Enzo Fernandez - Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

Enzo Fernandez – Robbie Jay Barratt/AMA/Getty Images

The Football Association will fight attempts to make it easier for Premier League clubs to sign even more foreign players to fill up their squads for fear that it will damage the England national team.

The governing body will strongly argue that the point of Brexit and leaving the European Union was not to hurt England’s chances of developing players and winning major tournaments and there is a danger of that happening.

While the FA agrees that the current system needs to be simplified, it will claim it has to take place in conjunction with a full review of player development in England.

In announcing its long-awaited plans for an independent football regulator last week the Government also revealed it is considering a revamp of the visa rules to make it easier for clubs to sign foreign players.

That has followed Premier League demands to change the so-called Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) system which was set up post-Brexit to oversee the issuing of work permits.

The GBE system was established by the Home Office and, for football, is overseen by the FA and there is already concern that there is a lack of opportunity for young talent with England lagging far behind other major European leagues.

The FA has a target of 38 per cent of English players in the Premier League. Currently that total runs at 32 per cent and just 28 per cent in the top six teams – far lower than European leagues.

Prior to Brexit all clubs had access to European markets and limited access to non-European markets. Now there is a points-based system based on a weighted system including the strength of the league they are coming from and the number of international caps. The FA will oppose reducing the points total.

The Premier League clubs will lobby to change this to, for example, allow more players from lesser leagues – the case that is cited is Riyad Mahrez who was signed by Leicester City from France’s Ligue 2 – and, crucially, to change the so-called “exceptions panel” which looks at young players. It appears the Government wants to abolish such panels because some sports use them arbitrarily.



The FA argues the clubs do not actually use the system effectively enough and that if the rules are too lax it will damage England. For example, clubs can already sign up to six overseas Under-21 players – which would total 120 across the 20 clubs – but brought in only eight this season.

At the same time they signed 142 overseas players – more than any other season in the last decade and nearly double the last year before Brexit. There has been a tripling of the number of non-EU players (77) from the 2019-20 season.

An FA source said: “We want to help the Premier League clubs but we cannot allow the England team to be damaged along the way. We think there is a way we can protect the England team and help the clubs but it will need compromise.”

‘FA determined to prevent recruitment of overseas ‘squad fillers’

The FA is therefore determined to prevent what are termed “squad fillers” – average players or journeymen – coming from abroad who will block homegrown talent from getting through.

The FA insists that any changes to the visa system must benefit the development of youth players and not just lower the bar to allow in more from overseas.

Richard Masters, the Premier League’s chief executive, said the present rules represented “quite a tight system” that needs to be “moderated to work better”. He told the Financial Times Business of Football Summit: “If you are outside Europe you can’t buy younger players, the same way that you could before.”

The point of Brexit was not to harm the England team – but this is what clubs will do

When Chelsea signed Andrey Santos for £16 million in the January transfer window it appeared the hugely talented Brazilian was denied a work permit by the unfair system put in place.

The fact is the 18-year-old would have been accepted had Chelsea not already filled their quota of six foreign under-21 signings this season with Wesley Fofana, Cesare Casedei, Gabriel Slonina, Benoît Badiashile, Mykhailo Mudryk and Enzo Fernández.

It was therefore Chelsea’s decision to register their record £106 million signing Fernández, and not Santos, to take the sixth and final place that scuppered his chances. And it is a Premier League rule rather than one imposed on Premier League clubs by the Government or the Football Association that the maximum number should be six.

Vested interests collide

The case highlights the complicated and conflicted world of transfers and work permits post-Brexit where vested interests collide. In some ways the system has liberated Premier League clubs but they do not appear to see it that way.

Instead they want the rules to be more lax; some pretty much want a free-for-all in which clubs can buy and sell who they want from where they want – and do so because they have the financial might as part of the world’s richest league.

But the genuine fear is that this will have a catastrophic effect on English players and the England national team. And surely that was not the point of Brexit?

The system is up for debate and will change. The Government signalled that in announcing its White Paper, primarily around the introduction of an independent regulator.

The Premier League clubs undoubtedly want what is termed a “lower bar”. The FA will kick back with the question: who are the players you are not getting through the system? In a sense it is a ‘chicken and egg’ scenario because the clubs can counter this by saying: we have not tried to pursue them because we can’t get them in.

‘Post-Brexit rules make it easier to sign non-European players’

Nevertheless Brighton have used it well. They have identified and exploited the South American market – Alexis Mac Allister, Moises Caicedo and Facundo Buonanotte – and the fact that the rules post-Brexit now actually make it easier to sign non-European players.

Fernández, meanwhile, is an interesting example. It is understood that Wolverhampton Wanderers considered signing the Argentinian midfielder last summer but the deal did not happen. Similarly there was Premier League interest in Mudryk. Both would have got through the current Government Body Endorsement (GBE) system but, instead, Chelsea paid £200 million for them in January and that £200 million has left the Premier League.

Chelsea's Ukrainian midfielder Mykhailo Mudryk (L) and Chelsea's Argentinian midfielder Enzo Fernandez (R) warm-up prior to the start of the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Fulham - GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

Chelsea’s Ukrainian midfielder Mykhailo Mudryk (L) and Chelsea’s Argentinian midfielder Enzo Fernandez (R) warm-up prior to the start of the English Premier League football match between Chelsea and Fulham – GLYN KIRK/AFP via Getty Images

It is also, in this case at least, a Chelsea problem rather than a system problem. In theory, between them, the 20 Premier League clubs could have signed 120 foreign players under the age of 21 this season but have signed only eight. It would appear the system is not failing. It has actually hardly been used.

At present there is a danger of it being a ‘lose, lose, lose’ situation for the FA, the Premier League and the EFL as young homegrown players are not getting the opportunities and the clubs are having to pay more and more money to get players from overseas.

Take another example: Pedro Porro. The 23-year-old Spanish defender was with Manchester City but had to move to Spain and then Portugal because of a lack of playing chances. Eventually Tottenham Hotspur bought him for £40 million from Sporting – and that is £40 million lost to the English game from a player who was in the system. More relevant is the case of Jadon Sancho – who left City for Germany only to be brought back to England from Borussia Dortmund by Manchester United for £73 million.

There is a huge trade deficit for the Premier League – £739million was spent on players this season, with only £101million in sales. This is partly because the system is failing to develop value in young players and failing to give them the opportunity to play.

The figures are alarming: the number of minutes played by England Under-21 players this season in the top-flight is just over 20,000. For France it is 70,000 minutes for their Under-21s and for Spain it is 40,000 minutes.

It means that only 30 per cent of Under-21 minutes in the Premier League are played by English players. In both France and Spain it is more than double that at 69 per cent.

The depth is simply not there for England compared with other countries. Only two – Phil Foden and Conor Gallagher – from the squad that won the Under-17s World Cup in 2017 made it into Gareth Southgate’s squad for Qatar.

Partly this is also, undoubtedly, a product of the Premier League being so strong and being such a magnet for top talent – something no one wants to stop. It is a phenomenally successful league and it would be reckless to prohibit it from continuing to be so. But neither should it be allowed to use that economic power to buy and sell how it wants.

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