Brexit: the impact of new immigration rules on English football

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As of 1 January 2021, European citizens now require visas to work in the UK, and these rules apply to footballers, managers and their coaches alike. English clubs no longer benefit from Europe’s free movement of labour, and instead, a new set of criteria determines whether a player can transfer to an English team. This new process can be split into two stages, first obtaining endorsement and second acquiring a visa.

Endorsement

Ahead of acquiring a Certificate of Sponsorship, which enables Sportspersons to apply for visa, new arrivals need to obtain governing body endorsement (‘GBE’). As opposed to the old regime of automatic endorsement, GBE will only be offered to players who reach a score of 15 points.

Points are based on a variety of factors including: number of international appearances, the rank of the selling club, and the quality of the league from which the player will be transferred. The same points based system will apply to coaches and managers too. However, a failure to reach the 15 point threshold doesn’t necessarily mean the end of the road for players. Those scoring 10-14 points will have the opportunity to appeal to the exceptions panel.

Alongside the requirement to reach 15 points, new rules have been introduced to prohibit English clubs signing EU nationals who are under 18. Additionally, clubs are only be able to make 3 international signings for players under 21 and can only sign a total of 6 foreign players per season.

These new requirements reflect the government’s wider approach of attracting ‘skilled workers’ and prioritising home-grown talent.

Visas

If European players attain endorsement, they will then be eligible to apply for a visa, sponsored by the purchasing UK team.

English clubs that wish to offer visa sponsorship are now required to apply for a specific license to assign sponsorship to players. To apply, they will need to be endorsed by the FA, before submitting an online sponsor licence application. This application will assess whether (i) they are a genuine organisation operating lawfully in the UK; (ii) honest, dependable and reliable; and (iii) committed to complying with sponsor duties. However, a sponsorship license is only available for teams in the top four men’s divisions and the top two women’s divisions. If clubs fall outside of these categories, they will rely on the player seeking a visa through an alternative regime.

Once licensed, the clubs will be able to sponsor European players, allowing them to apply for visas. There are two types of visa that players, managers and coaches can apply for. Both of which come with their own criteria which must be fulfilled by the applicant:

1. Tier 2 – Sportsperson Visa

  • This enables sportspersons to come to the UK for up to three years. This visa can be extended for up to a further 3 years, offering a maximum stay of 6 years.
  • Eligibility requirements include: proving knowledge of English, having personal savings and providing travel history over the last 5 years.

2. T5 – Temporary Worker – Creative and Sporting Visa

  • This enables sportspersons to come to the UK for up to 12 months. This visa can be extended.
  • Eligibility requirements include: enough money to support yourself in the UK – you’ll usually need to have at least £1,270 available (unless the club can cover a sportsperson’s costs during their first month in the UK, or they have already been in the UK with a valid visa for at least 12 months).

Tier 2 visas are more suitable for individuals travelling to take long-term positions in the UK, or to complete a fixed-term. T5 visas are suited to those who are generally less experienced and whose time in the UK is likely to be limited.

Impact

The points based system will not significantly impact the transfer of world class, international sportspersons to top English clubs. Premier league teams target the types of players who would easily fulfil the criteria listed for the GBE.

However lower league clubs, targeting more junior international players, will struggle to meet the requisite points threshold and as a result, lose out on up-and-coming talent. Indeed, Championship players such as Mads Bech Sorensen would have been unlikely to meet the threshold under the new system.

In addition, the limits on purchasing players aged 16-18, will undoubtedly have an impact on optionality for all clubs. Young, exceptionally talented footballers will have to wait if they wish to play for an English side, and there is a risk that they could be snapped up elsewhere in the meantime. Indeed, under these rules, the 2003 transfer of Cesc Fabregas to Arsenal, at the age of 16 would now be forbidden.

The more rigorous requirements of visa applications will also present a challenge to clubs. In particular, where applying for a Tier 2 visa, prospective players will have to prove a ‘knowledge of English’, often requiring players to pass an English language test.

Next steps

Going forward, it’s important that football clubs ensure that they have correct, up to date sponsor licenses. Whilst the Premier League’s January transfer window was hard hit by COVID-19, the summer transfer window opens on 27 July 2021, and clubs will need to ensure they are ready to assign visas to those they wish to bring to the UK.

It is also important that clubs do rigorous due diligence when buying European players, managers and coaches, to ensure they meet the points threshold, and preparing for an appeal where they don’t.

Clubs may also wish to consider pairing with other lower-league European teams, like the City Football Group which matches Manchester City with smaller teams such as Lommel in Belgium. This would enable English clubs to help lower-league players obtain GBE whilst also acting as a place to grow under 18 players, before they are able to transfer to English clubs.

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