Soccer’s Riches Meet Brexit Debate on Chilly Night at Stoke City

  • Even an unfashionable provincial club has roster of EU players
  • At risk is freedom of movement set out in the Bosman ruling

It’s not easy to feel part of cosmopolitan Europe on a grey weekday evening in the downtrodden northwest English city of Stoke -- unless you’re at its soccer stadium.

The roster of players at Stoke City, the epitome of a mid-table provincial club, highlights the free flow of talent across the continent as well as the depth of the world’s richest soccer league. Now, after the season ended for most teams at the weekend with equally unglamorous Leicester City earlier crowned champion, the business side of the sport is concerned about another potential shock: a U.K. vote to leave the European Union in a June 23 referendum.

Stoke City

Photographer: Alex Livesey/Getty Images

"It could have a significant impact," Tony Scholes, Stoke City’s chief executive officer, said while ensconced in a heated seat in the dugout before a match last month with Tottenham Hotspur. He’s worried about the implementation of visas for EU citizens and the possible financial burden. "If you’re a player with a European passport you can come and play in the Premier League."

Clubs in England’s top flight are able to trawl for the best players thanks to television revenue from the globe’s most-watched championship. Starting next season, which begins in August, the package is worth 8 billion pounds ($11.5 billion) over three years shared between the 20 teams, making it the most lucrative ever.

Barca Boys

Stoke is among five clubs that would suffer the most from Brexit with nine of its squad from the EU who would need visas under current rules applied to other foreign players, according to pro-EU campaign Britain Stronger in Europe. The organization said that more than 100 Premier League players might have been prevented from joining their clubs if the U.K. wasn’t part of the 28-member bloc.

For the Tottenham clash on April 18, Stoke fielded a lineup including Spanish forward Bojan Krkic, a former teammate of Barcelona star Lionel Messi; Marko Arnautovic, a muscular Austrian attacker; and Ibrahim Affelay, a Dutch midfielder who arrived from Spain. It lost 0-4, along the way to ending the season in ninth place.

At stake are the unencumbered movement of such players, underpinned by the so-called Bosman ruling in 1995 that helped trigger soccer’s financial boom in Europe. Champion Leicester is in talks with German sportswear manufacturer Puma SE about a new apparel deal after its sudden climb to the soccer summit.

There’s also the protection of image rights, or branding, based on EU-wide legislation, according to Couchmans LLP, a London-based law firm specializing in sport.

QuickTake Will Britain Leave the EU?

“Losing this unhindered access to European talent would put British clubs at a disadvantage compared to continental sides,” Karren Brady, vice chairman of London club West Ham, wrote in a letter to all professional teams in England, Scotland and Wales this year. “Independent analysis has shown that two-thirds of European stars in England would not meet automatic non-EU visa criteria and therefore might be forced to leave.”

Scaremongering?

While Brady is on the board of Britain Stronger in Europe, the league itself hasn’t publicly opined one way or the other. Some non-EU countries -- like Norway and Switzerland -- have tweaked their own regulations to access the larger European market.

It’s that more flexible approach that Britain would adopt and the effects of a Brexit would be limited, according to “leave” campaigners. It’s a fallacy that the richest soccer league in the world would suffer, said John Petley, operations manager for the Campaign for an Independent Britain. “It’s nothing more than scaremongering,” he said.

Rules state that players from outside the EU, Norway, Liechtenstein and Iceland are currently only allowed into the U.K. if they are “internationally established at the highest level” or “make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level.”

Without a precedent it’s unclear what would happen should Britain leave and whether it would be able to carve out an agreement that would guarantee free movement of players without the need for clubs to hire lawyers to arrange visas.

“At the moment neither the ‘remain’ nor ‘exit’ camps are able to convincingly predict what a post-Brexit Britain would look like,” said Daniel Alfreds, an associate at law firm Couchmans. “And this will affect football as much as anyone else.”

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