BRITAIN left the European Union on January 31, 2020 but the nation remained deeply divided. What the future holds for English football is anyone’s guess. The country’s top clubs have spent the past 20 years internationalising themselves; they epitomise globalisation, capitalism, financial imbalance and conspicuous consumerism.
If some sectors of the country turned to Brexit in frustration over immigration and “foreigners taking our jobs” then the modern game that so many Brexit supporters fervently follow is as much a product of EU membership as Polish plumbers, Latvian waiters, Spanish baristas and Italian bankers. All of these elements of contemporary British life have made the country more interesting, more cosmopolitan and more informed, as much as the introduction of foreign talent made the Premier League far more compelling than the game that was dying a slow and painful death in the 1980s.
Without foreigners, Arsenal and Chelsea may not have enjoyed success over the past two decades. Without foreigners, Liverpool would probably not have won the UEFA Champions League in 2019. Without the money of Russian, American and Asian tycoons, many English clubs would not be able to compete in Europe. We would still be looking at Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga with envious eyes. We may not have enjoyed the best of Arséne Wenger, Eric Cantona, Pep Guardiola, Mo Salah, Thierry Henry and Jürgen Klopp.
Let’s look at the most recent league line-ups of our top sides (Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool, Manchester City, Manchester United and Tottenham). Of the 66 starting players, only 23% were English. CIES Football Observatory revealed in one of its research papers that over a 10-year period, just 13% of Premier League squads comprised club-trained players. Moreover, 59% of their squads in 2018 were composed of foreign players. England has become the top destination for expatriate players with the journey from France to England the most travelled European route.
In 2018-19, 45% of all minutes played by Premier clubs, and 43% of goals scored, were by continental European players. Non-Europeans made 16.8% of appearance minutes with 22.8% of all goals.
The last English manager to win the title was Howard Wilkinson with Leeds in 1991-92 and the last league champions only fielding British and Irish players was Arsenal in 1988-89. Conversely, Chelsea in 1999 fielded the first all-foreign starting line-up.
There has, arguably, been a downside and that has been the stunted growth of English players eligible for the national team. This has finally bottomed-out and in the past few years, a conveyor belt of talent has emerged, as witnessed by the recent World Cup in Russia.
However, it has to be recalled that English football was at a low ebb before the Premier League was created. It wasn’t the Premier itself that caused English club football to enjoy a renaissance, it was the influx of overseas players that made the product better, more glamorous and more wealthy. It is not to everybody’s taste and there are massive and unhealthy financial imbalances now in the structure, but the Premier, in itself has been a success.
How will Brexit affect the status quo? We don’t really know, but in theory, the hurdles that our neighbours in continental Europe will face when trying to work or live in Britain will surely be applied to footballers. We have no real idea how the country will deal with immigration and overseas workers, but as far as incoming talent (in all industries) is concerned, it is in our own hands. The other direction is less certain, although very few footballers seem to try their hand at playing abroad. Sadly, Brexit has given birth to an unpleasant rise in racism, anti-semitism and general Union Jack bullying.
At the same time, you can be assured that football clubs will already have an idea how they will handle the problems that will surely come to light in the years ahead. Whenever there is a set of obstacles, a sub-industry springs up that works on finding a way to game the system.
Some fans will stamp their feet that their club might be compromised in some way by Brexit, but it is a case of “you cannot have your cake and eat it”. We are out of the European Union, so the rules have changed for signing players – or have they?
In addition, fans better get used to queuing in a different passport line. Eventually, your European Health Card will be of no use. And as a result, travel insurance will go up as companies exploit the fact British travellers are not covered by EU laws and cross-border health coverage.
Here’s a tongue-in-cheek thought, though – what if UEFA had made its competitions EU-only? That might have triggered another vote on Britain’s desire for splendid isolation!
We should remind ourselves why Europe was united in the first place; it was to stop the continent beating itself up again after two world wars that started as European conflicts. Pan-European football competitions were actually part of that process. There might be cheers in Tamworth, Tendring and Thurrock, but there will undoubtedly be a tear or two in Tallinn, Tilburg and Turin.