At the beginning of January, Sam Allardyce made headlines by bemoaning the fact that Brexit had prevented him from bringing in three potential signings he had earmarked as the reinforcements he needed to help save his team, West Bromwich Albion from relegation. This was slightly ironic, as he was one of the few in football that publicly came out as supportive of leaving the EU.
However, to me, Big Sam’s declaration only confirmed one thing…he doesn’t play Football Manager.
The reason I say this is that anyone who’s managed an English club in any version of Football Manager since FM17 has experienced the effects of some form of Brexit and has a good idea as to how it’s going to affect the world of football.
Immediately after the referendum in June of 2016, it quickly became apparent that a number of top players who were at that time making an impact in the Premier league would not have qualified under the old non-EU system; N’Golo Kanté and Riyad Mahrez were two that immediately caught my eye, but there were many others.
This presented us with a problem, as (apologies to those who already know this) fans of Football Manager can take their virtual careers decades into the future. So, while it was okay for real-world football to take its time on deciding its future, we didn’t have that luxury. I took multiple scenarios to our development team and we worked out a way to put them all in the game, with a ‘weighting’ system determining how likely any of those systems was to happen in any particular game.
In the years that followed, we gradually adjusted our weighting system, all the while expecting the business of football to announce the rules. But as most of you reading this will know, those rules weren’t actually finalised and announced until late last month. In spite of the abbreviated timeframe, we used our connections within football to update the latest version of the game as soon as they were announced.
So what exactly are the new rules? Well, the short answer is they are very complicated. The full rules are available in a series of 10 documents on the FA’s website (you can find them at the bottom of this story), but you’ll have to set aside a few days to get through them (the first document alone, covering transfers for the men’s game, is 36 pages!).
Pre-Brexit, English clubs could largely sign any player – of any age – from any club within the EU. Now, however, EU players are subject to a ‘points-based’ qualification system.
Points are earned in a variety of ways; from the number of appearances a player has made (club, international and youth) to the ‘quality’ of the selling club, league and nation (which are all now divided up into a series of graded ‘bands’). 15 points will guarantee that a permit is granted, while youth players who register between 10 and 15 points will have their case heard by an exemptions panel (made up of former players, coaches and people from the legal profession).
In some cases, it makes it easier for British clubs to now buy foreign players. For example, under the new system it might be more straightforward to sign a Brazilian U21 international, while the fact that 16 year-old players can no longer move freely to the UK from the EU should improve the chances of domestic academy players. This will also likely encourage Premier League sides to invest more in those academies and their home-based scouting networks to identify and snap up the brightest young talent at an even earlier age.
It will still be relatively easy for British sides to sign players from a ‘top tier’ country. Just being on the team sheet once in a Champions League squad at a Spanish club, for example, gets you enough points to qualify (five points for their club qualifying and 12 points for the quality of the league).
In others, though, it makes things harder. With some of the less fashionable leagues, particularly those in Scandinavia, it would now only be possible if a club from that league performed fantastically in a continental competition. So Kasper Junker (with 27 goals in 24 appearances for table-topping Bodo/Glimt in Norway) would not qualify for a work permit – although my beloved Watford were able to bring in his teammate Philip Zicknernagel by getting the bones of the deal done before December 31.
So far, I’ve only scratched the surface by talking about the potential effect on the men’s game, but these rules also cover the women’s game…and managers…and coaches (I could bore you for hours about how the English game in particular has benefitted from an influx of EU academy coaches and the likes of Arsène Wenger).
And what about the effect on English players, managers and coaches who want to ply their trade in the EU? U18s will no longer be able to move to the EU, so the opportunities that Jadon Sancho and Jude Bellingham have enjoyed won’t apply anymore. And each UK citizen wanting to ply their trade in Europe will have to go through each country’s individual rules to see if they qualify to play there or not.
Brexit could also be good financially for mid-sized European clubs in the ‘top tier’ leagues such as Italy, France and Spain, where it’s going to be easier to move for foreign players. They could act as stepping-stone clubs to the Premier league and I fully expect some of the bigger clubs in England to invest in those clubs to make the pathway easier for them.
So whilst Big Sam may be finding it a bit frustrating, many clubs across Europe will be licking their lips at the possibilities. And the ‘big six’ in the Premier League are likely to be happy too, as it’s now easier for them to bring in South American wonderkids directly. But one thing is for sure – you can’t please all people all of the time, and there will definitely be winners and losers with the new system.
Miles Jacobson, OBE, is studio director of Sports Interactive (SI), creators of the Football Manager simulation game. He advised the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport and the FA on the potential effects of Brexit on the game in the UK.