NO DANI Ayala. No Emilio Nsue. No Tomas Kalas. No Kike. No Ritchie De Laet. No Diego Fabbrini. No Aitor Karanka. No Leo. Boro may have looked very different last season without the free movement of labour inside the European Union.
Without the social and economic mobility granted by an EU passport, none of those would have qualified for a work permit under current UK employment law. They would all have had to apply as foreign nationals and be measured against the tough entry criteria set by the Department of Employment. And all would undoubtedly fail under the existing rules.
In fact, last season Boro had 17 players on their books that would have needed to apply for a permit and all but one – Cristhian Stuani – would have been refused automatic permits.
Granted: Stuani celebrates cruising through the work permit procedure
Two – Fernando Amorebieta and Emilio Nsue – would have footballing grounds for an appeal. although they may be on shaky ground. Two more – Dimi Konstantopoulos and Ritchie De Laet – would have grounds for an appeal on the basis of long term residence and employment in the UK with a spouse and families who are citizens.
But the rest would fall well short of the criteria and would be refused a work permit.
And that could be the shape of things to come should the UK vote to leave the European Union in the epoch defining referendum later this month.
How individual supporters feel about the wider political, economic, social and cultural dimensions is part of a heated national discourse right now as the vote looms. But it is probably worth looking closer at how such a seismic shift may impact the game. It is my job to consider these things after all. And it could be a game changer for clubs.
A Brexit vote may have ‘devastating consequences” on the English game. That stark warning has been issued by West Ham big wig Karren Brady as a pivotal ballot looms that could lead to a seismic shift in the UK’s legal relationship with Europe.
The damage to football will come if a post-divorce settlement ends free movement of labour across the continent. Because, while our heavily tattooed heroes are lavishly rewarded beyond our dreams, footballers are still workers subject to the UK’s employment law – and that could be radically rewritten.
As it stands, British clubs can sign EU nationals whether they are born in Saltburn or Salzberg without any hindrance but those without a European passport are subject to strict work permit rules based on international appearances and the FIFA ranking of their national team.
And if the EU right of free movement is rescinded then those restrictions will apply to European players too – and that will shrink the pool of available talent and push transfer fees up giving the bigger, richer clubs a market advantage.
Hammers vice-chairman Brady, part of the Britain Stronger in Europe campaign, has written to the chairmen of every professional club in England, Scotland and Wales to outline what would happen if the UK votes to leave.
“For clubs, free movement plays a big role in transfers and players’ contracts,” she wrote.
“Players from the EU can sign for UK clubs without needing a visa or work permit, making it quicker and easier to secure top talent from across Europe to come and play in our leagues.
“Indeed, there are nearly 200 Premier League footballers alone who have benefited from this arrangement. Leaving the EU could have a big impact. Two-thirds of European stars in England would not meet automatic non-EU visa criteria . Losing unhindered access to European talent would put British clubs at a disadvantage compared to continental sides.”
There is a counter view among some fans and the FA that tighter restrictions will be beneficial in the long term and will create openings in senior sides and help local talent flourish . Many supporters instinctively cherish home grown heroes and in an ideal would want to see their team packed with hungry kids who share their accent.
Agent Rachel Anderson added: “Leaving the EU will have a much bigger effect on football than people think. We’re talking about half of the Premier League needing work permits. The short-term impact would be huge but you could argue it will help in the long term as it could force clubs to concentrate on home-grown talent.”
But there is an opposite demand too. Fans want to see their club win. They want to compete. And that means signing the best players possible and the history of the game has been ever expanding horizons. Clubs now scout extensively home and abroad to find quality footballers that can give them an edge at a price they can afford .
And there’s the rub. Cost. Restricting the pool of talent may foster more home grown players but demand would also fees and wages up for domestic players and that gives the bigger, richer clubs a market advantage.
REJECTED: BORO STARS PERMIT NO GO
Last season Boro used 18 foreign born players who had work permits granted as EU citizens. Only one would qualify automatically under the new rules if European free movement of labour was ended. That squad caught in a red tape wrangle:
Dimi Konstantopoulos – Greek national, 1 cap. Would not qualify automatically. Would probably win an appeal due to residence (he has lived in the UK for 13 years) and an English spouse.
Damia Abella – Spanish national, uncapped. Would not qualify.
Dani Ayala – Spanish national, 1 Under-21 cap. Would not qualify.
Kike Garcia – Spanish national, 7 Under-20 caps. Would not qualify.
Tomas Mejias – Spanish national, 6 Under-20 caps. Would not qualify.
Emilio Nsue – Spanish-born national, declared for Equatorial Guinea, 12 caps. Has played over 75% of games in the past two years but his nation are currently ranked 76th by FIFA. Would not get a permit but would be granted leave to appeal. Would need to show ‘exceptional ability.’
Tomas Kalas – Czech national, 3 caps. Would not qualify.
Yanic Wildschut – Dutch national, 10 Under-21 caps. Would not qualify.
Carlos de Pena – Uruguay national, Italian passport holder, uncapped. Would not qualify
Julien De Sart – Belgian national, 6 Under-21 caps. Would not qualify.
Ritchie De Laet – Belgian national, 2 caps. Would not qualify. Would possibly win an appeal due to residence (has lived in the UK for nine years ) and an English spouse.
Kike Sola – Spanish national, 1 Under-21 cap. Would not qualify.
Michael Agazzi – Italian national, uncapped. Would not qualify.
Cristhian Stuani – Uruguay national, Italian passport holder, 30 Uruguay caps. Has played 60% of games over past two years for a nation currently ranked ninth. Would be granted a permit.
Diego Fabbrini – Italian national, 1 cap. Would not qualify
Bruno Zuculini – Argentinian national, Italian passport, 8 Under-20 caps. Would not qualify.
Fernando Amorebieta – Spanish-born national, declared for Venezuela, 15 caps. Had played over 60% of games in the two years before his international retirement but his nation is ranked 77th. He would not be granted a permit automatically but would be granted leave to appeal and would have eto show ‘exceptional ability’.
(**Rhys Williams is an Australian-born citizen and international but has dual nationality due to his English born Welsh father and would not need to apply.)
THE NUMBERS GAME
According to a Guardian analysis of the top two tiers in England and the Scottish Premiership, a total of 332 players would fail to meet the current standards if they applied for permits as foreigners now.
A hefty 117 of last season’s Premier League players would be affected with Aston Villa, Newcastle and Watford all losing 11 players from their squads. Watford and Sunderland had eight who would fail; Stoke Southampton and West Ham seven; Leicester six; Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool and Manchester City five; Bournemouth and West Brom four; Chelsea, Spurs, Everton and Norwich three; and Crystal Palace one.
Among stars who would not automatically qualify are Chelsea’s Cesar Azpilicueta, Manchester United’s Juan Mata and Morgan Schneiderlin; Manchester City’s Jesús Navas and Samir Nasri and Liverpool’s Simon Mignolet.
Rejected: Juan Mata may not qualify under post-Brexit rules
Outside the top flight, Charlton would have been the hardest hit with 13 players who would fail. Only 23 of the 180 non-British EU players in last year’s Championship would qualify for work permits – and most of those are former internationals from Ireland or Commonwealth nations with British passports.
And North of the border it would be worse as none of the 53 non-British EU players in the Scottish Premiership last season would qualify for a permit on the basis of their international career alone.
England’s lower league are just as badly affected with 63 non-British EU players in League One and 46 in League Two who would not qualify.
Until last year the rules meant players without an EU passport had to have played in 75% of their national side’s competitive games over the previous two years and for a nation ranked in FIFA’s top 70.
There was an appeals procedure for exceptional players from lower-ranked nations and/or players who may have missed international call-ups because of injury.
That explains how useful old colonial links are. Brazilians often qualify for a Portuguese passport while several other South American countries have links with Spain or Italy and many African players can claim French nationality.
Those routes to Britain could be closed after a Brexit.
New criteria were introduced this year after lobbying by the FA hoping to make it harder for foreign players to get permits and create openings for domestic talent while also make it easier for clubs to recruit internationals from top nations.
Players from EU member states and from the European Economic Zone, – a looser, wider grouping of nations signed up to freedom of movement, which includes Norway, Iceland and Switzerland – do not need a work permit but any prospective player from outside those countries would need to apply. Some would qualify automatically if they meet the following quality criteria based on the international apedigree.
A player from a top-10 ranked nation now only has to have played in 30% of games in the previous two years to automatically qualify for a permit.
A player from a nation ranked 11-20 needs to have played in 45% of international games.
That rises to 60% for the next 10 ranked countries, then the benchmark rises to 75% of games for nations ranked 31-50 to qualify
A vote to leave would mean that players from the 27 countries still in the union would now need to meet these criteria.
None of these new rules would kick in immediately. It seems likely the trade and employment terms of any new exit settlement could take years to thrash out so a provisional system may be put in place for EU nationals applying for work permits.
And existing contracts would be honoured anyway. No-one will be deporting players.
But, beyond the short term, signing EU nationals will be harder and giving existing players new deals may mean a new – and many would be refused.
AND with last year’s second half of the season scheming spark Gaston Ramirez set t to have a work permit application rejected and facing an appeal – “a red tape wrangle” – here’s a bit I did on the whole procedure, the entry criteria, the points totting up system on appeal and the international weightings. It’s interesting.