After England’s early exit from the Under 21 European Championships, the familiar ‘excuse’ of too many foreign players in England was a regular soundbite in the media for a few days. This is a knee-jerk too-easy response and ignores the fact that the U21 finals only consist of 8 teams so qualification itself is an achievement (the Netherlands did not manage it).
Not only that but the reality is, as a matter of fact, with the notable exception of 1966, there is no causal link between the performance of the England team at major tournaments and the number of foreign players in the Premier League, as Anderson and Sally examine in the brilliantly written ‘The Numbers Game’ [‘The Numbers Game’, Anderson C, Sally, D, Penguin 2014]. Whilst Greg Dyke’s motives for reforming the current system of Governing Body Endorsement (“GBE”) for non-EU players (or work permits are they are commonly known in the media) are admirable in motive, and are certainly popular down the pub, will they result in England winning a major tournament? Or even getting beyond the group stage?!
This article can’t answer those questions, but will instead examine the old and new system for the issue of a GBE as the transfer window opens this week.
The reforms were announced in March (see further here) following consultation with the Home Office. Where sportspeople are concerned, the Home Secretary divests some functions to sports governing bodies and they apply a test to each applicant against varying criteria.
The previous system for a GBE in football was fairly standardised, and therein lay the difficulty!
Under the previous system, the criteria for the issue of a GBE for a non-EEU player were: -
1) The player must have competed in at least 75% of senior competitive internationals for which he was available in the two years preceding the application.
2) The player’s national association must be at or above 70th place in the FIFA rankings averaged over the 2 years preceding the application.
In the event that a player did not meet those criteria, it was necessary to submit an appeal to the FA which would appoint a panel (usually comprising three panel members) who were asked to consider ;-
1) Whether the player is of the highest calibre
2) Whether the player could contribute to the development of the game at the top level in England.
Quite difficult to assess, and such a process was often supported by YouTube footage of 30 yard screamers, such as the one arbitrarily included here for humorous purposes which served to demonstrate a players provenance.
Dyke’s view was that such a system resulted in too many players being granted endorsement by the FA - as panel members allowed some 80% of appellant players.
Remember when Willian almost joined Tottenham but were usurped by Chelsea at the 11th hour? The player actually didn’t meet the criteria for an automatic GBE when Chelsea made their move, but at the subsequent appeal, Jose Mourinho made a personal appearance to argue that had the player been say, English rather than Brazilian, he would have easily met the criteria for an automatic permit.
A typically crafty argument from the Portuguese, and one which was ultimately successful.
The new criteria are somewhat reflective of this line of argument and came into force on 1 May. While only players from countries inside the world’s top 50 will be automatically eligible, Mourinho’s submissions have been taken on board as there now exists a tiered structure where the requisite number of international appearances required differs depending on the ranking of the country concerned.
It is broken down as follows: -
1-10 – 30% of Internationals in preceding two years
11-20 – 45%
21-30 – 60%
31-40 – 75%
For players under 21, the two year test period is reduced to one to reflect that as a young player, breaking into the national team may only have been a recent occurrence.
Roberto Firmino, who has just joined Liverpool from Hoffenheim, does not meet the new criteria having now featured in 10 games for Brazil, with some of those coming in friendlies.
The new appeal system requires Liverpool to prepare a case for the new ‘exceptions panel’ which will comprise a panel who will now assess the player against objective criteria including: -
2) Transfer Fee
3) The league in which the player has been playing in
The player might just have been eligible for an automatic GBE had Brazil not gone out of the Copa America recently so Liverpool will have to put the new system to the test, although one suspects a 23 year old Brazilian international costing a rumoured £29m who has topped the assists chart in the Bundesliga might just squeeze through!
Helpfully, the new system has already been tested for the first time by...Chelsea, who had loaned their teenage Burkina Faso international Bertrand Traore to Vitesse Arnhem as he was ineligible for a GBE. The club wished to bring him back and it was necessary to go to the exceptions panel due to Burkina Faso being ranked (at time of writing) 65th in the world.
The player, who is 19, scored 17 goals in the Eredivise last year and the panel clearly accepted both his great potential and track record, and the fact he has played a lot of internationals in the past two years.
Will these rules make a difference? In my view, it will make life a little easier for clubs seeking to bring in top talent, and whilst the criteria have been tightened up, there will always be a case to be made for any player to the exceptions panel. Whether a reduction in non-EEU players will be seen is as yet an unknown, and equally it will be difficult to assess the impact of any reduction on the fortunes of the national team.
Arsene Wenger prefers the argument that young home grown players should use foreign ‘stars’ as an example to work and train harder and ultimately become a better player. Rather than a deterrent to first team football, Wenger’s view is that importing players off differing styles and cultural backgrounds is a good thing for the English game. In that regard, I am reminded of anecdotes from local Arsenal players whose training and dietary habits completely changed upon seeing what Dennis Bergkamp was doing to maintain peak fitness. Similarly, of ‘the class of 92’ seeing Eric Cantona stay back for extra training at Man Utd and joining him.
The Premier League is undoubtedly the most exciting in the world. The reasons? The number of star players, the full stadia, teams with both genuine history and glamour. As the broadcast pot grows ever larger, the salaries get higher and the big stars continue to be attracted to England. It all points to a busy summer for the newly-formed exceptions panel!