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How the FA's proposed work permit restrictions for non-EU players affects Chelsea

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Richard Heathcote

FA Chairman Greg Dyke recently put forth a number of proposed changes to the work permit requirements for non-EU footballers, and the proposed changes are intended to further restrict the ability of non-EU footballers to secure a work permit to play in England.

From Dyke's perspective, increased restrictions on non-EU players will help make it easier for young English players to break into Premier League first teams. As will be discussed, this likely won't be the case if these proposals are implemented.

As Chelsea has 1) quite a few non-EU players, 2) a massive loan army, and 3) would likely want to continue scouting players from non-EU countries and sending them on loan, we turn our attention to exactly how the FA's proposed changes would affect Chelsea.

Currently, in order for a non-EU player to secure a work permit, the player must meet the following two requirements:

  • The player must have participated in at least 75 percent of his home country’s senior competitive international matches where he was available for selection during the two years preceding the date of application; and
  • The player’s National Association must be at or above 70th place in the official FIFA World Rankings when averaged over the two years preceding the date of application.

The FA defines "senior competitive international matches" as World Cup matches and qualifiers, continental tournaments and qualifiers (i.e. UEFA European Championships, CAF African Cup of Nations, CONMEBOL Copa America), and Confederations Cup matches).

I have previously written extensively on the challenges non-EU footballers face when trying to secure English work permits for a sports law publication called LawInSport, and if you're interested in some background reading before diving in to what the proposed regulations would look like in practise, you can find the article here.

The proposed regulations are as follows -

Restricting work permit applications to Premier League clubs only (currently, Football League clubs can also apply)

In the past four years, 23 appeals from Football League clubs have been successful, around six per year. The FA's argument here is that only elite non-EU footballers should be granted work permits, and Football League clubs aren't good enough for elite footballers.

While a bit insulting to Football League clubs, this won't affect Chelsea at all.

Tightening the two-year FIFA World Rankings average cut-off from the top 70 to the top 50

This won't have a significant effect on the talent pool available to Chelsea or any other club, as the only non-EU country with a significant amount of Premier League-calibre talent that would be excluded under the new regulations is Cameroon (average position of 58 as of September 2014), and many Cameroonian footballers have EU passports (Samuel Eto'o, for example, has a Spanish passport).

Eliminating the appeals system, except where a procedural error occurred

The appeals panel was initially formed just prior to the start of the 1999-2000 season and was tasked with determining whether a player is "of the highest calibre," and should thus be granted a work permit. In the beginning, both the panel composition and the rationale behind the decision on whether to grant a non-EU player a work were made public. Now, however, the panel’s deliberations are confidential and the breakdown of the votes are not disclosed to the public, or even to the appellate club or among the panel itself. Only the final decision as to whether to endorse the player’s work permit is made public.

When discussing the appeals panel with a colleague a while back, he recounted a story where he was before the appeals board acting on behalf of a major club and trying to get a work permit for a non-EU player the club had just signed. He noticed that the members on the panel that day happened to be in a good mood, and so he quickly filed another appeal for a different player who he had previously thought was unlikely to get a permit. The panel granted the second work permit.

This story highlights the fact that under the current system, whether a player's appeal will be successful is extremely dependent on the composition and even disposition of the members who happen to be sitting on the panel the day arguments are presented. Indeed, the FA itself has admitted that the panel had made decisions subjectively and needed to be overhauled.

Chelsea's last appearance before the appeals panel was to secure a work permit for Willian. Under the new regulations, Willian would have qualified automatically by virtue of the £32m transfer fee (more on this below, and for those wondering, Filipe Luis has an Italian passport).

Preventing a non-EU player who has been granted an English work permit from being sent on loan

As the proposed regulations only apply to non-EU players who already have work permits, it is unlikely that these regulations will affect how Chelsea manages its 26-man loan army.

If the regulations were in effect today, only Christian Atsu and Kenneth Omeruo would be affected, and they would simply have to return to Chelsea.

Every single other player Chelsea has on loan either 1) doesn't have a work permit yet, or 2) has an EU passport. As such, the regulations can't be enforced on any other player Chelsea has sent on loan.

So, in the rare situation where Chelsea has a non-EU player on loan to another club and said player becomes eligible for a work permit, Chelsea will likely either 1) delay seeking out a work permit for that player, so he would remain free to continue developing on loan at a non-English club, or 2) get the work permit squared away and bring the player into the fold at Stamford Bridge.

There's nothing that would prevent Chelsea or any other Premier League club from stockpiling young players abroad. However, Chelsea would seemingly be prevented from loaning non-EU players to other English clubs, which isn't a huge deal, and as mentioned, if this regulation was in effect, the only change would be that Christian Atsu and Kenneth Omeruo would be at Stamford Bridge right now.

Introducing a transfer fee exemption, where any non-EU player whose transfer fee is a specified a minimum amount (£10m or £15m) would be automatically granted a work permit.

In practise, this would very likely have the unintended consequence of inflating transfer fees for non-EU players and ultimately take money out of English football.

If a non-EU player is worth £7m on the transfer market, a Premier League club would be incentivised to significantly overpay to reach a £10m minimum necessary to ensure that player receives an English work permit.

As far as Chelsea is concerned, it's unlikely that its less expensive non-EU players will be affected. Lucas Piazon, Victor Moses, and Josimar Quintero have European passports. That leaves Bertrand Traore, Wallace, Cristian Cuevas, Joao Rodriguez, Ulises Davila, Mario Pasalic, Stipe Perica, and Matej Delac.

Davila is never going to play for Chelsea, and Cuevas, Wallace, and Rodriguez are a long way off from even thinking about first team minutes. All three have plenty of time to secure the few senior caps necessary to qualify for a work permit under the new regulations (more on this below).

Mario Pasalic, Stipe Perica, and Matej Delac won't need work permits, as Croatia is part of the EU and the two-year option the UK exercised to delay granting free movement to Croats expires in July.

Traore is the only player who could have an issue, as Burkina Faso is well outside the top 30 in FIFA's World Rankings (more on this below).

Relaxing the two-year international participation requirement from 75% to 30% for players from countries ranked in the top 30 of FIFA's World Rankings

This proposed change actually relaxes the current criteria and would make it considerably easier for players from Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Chile, Colombia, Mexico, Costa Rica, Ecuador, and the United States to secure English work permits.

I've spoken with a number of journalists and lawyers at some length about these proposed regulations, and the consensus seems to be that of confusion as to why the FA proposed these specific changes. In practise, it seems extremely unlikely that these regulations will do much, if anything, to stem the tide of non-European Union players in the Premier League.

In addition, if enacted, these regulations would severely restrict the ability for Premier League clubs to sign established non-European players on Bosman deals (i.e. free transfer). Securing a player's services without having to pay a transfer fee is an extremely cost-effective way of strenghtening a squad. Samuel Eto'o, for example, has proven to be a bargain for Chelsea and Everton, although as mentioned, he has a Spanish passport.

Further, while it's easy to see why the FA is targeting non-EU footballers -- the principle of free movement renders the FA powerless to do anything to restrict EU footballers from plying their trade in the Premier League -- it's an exercise in futility and ultimately counterproductive.

By adding these restrictions, Dyke and the FA hope that young English players will have more professional opportunities. However, non-EU players are not creating a barrier to entry for young English players to play in the Premier League.

While the Premier League fields the most foreign players of the biggest five European Leagues, it actually fields the fewest non-EU players. Based on data gathered in March, Premier League clubs have fielded, on average, 1.6 non-European players per club. For perspective, Serie A averages 3.2 non-European players per club, La Liga averages 2.5, Ligue 1 averages 2.4, and the Bundesliga averages 1.7.

The small number of non-European players in the Premier League is punctuated by the fact that the Premier League actually fields the most foreign players. On average, Premier League clubs field 7 foreign players, compared to 5.9 in Serie A, 4.6 in the Bundesliga, 4.2 in La Liga, and 3.6 in Ligue 1.

Percentage-wise, therefore, only 23% of foreign players in the Premier League come from outside Europe. This is in stark contrast to the 69% in La Liga, 67% in Ligue 1, 54% in Serie A, and 37% in the Bundesliga.

The reason why the number of English players in the Premier League continues to dwindle isn't because of a handful of non-European players. It's because the Premier League has the ability to offer a bigger stage and bigger wages than any other domestic league. Naturally, this attracts a huge talent pool, which leads to heavy competition for a spot on a Premier League team sheet. Unless Real Madrid, Barcelona, or Bayern Munich come calling (or PSG offers wages well above market value), the Premier League is usually going to be where just about every footballer on the planet wants to play.

Dyke stated that he hoped that the proposed changes would cut the number of non-EU players in England by 50%. It's unlikely that these proposed restrictions would come close to achieving that goal, but there are 90 non-EU players in the Premier League right now and a handful in lower leagues, so we're talking about 60 or so players.

These 60 open spots wouldn't all go to English players. The majority would go to European players who don't need to subject themselves to these work permit requirements.

Given how shortsighted many of these proposals seem, it's far from certain that these regulations will be implemented, but if they are, Chelsea has little to worry about. None of these proposed regulations will have an adverse affect on how the club invests in talent from all over the globe and then utilises the loan system to ensure that it gets a great return on its investment.

Note: Portions of this analysis have been copied from a considerably more in-depth LawInSport article on the challenges non-EU players face when trying to secure English work permits. The full article can be accessed here.