Permit problems – the UK law harming club captures, foreign futures and national hopes

We’ve all done it. Loaded up Football Manager, scouted some of The Americas’ greatest talents, submitted offers and agreed terms, only for the move to be denied by the failure to secure a work permit.

The new Lionel Messi, Kaka’s clone, Ronaldinho’s ringer – all heading off to La Liga, Serie A or Shakhtar Donetsk because of you, David Cameron.


The criteria to which a player must adhere to in order to obtain a work permit are as follows:

  • A player must have player for his country in at least 75% of its competitive A team matches of which he was available for selection, during the two years preceding the date of the application
  • The player’s country must be at or above 70th place in the official FIFA world rankings when averaged over the two years preceding the date of the application


You can immediately see the second point is relatively meaningless to most scenarios. There isn’t a single South American nation outside of the top 70 teams in the FIFA world rankings and those North American teams outside of that perimeter include Jamaica, Honduras, Canada and Haiti. It’s extremely unlikely that the rebirth of Maradona will occur in any of those countries. The real problem comes with the first point.

It is not uncommon in football to see bright young players given a first team debut at the tender age of 17 or 18, before not appearing for the national team for another season or two, despite still being available for selection.

Let’s transport ourselves back to January 2011 in a hypothetical scenario in which a 17-year-old Jack Wilshere is a South American wonderkid.

Having made his international debut for Colombia against Hungary in August 2010 before watching from the bench against Montenegro, Wilshere has now been overlooked for matches against Bulgaria, Switzerland and France.

Chelsea have been scouting young Wilshere every week for two seasons, including his games for Colombia’s youth teams, the full national team and his club side Once Caldas. Then manager Carlo Ancelotti has decided it’s time to bring him to England – they negotiate a fee of £6,500,000 with Once Caldas and have no problem ensuring Wilshere agrees terms with the club.

All that stands between Chelsea and a future world star is a work permit, but it’s denied. He’s only been picked in 40% of the games in which he has been available for selection.

Chelsea decide to appeal the case with a ‘Special Talent’ work permit application, intended for youth footballers, but these are difficult to see approved once a player has made his full international debut. Having had the appeal denied, Chelsea have no option but to cancel the move.

Two weeks later Barcelona match Chelsea’s offer for Wilshere. No permit required, the Colombian joins Barcelona on a four-year-deal and goes on to be an integral part of the Catalan club’s midfield.

While it may seem far fetched to turn Jack Wilshere into a young, Colombian midfield sensation, similar things have happened in the past. Indeed, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger attributes the club’s failure to sign Ángel Di María down to problems with the work permit rulings, claiming they should be scrapped for foreign players.

We identified Di Maria when he was 17. We wanted him to come here, but he goes to Portugal, from Portugal he goes to Spain.


Why? Because he could not get a work permit here. That means you can only get him to England once he is worth a huge amount of money.

New rules coming in to play this season mean that any player costing over £10,000,000 will automatically be granted a work permit, but that is of little use to under-18 youth talent, a band of players in which a £10,000,000+ fee is extremely rare.


Another example, again from Arsenal, is Yaya Toure. Wenger claimed to have known the youngster since he was 15-years-old, having tried to sign him from Beveren, but Toure grew impatient at being unable to obtain a work permit and moved to Metalurh Donetsk, before progressing to Olympiakos, Barcelona and Manchester City.

During the World Cup in 2014, agent and scout Barry McIntosh told the Daily Mirror of his attempts to bring James Rodríguez to Birmingham City.

James Rodríguez has lit up this World Cup for Colombia to fulfil the huge potential he showed as a kid when Birmingham nearly signed him for just £3million.


I scouted him in 2007 at the World U17 championships and personally recommended him to Birmingham’s then co-owner David Sullivan.


A £3million deal was proposed in January 2008 when Alex McLeish was manager.


I recommended Rodríguez but he went to the Argentine league instead to play for Banfield, which is usually an indication of a highly promising player, as Argentine clubs only bring in exceptional players from abroad.


The work permit rules are currently so strict, hypothetically even Lionel Messi could not get one here at the time he signed for Barcelona.


Let’s be realistic, how many players of 16, 17 or 18 years of age are going to play for their full national team for 75 percent of the matches in the last two years?”

The comments of Wenger and McIntosh are supported by the number of players to move to the Premier League directly from South American clubs so far this transfer window, with Nathan, formerly of Atlético Paranaense, being the only player to have done exactly that – having signed for Chelsea for £4,500,000.

While many may argue that work permit rules should remain in place in order to provide greater opportunities for English youngsters, there are two clear facts.

The first being that England have been failing on the international stage since the 70s, when there were significantly less foreigners in English football. The second is that said failure has remained, roughly, in a similar position on the spectrum since then, despite the number of foreign players in English football increasing season by season.

And now, with the likes of Jack Wilshere, Raheem Sterling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Ross Barkley, John Stones, Harry Kane and others in the side, this crop of youngsters is being described as one of the most promising set of English players in many years.

This suggests that having to play with and against the cream of the crop from a young age is finally starting to rub off on home-grown talent – surely scrapping work permit rules can only strengthen England’s prospects as a national team, improve your club’s youth system and enhance the future of many foreign footballers?

The Author

Ellis King

Love football anywhere in the world, always watching, playing or writing about it. Partial to a bit of La Liga and South American football. Arsenal fan. Sorry.

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