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How Irish football can exploit Brexit


'Post-Brexit Irish workers will still enjoy the right to work in the UK by virtue of the Common Travel Area; however, the situation for young Irish footballers is a little more complex.' (stock photo)

'Post-Brexit Irish workers will still enjoy the right to work in the UK by virtue of the Common Travel Area; however, the situation for young Irish footballers is a little more complex.' (stock photo)

'Post-Brexit Irish workers will still enjoy the right to work in the UK by virtue of the Common Travel Area; however, the situation for young Irish footballers is a little more complex.' (stock photo)

The penny is finally beginning to drop for British clubs that their world is about to change in a very significant way.

Although there have been no significant new developments or changes to the FIFA Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players since the Brexit Referendum, by virtue of leaving the European Union British football clubs will no longer be subject to a number of specific EU rules concerning the status and transfer of players.

The genesis of the current issues can be traced back to what is probably the most famous EU decision of them all - the Bosman case.

In Bosman it was clearly enshrined that, within the EU, footballers from member states (and a number of EEA States) were workers and could not be subject to any nationality restrictions.

The decision produced a seismic shock in the football transfer world. FIFA, UEFA and the EU grappled with how you could reconcile the rights of footballers as workers with the goals of protecting the integrity of the game, contributing to sustainable development and protecting the grassroots of the sport.

Eventually, a special compromise was reached which effectively led to two different systems in operation. Outside the EU minors cannot transfer internationally, however, within the EU players aged between 16 and 18 can transfer subject to a number of conditions being met concerning education, training, living standards and the appointment of a mentor. Furthermore, different rules apply on how training football clubs are compensated when a young player moves within the EU compared to when a player moves in another jurisdiction.

Professional clubs within the EU also have an additional burden of conditions to meet if they want to secure compensation when a player under-23 leaves at the end of his contract, in addition to lower levels of compensation being payable. Within the EU rules on a limit on the number of non-national players are strictly prohibited but are allowable in other jurisdictions.

Leaving aside the incredibly complex situation of Derry City, which is an outlier subject to a number of exceptions, Irish clubs at all levels are about to have a very significant change to how they deal with clubs from the UK. Traditionally a culture of children as young as 14 being 'sent over' to clubs to pursue football apprenticeships existed. British clubs had extensive scouting networks and identified talented young players.

While this system produced some of the most famous Irish stars of generations past it should be noted that for every Damien Duff and Robbie Keane there were 98 other young boys who were sent home, having had an exceptionally poor, token level of education and told they were not good enough. The training clubs often received very little, if anything, by way of compensation.

In more recent times, with the shift in the regulations precipitated by the post-Bosman regulations, elements of this practice have ceased. Instead players have signed with British clubs from the age of 16 upwards with the requirements for education provision being in place. Anecdotally the level of education actually provided is extremely poor. The Professional Football Association of Ireland, for example, commit a great deal of time, resources and guidance into helping footballers re-engage with education when they return from England and sign with League of Ireland clubs.

Many individual clubs also have relationships with third-level institutions which facilitate education for players in Ireland. My own employer, University College Cork, is perhaps the most prominent example, via their multi-level collaboration with Cork City.

In theory a more structured system of compensation to reward the grassroots and senior clubs involved in training the player is in place, but this is more often ignored by British clubs rather than honoured. Various estimates of compliance suggest figures of between three and eight per cent of the compensation due are being actually paid by clubs acquiring the young players from their training clubs.

A standard play of agents is to make it clear that the foreign club are interested in the next young star only if there is no training compensation payable - and if the training club looks for their entitlement under FIFA regulations they will be 'standing in the way' of the player's development and their big shot.

Another tactic is to threaten 'bridge transfers,' whereby a player is transferred domestically to a professional club which removes the grassroots club's rights to training compensation and is then quickly sold on internationally - a practice which the FAI have tried to stop and one which FIFA is about to expressly prohibit.

All this, however, is about to change utterly. The UK leaving the EU last Friday means the transfer of players under-18 will cease. In what is perhaps a telling insight into the entire Brexit project, the penny seems to be dropping only now about what the consequence of this will mean for British clubs.

No more will the likes of Cesc Fabregas be able to join a British academy at such a young age and, when British clubs do look to sign players once they are old enough, the compensation they are, notionally at least, expected to pay will increase significantly. During the transition period footballers from the EU will continue to be able to work in the UK. The situation for footballers after Brexit is completed is likely to change.

Irish footballers will also find themselves in a unique position. Ireland and the UK enjoy a Common Travel Area and workers have free movement within that area. An ordinary Irish worker can move freely and take up employment in the UK both as an EU citizen and by virtue of the Common Travel Area. At the end of the Brexit transition period EU workers, including footballers, will likely require a visa to work in the UK and quotas could be put on the number of players per team (similar to the old 'three foreigners' rule).

Post-Brexit Irish workers will still enjoy the right to work in the UK by virtue of the Common Travel Area; however, the situation for young Irish footballers is a little more complex.

Come January 1, 2021, young Irish footballers in theory will have the right to work in the UK but their ability to do so will be hindered by the operation of the FIFA regulations. On the one hand the law of the land will say that they can, FIFA regulations, however, will prohibit the players aged between 16 and 18 from being registered with any club.

FIFA has said it will not change the regulations but that it will interpret them in such a way during the Brexit transition period to allow FIFA to look upon the UK as an EU/EEA member - thus allowing British football clubs one further transfer window.

The door will firmly shut come the end of the year and, without a change to the regulations, British clubs will be locked out of signing young players from abroad.

The implications and opportunities for Irish football are profound. More than ever the FAI must ensure that the best young Irish players are given an opportunity to develop at home because the traditional destination will be closed off to them.

The recent development and success of the underage national leagues, although not without their critics, is just one small step. If the Irish national team is to have a future then the FAI and other stakeholders must create an environment where the best players can develop without relying on someone else to do the graft. Never before has Irish football been handed such an opportunity.

Dr Seán Ó Conaill is the Director of the Centre for Sports Economics and Law at UCC, a Lecturer in Sports Law at the School of Law and a new FAI Council Member

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