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Brexit and FIFA
Jadon Sancho PIC: Shutterstock

03 Apr 2020 / Sports Print

They think it’s all over

The British Premier League could lose out on acquiring Europe’s top youth talent, thanks to Brexit and FIFA regulation 19. But the transfer ban on under-18 players could prove to be a Brexit bonus for Ireland.

Remember when Brexit was all the rage? You couldn’t open a newspaper or turn on the radio without mention of backstops or no deals.

And then Boris Johnson won the election and everyone just stopped talking about it. It’s now so ‘last decade’. During the new ‘Roaring 20s’, the rise of Sinn Féin and rapidly spreading viruses dominate the national discussion.

There is one constant though – football.

The Premier League continues to fascinate, with apparently over one million adults in this country supporting either Liverpool or Manchester United. The FAI fiasco is the story that just won’t go away. Where dysfunction met scandal, and where once a nation held its breath, now it can’t avert its gaze.

But Brexit also hasn’t gone away, you know. Expect the latter to make an explosive comeback as the year progresses and the end of the transition period edges closer.

Which is where our obsession with football and the effect of Brexit align. Considering the many potentially seismic economic effects of Britain’s solo run, it’s not surprising that the freedom of movement of young footballers has not been on the radar to the same degree.

Offside trap

However, bearing in mind the size of the Premier League, which is now a massive global business turning over billions of pounds per year, it would seem as if those in charge of the league and its largest clubs may have taken their eye off the ball, so to speak: from the end of this year, it is likely that no international players under 18 will be able to sign for a British club.

The issue stems from FIFA regulation 19, which is designed to protect minors. Put quite simply, it bans international transfers of players under 18.

This means that, although in England, players can sign scholarship forms at 16, and professional contracts at 17, those living outside the country cannot do so.

There are some exceptions to this rule, set out in sub-rule 2 of article 19 – the most important of which is an exemption where the transfer takes place within the territory of the EU and European Economic Area, and the player is aged between 16 and 18.

Mind your house

This is clearly in place to recognise the EU’s rules on freedom of movement, and has seen many European players benefit from it, such as Cesc Fabregas and Gerard Piqué, while Jadon Sancho has profited from the rule by moving from England to Germany.

All of the major Premier League clubs scour Europe for young talent that they can sign for relatively small sums. Current European champions Liverpool have used the rule to transfer Dutch prodigies Ki-Jana Hoever and Sepp Van Den Berg, who have played in their cup competitions this year.

Parking the bus

The cost of elite players in the current market is so exorbitant that, with clubs of this stature all chasing that player who could be next Virgil Van Dijk or Kevin De Bruyne, they are prepared to play a percentage game by stockpiling as many young players as they can get their hands on, in the hope that one, or maybe two, will be the ‘next big thing’.

They’ve done the maths and know that, even if only one or two percent are good enough, they can sell enough of those that don’t make the elite grade to a club on the next level for a fee that will more than justify the initial outlay.

One look at the Jadon Sancho situation illustrates the point. Although Manchester City initially signed him from Watford at the age of 15, two years later he was able to move to Borussia Dortmund under the provisions of article 19(2) for a fee believed to be just Stg £8 million.

Now regarded as one of the best young talents in the world, he will cost over Stg £100 million when, if as expected, he leaves Dortmund this summer.

Boys in green

It becomes particularly interesting when we examine the effect on Irish football. For decades, young Irish footballers have made the teenage move to Britain in the hope of glory on England’s conveyor belt of footballing talent.

Where once the likes of Niall Quinn and Kevin Moran could be plucked from the GAA grounds of Dublin and thrust into the top flight, recent years have seen a major sea change in the experience of young potential superstars.

Early doors

The academies of Ireland’s junior clubs churn out hundreds of players every year who dream of being the next Robbie Keane or Shane Long. The reality is much more prosaic.

A tiny proportion of those who travel to England make a career in that country. On the flip side, 99% come home, many disillusioned, homesick and determined never to play the sport again. Most of these had benefitted from the article 19(2) exemption. For every Troy Parrott and Aaron Connolly, there are 198 lads who need picking-up off the floor.

The lucky ones are those with the wherewithal to drag themselves up again and make a career in the League of Ireland. Many will simply return home with no prospects, having left at 16 without completing their education.

Many suffer from mental-health issues; others, mired in disappointment, either struggle to obtain menial employment or fall in with the wrong crowd.

It is those stories that are never told. So many young players chase an impossible dream and leave education, family and friends behind to return to nothing. But it is tempting – everyone thinks they might be that 1%.

Back of the net

The unexpected consequence of Brexit will take away the choice and this is, ultimately, a good thing. No player should be leaving home before 18 anyway.

They should stay, do their Leaving Cert and, if they are good enough, a top League of Ireland club will be knocking down their door.

If they are exceptional, they will play in our Premier Division before they reach their majority, earning valuable playing time in competitive men’s football, which they would never get if they were in the academy of a Premier League club.

Over the moon

Take Ireland’s best young talent. Just turned 18, would he be playing for a League of Ireland club for the last two years if rule 19(2) hadn’t applied to him?

The answer most likely is ‘yes’. You can’t blame him for moving, but he is – not surprisingly – finding it hard to play any matches at any elite Premier League club, despite his obvious ability.

And, of course, the league will benefit from retaining the best players we can produce for a few more years.

If the player is good enough, the English clubs will come knocking when they are 18 anyway. If they don’t, then they shouldn’t be going in the first place.

Of course, European clubs can still benefit from the rule, and maybe the German, Dutch, French or Italian clubs will chase the Troy Parrotts of the future, though transfers to non-English speaking countries will be a lot less attractive. 

Off the woodwork

There remains the possibility that FIFA could change its rule to provide an exemption for British clubs, and we should never underestimate the power of the Premier League, but all the signals are that FIFA won’t budge.

An additional issue is that the Football Association (of England), a separate entity, may welcome the opportunities that will now inevitably fall to young English prospects.

Sick as a parrot

Do not expect the Premier League to take this lying down. If a solution cannot be found with FIFA, they are unlikely to sit patiently and wait for Europe’s (including Ireland’s) top talents to reach 18.

Ingenuity will be required, but they will look to bend every rule and chase very loophole.

However, for Ireland’s next stars, and an already resurgent League of Ireland, this is one Brexit bonus.

Stuart Gilhooly
Stuart Gilhooly is a partner at HJ Ward & Co and a solicitor for the Professional Footballers’ Association of Ireland