The chief executive of the Premier League has urged the UK government to change post-Brexit immigration rules for football, saying they had contributed towards pushing up transfer fees by making it harder for English clubs to sign foreign players.
Speaking at the Financial Times’ Business of Football Summit, Richard Masters said the new regime, which came into force two years ago, has reduced the ability of the league’s teams to recruit younger and cheaper overseas talent.
Masters said the rules were partly responsible for clubs launching an unprecedented spending spree on more established stars, contributing to the record £815mn spent by clubs during the January transfer window.
“The immigration system needs a bit of a tweak,” said Masters. “We’re committed to developing young, homegrown players and we want [England men’s team manager] Gareth Southgate to be successful, but when you have a limited supply of players you can go for and you’ve got lots of demand. it’s slightly inflationary.”
Under the UK’s new Governing Body Endorsement System, EU players no longer gain an automatic right to play in the Premier League.
Instead, they are permitted work visas based on a number of criteria, including how many times they have appeared for a national side or played for top teams. There are also new quotas on how many foreign players aged under 21 that can be signed, and a ban on signing foreign players under 18.
For the Football Association, the sport’s governing body in England, the UK’s exit from the EU was an opportunity to cut the number of foreign players at top clubs. That was meant to encourage them to find and nurture local talent for the benefit of the England national team, which reached the semi-final of the 2018 World Cup and the final of the Uefa 2020 Euros.
“We have an earned advantage over our European competitors and a lot of that earned advantage is going to those competitors in transfer fees for players we can’t buy any more at a younger age, partly to do with the Governing Body Endorsement System,” Masters said.
Premier League clubs have been able to outspend their counterparts in other top European leagues because their revenues are far greater, a financial advantage they had enjoyed even before Brexit.
In the 2020-21 season, English top-flight clubs made over €5.4bn in revenues, more than €2.4bn higher than teams in the German Bundesliga, their nearest rival.
Wealthy owners have also been willing to underpin their spending in the transfer market. US investors Clearlake Capital and Todd Boehly acquired Chelsea for £2.5bn last year and spent €329mn as they swooped on players including Argentina’s World Cup-winning midfielder Enzo Fernández.
Other senior figures agreed with Masters’ call for immigration changes. Rick Parry, chair of the English Football League, which runs the three professional divisions below the top level, said the rules should be relaxed outside the Premier League. “We’re not providing players for the national team by and large,” he said.
Last month, the UK government announced that alongside the publication of the football white paper, which aimed to regulate the sector, ministers would also review the “efficiency of the existing visa system” with the goal of “attracting the best global talent” to English football.