Brexit will impact the signing of foreign players for UK domestic sports teams. Although the precise implications for this depend on the withdrawal deal the UK leaves the EU with, the transfer of foreign players into our domestic sports leagues will, and already has been, affected.
For instance, the pound’s weakness against the euro since 23rd June 2016 has handed an even greater advantage to top French rugby union clubs to nab players compared with the English Premiership. Rules imposed by the respective rugby governing bodies in France and England place a cap on the total amount a top division club can spend on salaries. With the French Top 14’s salary ceiling at €10mn compared to the English Premiership’s £7mn, the weak pound has enabled French clubs to more easily poach and retain the best players, like Scottish international Greg Laidlaw.
Then there are county cricket clubs hurrying to sign players under the Kolpak rule before Brexit likely ends this. This rule comes from a court challenge by Slovakian handball goalie Maros Kolpak who had re-signed in 2000 with a German second division handball club. Kolpak challenged the national federation’s decision to class him as a foreign player. Slovakia wasn’t then in the EU, but had signed a trade agreement with it. Kolpak argued this allowed him to play in Germany without restrictions. After a year of deliberation, the European Court of Justice ruled in 2003 in Kolpak’s favour, setting the rule that where a nation and the EU had an association agreement, sports players from that nation could be classed as non-foreign by EU nation domestic clubs. Most players qualify for this rule via one agreement the EU reached with 78 other nations including South Africa in 2000. 8 county cricket players signed under the Kolpak rule from 2013-2015. From 2016-2018, 14 players including 9 South Africans signed under the rule, with 3 signings for Hampshire alone.
In rugby if no deal occurred, the Kolpak and other EU country players would no longer be classed as non-foreign, causing a real headache for Premiership rugby clubs. Only allowed 2 foreign players in their matchday squads, one rugby correspondent’s analysis for the first weekend of fixtures in December 2018 concluded that just one club would have met the foreign players quota that weekend under a no deal Brexit.
Perhaps less ability to import top-class non-British players will result in more homegrown talent developing. The governing bodies of English cricket, football and rugby all have rules in place to restrict the number of foreign players in club squads. The FA introduced in 2018 an even tougher regime for work permits for footballers from outside the European Economic Area (EEA), requiring players to have played a certain percentage of recent international games, dependent on the Fifa ranking of their nation. The end of free movement will see new players from the EEA probably require work permits too, while English football clubs being outside of the EEA after Brexit will no longer be exempt from a Fifa rule banning the signing of foreign players under 18.
Fundamentally, Brexit’s impact on sport transfers hits home at the wider, ever-continuing debate about how many foreign players is too many before homegrown talent is stifled and too few before the quality of rugby, county cricket and football deteriorates. I may be going out on a limb here, but I don’t think that debate will ever end!