Football is in the air in the European Parliament as the World Cup kicks off with ten countries from the European Union taking part. MEPs (or most of them – some have a strange blank spot!) are looking forward to a few weeks of great football, healthy rivalries and, with any luck, limited penalties.
But as all eyes are fixed on the footballing world, the lingering questions over what Brexit will mean for our local football teams loom large.
If the government presses ahead with its plans, then freedom of movement for footballers will come to an end. Home office rules for non-EU/EEA footballers state that players only automatically qualify for a work permit if they have played a certain percentage of international matches for their national team.
Under these terms, hundreds of players currently playing in the English and Scottish football leagues would no longer qualify for a work permit post-Brexit. The likes of Juan Mata and Leroy Sané wouldn’t get a look in. In total, 332 European footballers playing across the Premier League, Championship and Scottish Premiership in 2016 would not have been eligible.
Rich clubs will always be able to pay whopping sums for the very best talent. But if Brexit goes ahead, it’s the aspiring clubs lower down the tables that will struggle.
Could Huddersfield have stayed up without Christopher Schindler, Terence Kongolo and Jonas Lössl this year? How would the Leeds United side shape up without Pablo Hernández? And looking beyond Yorkshire, few football fans would begrudge Leicester City the awe-inspiring title they won in no small part thanks to the magic of Frenchmen Mahrez and Kante.
Fans are also starting to ask questions. Will they face visa problems for last-minute European away days? Will ticket prices continue to rise as clubs (and broadcasters) deal with the drop in the value of the pound? Will they still be able to watch football highlights on a free-to-play channel like ITV if we are no longer able to shape EU competition policy?
There are those who say would Brexit help our national team by forcing clubs to recruit more local players. But it seems unlikely. Clubs try to bring through local talent anyway because it’s cheaper to do so, and because fans and managers alike want to see English players thrive, even if the constraints of modern football does not allow that to happen as much as many fans would like.
Working with UEFA, as an MEP I helped bring into effect the ‘home grown players’ rule, which obliges clubs in the Champions League to nurture local talent.
To my mind, England go into this world cup all the stronger for Walker and Delph having played under Pep Guardiola, for Harry Maguire having played alongside Kante and Mahrez, for Alexander-Arnold having honed his talents under Jurgen Klopp.
No wonder, then, that Klopp recently said Brexit “makes no sense at all”. Wise words from a man who knows Europe well!
Brexit aside, I can’t wait for the football to get underway and wish all the very best of luck to the Three Lions.