This story is over 5 years old.


Here's What Could Happen to the Premier League if Britain Leaves the EU

Britain leaving the European Union could send the European and British economies into a tailspin. What will happen to the world's richest and most popular soccer league?

On Thursday, Britain will hold a referendum on its continued membership in the European Union. A decision to leave the EU, or "Brexit" as those clever Brits have dubbed it, would have a huge impact on the economies of both the EU and Britain, affecting things like trade and immigration. Not even the Premier League is likely to escape the carnage left in the wake of Brexit.

Oh shit. I was about to close this tab but then I saw the words "Premier League." How likely is Brexit?


The polls keep flip flopping, but let's just say about 50-50.

What will happen to the Premier League?

Well, like all things Brexit, it's hard to say exactly, because it hasn't happened yet, and because leaving the EU is unprecedented, but there could be some work permit issues.

But there are already work permit issues. Remember when Juan Agudelo was denied a work permit and couldn't join Stoke City?

True, but Juan Agudelo isn't from Europe. He is from the United States. If he were from a country in the EU, he wouldn't have had to deal with getting a work permit at all. That's because free movement—of goods, capital, and workers—are central tenets of the European Economic Area (EU countries, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein). Premier League stars might seem like superheroes to you but they're just tax paying workers to the suits in London and Brussels.

How many players could be affected?

Sky counted 432 European players "registered to play in the Premier League." Some of those players—like Mesut Ozil or Cesc Fabregas, who are regulars for the German and Spanish national teams, respectively—would be eligible to play even if they were required to get work permits, but the majority of that 432 would not. Non European players are required to play in a certain number of national team matches in the prior two years in order to earn a work permit to play in the EPL. Players with stronger national teams don't need as many recent national team appearances to get a work permit as players coming from countries with weaker national teams.


Immigration lawyer Maria Patsalos gave a couple examples in that Sky story: French stars Dimitri Payet and N'Golo Kante, neither of whom had featured regularly with the French team prior to the Euros, would not be eligible for work permits. "It would be a massive loss," Patsalos told Sky. "Obviously Payet has done an amazing job at West Ham and Kante, who knows if Leicester would have won the Premier League title without him?"

Would there be any plus side to Brexit?

From a soccer perspective, it depends on what you want.

If you're a Premier League fan, you'll undoubtedly believe that league quality will suffer if not all the top European players were allowed to participate. Part of what has made the league a dominant force—at least in terms of revenue and global reach—is the number of international stars.

If what you want though is a strong English national team, it's easier to look at Brexit as a positive. A restriction on foreign talent means less competition for domestic players.

A long-term excuse for the English national team's limited success at international tournaments is the high level of competition young English players face from international players as they're coming up through the ranks at English clubs. Glass half-full people argue fewer foreign players would mean more opportunity for young English players to emerge.

My feeling is that this is, at best, a wash. Even if more English players played in the top division, they'd be getting more chances in a league that had a lower average talent level. You have to be careful what you wish for.


David Beckham is a vocal critic of Brexit. Photo by Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

What do the players think?

One of the biggest anti-Brexit figures is David Beckham, who posted an impassioned Instagram message about Brexit.

"We live in a vibrant and connected world where together as a people we are strong," Beckham said in the post. "For our children and their children we should be facing the problems of the world together and not alone. For these reasons I am voting to Remain."

The other side doesn't have the same kind of name recognition, but Sky got in touch with Vinnie Jones, the midfielder-turned-movie star, who said, "What I did say 20 years ago was if it becomes a European Premier League, the national team was going to struggle.

"That was always going to be the price that we paid for flooding it with European players. Now I'm not saying that is wrong as the football is fantastic to watch, but a bit like me, the old tackles have gone."

Damn. So the Premier League, the world's most wealthy and visible league, could just get gutted?

"Gutted" might be a little strong. It's not like a bunch of bobbies in those funny hats are going to round up all the European players and put them on a ferry back to the continent. This is more of a worst-case scenario. But it does look like a Brexit would ultimately result in fewer European players in the Premier League.

Daniel Geey, a sports lawyer in the UK, painted a more nuanced picture of what a Brexit might mean for soccer than the one put forward by Sky. The short version is that keeping European players in the league will involve a great deal of negotiating, and Britain will not have much leverage in the negotiations, which is why many educated Britons think Brexit is a terrible fucking idea. On a macro level, the big problem for Britain is that a great deal of its exported goods are consumed in the EU. Obviously, it's in the interest of the British economy to keep things that way, so it's possible that Britain would negotiate a more flexible stance on immigration in order to ensure it avoids tariffs on goods sold to the EU. And a more flexible stance on immigration would mean European players would still be able to get work permits to play in the EPL.


The irony of this is that immigration is a huge reason the pro-Brexit people want to leave the EU in the first place.

So in a decade we might all be watching the Bundesliga?

DFB officials might be the only people in Europe hopeful for a "Yes" vote. But if Brexit comes to pass, changes in the balance of power in European soccer leagues won't come overnight. As Gabriele Marcotti noted, the FA worked with the British Home Office to create the sport's existing work permit rules. Who's to say they wouldn't just rewrite them?

The fact remains that if Britain still wanted to trade with the EU, it would have to abide by many of the laws and regulations currently enforced by the EU. "It's not a Brexit," John Oliver joked in his recent Last Week Tonight episode focused on Brexit (see below), "so much as it's a Bratis Quo, or a Bromiostasis, or a Conscious Unbropoling."

But if you like soccer (or how the European economy) works now, Brexit represents a big leap into the unknown. As the saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't fix it. And, with Leicester City winning the league, it's hard to argue soccer in Britain is broken. The Sun may have told Britons to vote "Yes." As a soccer fan, I'm hoping for "no."