications manager at the Football Association (FA). His view is mirrored by Paul Douglas, chief operating officer at Rotherham United Football Club. “The article 50 negotiations will take a couple of years to conclude. There is no sign that the process is going to start imminently. Whilst it will be in most clubs’ minds, I think that they will be comfortable that there is a significant time period to plan for whatever eventuality,” Douglas tells Newsweek Middle East.
Currently more than 100 players do not meet the British work permit criteria for non-EU players which means that they will not be able to join English clubs straight away without difficulties. When Article 50 is implemented and work permit rules impact teams, player entry is dependent on the number of games a player plays for their country and that country’s FIFA ranking. The FA has estimated that Brexit would cut foreign players by a third as they would focus on the development of local players—they selfishly see Brexit as an opportunity to develop the national game.
Douglas seems to disagree with the FA: “I think if you asked anybody in the football industry, they would hope that any negotiation around migration, and the movement that may affect footballers’ abilities to move across Europe would remain as unaffected by negotiations as possible.” He then links this to the effect Brexit will have on other issues: “If there are greater restrictions placed on the numbers of European players coming to play in England, it would not be a positive thing. It is possible that the quality of football in the English leagues, certainly in the higher levels, would suffer and this in turn could lead to less interest from TV.”
The current television deal that the Premier League has is substantive. By the time the first half of the first game of the season is played, the money paid to both clubs would eclipse the TV rights for the whole of the first season of the Premier League. If Brexit affects this, clubs will feel like they’re missing out but economic instability will not occur.
The EU and European law has allowed for the free movement of players across the continent’s borders. It has also improved broadcast rights, and while the FA and Premier League’s hierarchy have finally become accustomed of the intricacies of EU laws, they have allowed the game to progress without much interference from the union.
“I believe we, in the U.K., must be in Europe from a business perspective,” Richard Scudamore, the executive chairman of the Premier League said last October. That was then, but this is not to say that the English football clubs are happy with the EU’s oversized impact on the sport—but many felt alarmed by the prospect of Brexit. Many believe that while the EU is damaging to a certain extent on a political scale, the sport’s best interests are being pursued within the union, standing by their side on issues such as player contracts, broadcast and digital rights and player development, rather than being regulated without guidance.
Manchester United are due to pay £100 million pounds for the French Juventus midfielder, Paul Pogba, in the forthcoming weeks. In the current transfer window, prices have ballooned after the value of the pound dropped to a 31 year low. The transfer trends in the past couple of years are completely different to this current summer window.
“While the pound is weak against the Euro it would make transfer fees that much more expensive. Money talks and the big driver in English football is the Premier League. I don’t think anyone will be changing the way they head into transfer negotiations with foreign based players just yet. As time goes by, and we get more information, then that may well have an impact going forward,” say Douglas.
The Premier League, since its transition from the Football League in 1992 has seen an evolution from local players to foreign assets who have allowed the brand to progress financially on a global scale. They have allowed the game to be viewed with higher regard than it was 25 years ago. In fact, no English manager has ever won the Premier League—winning managers have hailed from Europe.
The fear among leading football activists is that Brexit will detract from the foreign successes that have come with the Premier League’s rise. Like the 1980s, where football was more anglicized, pro-Europeans amongst the British population suspect that more racial discrimination will occur. This means that Brexit could set English football back a few decades rather than being progressive. We often confuse abuse in football with the competitive nature of the game—and the reaction to such abuse is always hazy through personal and media bias.
“English football features players from all around the world and is known for being a welcoming and diverse game—long may that continue,” Lord Herman Ouseley, chairman of Kick It Out, a campaign in England combatting discrimination in the sport tells Newsweek Middle East. Discrimination has steadily spiked during the Brexit referendum. “However, for the past few years Kick It Out has been warning about, and responding to, increasing levels of hate-related abuse and incidents in football in England. As the new season begins, Kick It Out is ensuring the game in England remains as inclusive and welcoming as possible in the wake of Britain’s exit to the EU.”
Post referendum Britain reflects the mood in football today. Going forward into a period where the people have voted out and where Article 50 is still to be triggered, uncertainty, reluctance to react and fear of the unknown plagues the nation both politically and culturally.
What people can be sure of is that when Article 50 comes into play, English football will be a far different animal to what it looks like today.