Football

Work permits: The Premier League's last remaining mystery

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It is a nervous time for any manager. You have finally agreed a deal with the player's club, spending, well, seconds negotiating a fee before breezing through contract talks. But then there is a problem: the work permit application has been turned down. You instantly appeal it–why wouldn't you?–and the decision is reversed. That South American prospect is yours.

This is the extent of the average football fan's experience of work permits. You see them on the simulation game Football Manager, usually stopping you from signing that nondescript wonderkid. But like many other things on Football Manager, the process in this virtual world is eerily similar to reality.

Work permit regulations have stopped Premier League clubs from signing a number of hot prospects, including the now living legend that is Lionel Messi, who was interesting Arsenal before anyone outside of Barcelona had heard of him. That alone would be enough to convince most fans to take the chance to abolish perceived poppycock from legislation. But the cliché of foreigners taking jobs that English people may otherwise have holds more weight in football than most industries.

Should FA chairman Greg Dyke get his wish, the requirements to receive a work permit are about to become even more problematic for Premier League clubs, and impossible for those below it. That may make the lives of Arsene Wenger and Louis van Gaal harder, but it could help to secure England's future as an elite footballing nation. It could even bring the World Cup trophy to these shores for a second time.

With that in mind it is about time we got a little more accustomed to why we have work permits, why they are given out or rejected and why they are about to become a lot harder to obtain.

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Why were they invented?

20-years ago, when the Premier League was in its infancy, English nationals accounted for 69% of all playing time, a BBC study found. Last season that figure had dropped significantly to 32.36%. The thinnest use of English players was found amongst the elite: Manchester City, Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Tottenham.

But the biggest area of concern is foreign players being used as generic squad members. 373 non UK players were used in the top flight last season but 92 of them played in less than ten games. These are the players who, in theory, are stopping young English players from breaking into the first-team.

While the Premier League complies with the freedom of movement for workers within the European Union, there are homegrown rules that prevent clubs from using purely foreign imports. The strictest regulations come from the FA with regards to non-EU players.

Current regulations were created in 2008, with the Home Office allowing sport governing bodies to manage their own visa applications through the Governing Body Endorsement (GBE).

The requirements

The rules prevent clubs from signing non-EU players that have not played 75% of international games that they were available for in the two-years prior to the application. Not only that, but the player's country must be in the top 70 in the FIFA rankings - so don't expect to see a San Marino striker at Burton anytime soon.

But under the current regulations, clubs can appeal a decision should their player not meet those standards. From there, an almost pointless process of lobbying and grovelling starts, involving a panel made up of FA and Football League representatives. The club in question must prove to their peers that the player in question, despite not meeting the requirements, has the talent to improve the competition in this country and aid the growth of the game.

The loopholes

And that is where the current regulations are failing. That crumbling wall, designed to keep all but the very best players out, allowed a significant portion of the 122 non-EU players to enter English football between May 2009 and May 2014. A report from the FA claims that 80% of players that were initially denied a work permit were accepted via the appeals process.

The process is open to compromise, inviting club officials to establish a unwritten 'you scratch our backs, and we'll scratch yours' agreement. It may be the reason why Arsenal are openly pursuing Gabriel Paulista, a player with no international experience with his native country Brazil and only a year's experience in La Liga with Villarreal.

Wenger rated the player's chances of completing a move to Arsenal as "50-50", implying a certain level of confidence that he can put together a case to prove that Paulista is an exceptional talent. Under the current process there is every chance that the centre-back will be granted a work permit, pushing youth product and local lad Isaac Hayden further away from first-team action.

But the Arsenal manager had better be quick because come the summer the Gunners will find it significantly harder, or more expensive, to bring Paulista to north London. An FA spokesman told GiveMeSport that new regulations outlined in September are on track to be implemented before the summer transfer window opens.

Reform

Speaking in May, FA chairman Dyke told the BBC: "122 non-EU players have entered England under the GBE scheme since 2009.

"Nearly 50% didn't meet the current criteria and came through an appeal process in which 79% of appellants have been successful.

"Remarkably, only 58% given work visas to play in the Premier League play any football in that league in the second season after their arrival.

"Our proposal to tighten the entry and appeals criteria for non-EU player immigration will create a necessary constraint that will encourage more considered and valuable player acquisitions from outside the EU."

The major changes are:

  • Preventing clubs below the Premier League from signing non EU players
  • Forbidding a club from loaning out a player that has been granted a work permit through the GBE
  • Reducing the list of countries from which a player can apply for work permits from the top 70 in Fifa rankings to the top 50
  • Reducing the amount of internationals a player must appear in from 75% to 30% in the past two years if the country is ranked in the top 30
  • Introduce a transfer fee exemption, allowing any non-EU player to obtain a work permit if the value of the deal reaches an indexed figure, possibly £15m
  • Eradicating the appeals system in its current format, only allowing an appeal on the basis of an incorrect process

This is all part of Dyke's vision to improve the English national team to a point where they can challenge for the World Cup in Qatar 2022. Along with the state-of-the-art St George's Park training centre, these new work permit regulations are designed to supercharge the development of England's brightest young stars.

The FA openly admit an entire generation of potential players have been let down and that will need to change if England want to think about qualifying for major competitions of the future, let alone winning them.

These new regulations are designed to prevent clubs taking advantage of smaller economies outside of Europe, where football talent comes significantly cheaper. In turn, it will force clubs to develop their academy products, giving them more playing time and ultimately giving England a bigger pool of players to choose from.

Missed opportunities

There are plenty of downsides, as Arsene Wenger would happily tell you. Regulations stopped Angel di Maria and Yaya Toure coming to England as teenagers. They would later grace the Premier League but only once Manchester United and Manchester City forked over massive transfer fees to Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively. That, according to Wenger, takes money out of England unnecessarily and is the reason why all restrictions should be lifted.

Wenger told reporters on Friday: "Ideally it would open completely and anyone can come in.

"We had identified Di Maria when he was 17. We saw him in an international competition and we wanted him to come here, but he went to Portugal and then to Spain. Why? Because he could not get a work permit for England.

"What does it mean if he comes into the country anyway, later on? It means you can only get him to England once he is worth a huge amount of money and who do you pay this huge amount of money to?

"It goes to a club like Real Madrid and they don't need the money. We have to be conscious of that."

Regulation required

But an ideal world requires clubs to act responsibly. With millions of pounds at stake and so few prizes on offer, acting responsibly is one virtue many clubs in the Football League will be happy to lose if it meant climbing up the ladder. Clubs are businesses that are fighting for their own interests, not the country that they reside in.

A completely open system is open for exploitation with clubs likely to hoard youngsters from all over the world on the off chance that one will develop into a decent player. The rest can be loaned out to clubs all over Europe until they reach a value where they can be sold, paying back the initial costs of developing them.

While the new system will stop that perceived exploitation in its tracks, at least for non EU players, it is open to a different kind of exploitation. The new rules could see deals in excess of £10 million automatically qualify for a work permit, meaning Arsenal could inflate their deal for Paulista on purpose to make sure it goes through without a hitch and that, too, sends more money than necessary out of England. It would also give the clubs with bigger budgets an advantage over smaller outfits, widening what is already a noticeable gap.

The silver bullet

These new regulations are not going to be the silver bullet that kills the leech that is sucking life out of English football. Non EU players still represent a very small portion–only 23 successful registrations since 2009–below the Premier League with most clubs unable to afford scouts that expand out of England, let alone the EU.

The freedom of movement and work that comes with being a member of the EU will mean clubs in the Premier League can continue to pluck youngsters from European clubs. Comparing the costs of signing a foreign 16-year-old and paying for the development and education of an eight-year-old from down the road is indicative of the problem: the pool of talent in Europe is massive, and the money spent before that import gets into the first team is significantly less.

Homegrown rules, which force clubs to name eight players that have spent three-years at an English club prior to turning 21 in their 25-man squad, still do not take nationality into account. Until they do, the local boy will continue to see his place usurped by the bigger, better and cheaper European import.

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Topics:
Football
Premier League
Arsenal

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