THERE’S BEEN a lot of scare-mongering about Brexit and what it means for every corner of society in the UK. As Jeff Goldblum said in Jurassic Park, “life, uh, finds a way” and that’s exactly what half of the country is telling itself this week as the UK finds itself more divided than at any time since the Civil Wars of the 17th century.
A short while ago, the Premier League said that the nation’s top football competition was one of the things that British people were truly proud of, along with the BBC and the Royal Family. Such nonsense! The fact is, the referendum will probably change the Premier quite dramatically in the long run and it is unlikely it will maintain its position at the top of the “big five”.
The Premier is seen as a global workshop where you can see the all-stars in one league
Why is this? Global appeal. The Premier is so popular because it grasps people’s interest all over the world. Go anywhere across the globe and you will see a little lad wearing a Manchester United or Liverpool shirt. Visit any nation in Europe and the local media will include news from the English Premier League (as it is known) because some of the nation’s top players are plying their trade there. Fans in Slovakia, Senegal or South Korea do not identify with an industrial city in northern England, but with the players wearing the shirt.
The Premier, rightly or wrongly, is seen as a global football workshop where you can see the all-stars – in one league. That’s why TV broadcasters are happy to pour loads of cash into the game and why crowds are vibrant, season ticket waiting lists show no sign of diminishing and the clubs are awash with cash. It’s a crazy world, because football and its employees are overpaid, wallow in excess and conspicuous consumerism and generally, are often not the best role models. But still the masses show up, pay inflated prices and basically, line the pockets of the players. Premier League football is like opium, and the addicts are the people in the stands wearing their highly inflammable shirts that are emblazoned with sponsors names. Football fans are the billboards of big business and the Premier, with all its universal audience, is the biggest exploiter of the emotional hold that the game has on its audience.
So how will Brexit affect all this? Simply, the global nature of the Premier may become severely dented by the UK electorate’s decision. But on the other hand, it may not.
At present, the UK’s football teams can benefit from the freedom of movement that EU membership brings. Too many people have seen this as a one-way deal, but actually, British players and workers can also work abroad. The big problem for the British is that most do not speak another language and therefore, they are less marketable than most of their contemporaries.
When this freedom of movement was realised, English clubs started to hire European players aplenty. With the creation of the Premier, our football became more interesting. And so did our workplaces. Chelsea and Arsenal became some of the early beneficiaries of this – both reflecting London’s own cosmopolitan nature. With the arrival of managers like Ruud Gullit and Arsene Wenger in the mid-1990s, English football took a new direction. From being a shabby, hooligan-dominated game, with outdated ideas and crumbling stadiums, the impetus provided by taking on continental ideas and methods made the English league one of the most exciting in the world.
But there was a downside. This new direction undoubtedly damaged the development of young players as managers built teams of hired guns. It was no coincidence that the rise of the polyglot football team came as England’s national side declined. Britain sold itself as a multi-cultural nation that welcomed all, but at the same time, its commercial heritage was being eroded as companies were sold to overseas investors and jobs exported to low-cost parts of the world. The nation’s football, delighting itself in a “league of nations” that bought in top talent (often untrue as the really top players still eluded the Premier), neglected its duty as a breeding ground for international footballers. The Premier reflected Britain, the sceptics said.
We hid behind the European Union freedom of movement, using it as an excuse not to devote more time to nurturing youth. Other nations seemed to be able to achieve a better balance, but year-by-year, teams became more and more remote from the towns and cities they were representing. Some would argue that the teams represent the multi-cultural nature of the country, but while this may be true for a place like London, the same cannot be said of other parts of Britain.
There is little doubt that the structure of the Premier makes it an exciting product, but things did get out of hand. And Brexit could be the catalyst for a readjustment of priorities and a league that does more for developing young players that can go on to represent England and other home nations (that is, if there are any other than England in a year or two).
Less than 50% of Premier League players are from the UK. The average (using current squad lists) is 46.16%, with the worst “offenders” Manchester City (13.64%), Stoke City (29.17%), Arsenal (32%), West Ham (34.62%), Chelsea (36.54%) and Leicester City (40.74%).
So, let’s be generous and say that 50% of Premier squads are non-UK. But at the same time, 28.5% of squad composition comes from other EU countries. Of these players, 19.5% come from Spain, 14% Ireland, 13% France and 12% Belgium. Contrary to popularist theory, the Poles are not taking all the jobs, only 0.5% of EU Premier players come from Poland!
Some clubs are highly reliant on EU players. Watford (50%), Sunderland (45%), Arsenal and Manchester City (36.6%) lead the way, and it is this body of players that may find it harder to seek gainful employment in Britain once the UK does float off into the Atlantic.
But will they? The assumption is that because the UK will not be part of the EU, these players will be sent home, presumably without the sort of racist comments doing the rounds on social media, telling immigrants to pack their bags. But the law-making will be in the hands of the UK, so it is within the nation’s gift to set its own rules and cut its own deal.
It is clear, however, going to Goldblum’s theory, that football clubs have managed to bring in lots of non-EU players that are not beneficiaries of EU freedom of movement rules. Over a quarter of Premier players are non-UK, non-EU. African and Latin American players are employed by virtually every club. Manchester City’s roster is made up of 50% from non-EU/non-UK sources, with Chelsea (34.62%) and Liverpool (33.33%) next. Basically, if a club wants a player, they will do what they can to get him. In simplistic terms, it just means that players from EU countries will just have to get in that queue. Football should be no different from any other aspect of society and given immigration was one of the driving forces behind many of the arguments, the next generation of foreign imports will not be so easily acquired.
Of course, the clubs could simply start to develop more young players. You sense that this has started, but instead of bending the rules and working round legislation, perhaps more money can be directed towards “growing our own”?
Ah, yes. Money. This is where the pinch may be felt. With the pound plummeting, and likely to do so for the forseeable future, overseas acquisitions will become more expensive. This will not just affect football, but consumers. If it does become a major hurdle for clubs, doubtless the cost will be passed onto the fans. Forget any notion of reduced prices at Premier grounds!
At the moment, nobody really knows that will happen, but it looks probable that the Premier will lose some of its gold-leaf veneer in the future. Football is a points-based system – it may have to get used to a similar concept when bringing in overseas players from our nearest neighbours. The Premier will go on, but right now, La Liga, the Bundesliga, Ligue 1 and Serie A are probably rubbing their hands in anticipation of commercial opportunity!