As many readers of the blog will be aware, I’m a huge fan of Sports Interactive’s masterpiece Football Manager, owning every version since it was first released as Championship Manager way back in the sands of time.
Every iteration is more detailed and in-depth than the last.
This year is no exception, and one of the key additions is the inclusion of Brexit and its impact on the sport. It was only after reading an interview with Miles Jacobson, one of the game’s creators, that I realised their company has taken the only proper, in-depth, look at how substantial and far-reaching that impact might be.
Which is pretty telling, I guess, about the state of our politics.
The game simulates three scenarios, ranging in potential consequence, from the “soft Brexit” one that lets things stay more or less as they are, in football terms anyway; free movement of persons, membership of the Single Market etc, to the “hard Brexit” which seems to be the way things are headed, both with the Theresa May government and our current, but soon to be former, European Union partners.
In that scenario, all bets are off.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that the consequences of that will be absolutely enormous, and if I’m being honest, and looking at the big picture, it seems the most likely outcome at the present time, which is why inflation is rising, the pound is plummeting and major companies are talking about re-locating their UK headquarters elsewhere.
I’m not going to do a heavy duty politics piece here, but it’s important to understand this in the context of the bigger picture. The consequences of Brexit haven’t properly sunk in yet, not to anyone, including those who campaigned hardest for it.
Leaving the EU doesn’t just mean (to use their language; I believe very little of it) “taking back control of our borders” and such like. It means leaving the world’s biggest single trading block. It means renegotiating tens of thousands of rules and regulations and rewriting huge tracts of domestic law.
It’s an undertaking of mind-bending complexity and it is fraught with dangers both obvious and hidden.
Some of them we can see coming with a little imagination but others are going to blindside us completely, with ripple effects and costs we can’t even conceive of yet far less start to adequately prepare for. Football might change dramatically.
Now, it’s entirely possible that even in the most extreme Brexit scenario the government will simply change UK work permit regulations to allow EU footballers to qualify automatically. That’s what some people think will happen. But they underestimate the legal implications of such a move. It’s wide open to legal challenge, because if you carve out an exception to UK work permit regulations for a single industry you disenfranchise everyone else who wants to come and work here. That’s no small thing, and even if the will to fight the legal battle was there the political will might not. For all the clout the EPL has as a business there are political considerations beyond them. A lot of people believe that there should be restrictions on the number of foreign players in the domestic competitions because it will force clubs to rear more of their own stars.
The bun-fight over that issue has been averted because EU law gives every player who holds an EU passport the right to come here; once that changes it’s by no means certain that the FA will want to see those rights restored as a matter of course, and it’s the FA and not the EPL who will have the authority to negotiate that with the Home Office. Their role is to put the future of the sport itself above the narrow commercial interests; the SFA might not take that seriously, but their counterparts at Lancaster Gate have a little more foresight.
And don’t discount the SFA itself making a decision to limit the number of foriegn players in the game here.
They can, and will, dress it up as “supporting youth development” but who do you think would be most disenfranchised by such a move?
In addition to this, don’t count on there being a huge outcry from the clubs themselves. There are a lot of football owners who think rising costs have to be brought under control and they would not object too vociferously if it was easier to do that, and they could probably sell this as just such a change, although some experts think English clubs would simply pay more for the full internationals who’d get work permits easily.
I disagree. More clubs would invest in youth, and buy domestic. These owners bought those clubs as businesses, not as black holes. EU regulations have long been thought of as the only thing stopping clubs from instigating a salary cap in the league; that too is no longer guaranteed to be “off the table.” With that and changed work permit rules owners would have a cast iron excuse for curtailing the massive spending that so characterises the game right now.
So imagine those people get their way? Imagine EU players are subjected to the current work permit regulations that govern the game for those who come from countries like Russia? What’s the practical impact of that?
Well, here’s one consequence; in England alone, there are more than 400 players in the top three leagues who would not have been granted work permits under the present rules. When Celtic played Leicester in a pre-season friendly, there were seven members of their starting line-up and four from ours who wouldn’t have qualified.
This isn’t a small thing. Yesterday the government announced that some form of work permit system will probably need to be implemented. Unless there’s a special case for football players – and the legal minefield that would open up – that changes the ground beneath our feet.
And the changes don’t stop with Brexit itself; that’s just the start, the first of the dominos toppling. If Scotland votes to go independent as a consequence of Brexit then a really intriguing possibility opens up; we might find ourselves with an advantage over the EPL for once, especially if we are allowed to join the EU right away.
The kind of players clubs like Celtic struggle to sign at the moment because English clubs get there first or force up the prices, we’d be far more likely to attract. They’d be cheaper and we would get work permits whereas English clubs wouldn’t.
Then there’s the TV deals which currently make the EPL so unbelievably wealthy.
Who knows what restrictions the EU might one day place on the ability of the English top flight to market their product abroad? And even if that doesn’t happen, will the product still be as valuable when the majority of EPL clubs are forced to go back to basics, or sign players from their own lower leagues?
What would that mean for Celtic?
Well if Scotland was a member of the EU we could still have signed the likes of Van Dijk and Wanyama but we might not have been able to sell them on to the EPL. Without EU membership, neither would have been able to come to Scotland. Like it or not, Celtic’s business model has benefited, in small ways, from the EPL financial boom; it’s that which enabled clubs in England to pay such outrageous fees for these footballers. Clubs on the continent wouldn’t have.
There’s already been a Brexit impact on football, one that’s not generally realised. Celtic benefited from it in the short term but in the long term it’s going to cost us. UEFA’s Champions League payments to us will be higher because of the falling price of the £ as compared to the Euro, but this will be offset in us having to pay higher transfer fees when buying on the continent. As I said, the dominos just keep on falling with this one.
All this is to say that Brexit is an unparalleled nightmare for football clubs on this island, a disaster the impact of which can barely be guessed at yet. The differences between the “soft Brexit” option and the “hard Brexit” we appear to be heading for are enormous, and we can’t even begin to prepare for the likely impact until we know which of these we’re dealing with.
Governments don’t help football and they never have. There’s an elitist view of our sport as still being the province of shaven headed goons. When they do involve themselves in the game they do it by passing laws that criminalise fans and make life hard for the clubs. This is no exception, and the huge revenues the sport brings in aren’t going to buy it any special dispensations or relaxing of the rules. Nobody should think otherwise.
Our political class can’t even put the interests of the nation itself front and centre here; they are too busy scrambling after the approval of the people who dropped us into this morass, even if many of those people don’t fully understand what it is that they’ve done.
We shouldn’t expect them to consider the impact on our sport far less our club.
They haven’t offered football fans a thing by way of explanation, or talked straight to us about what challenges we face.
They’ve ignored us completely in this.
It is ironic, but not surprising, that it’s taken a company that makes a football management simulation to bring these issues directly to the fans. As incredible as it sounds, when we’re talking about a multi-billion pound industry, Sports Interactive are the first people to war-game this scenario properly, and to pitch what they’ve found at a level where the ordinary supporter will understand it, and in time we’ll thank them for that because they’ve helped to make sense of a highly complex issue which will affect us as fans.
We can only wait to see what our so-called leaders do.
Reasons for optimism there are very hard to find.