Despite eventually being granted a work permit for new signing Gabriel Paulista, Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger has still been vocally critical of UK football work permit regulations in the English game.
His main complaint has been that it stops top British clubs from getting value in the non-European market, citing his losing out of the signing of a 17-year-old Angel Di Maria to Benfica as an example of this.
Although the Arsenal manager’s gripes are due to his belief that work permit regulations mean that top English clubs inevitably lose out to their European counterparts in the race to sign young international talent, he has actually overlooked the real victims of these laws— British clubs who lack the means to sign the games’ biggest international stars.
Work permit regulations (which admittedly act as guidelines rather than clear-cut rules) state that a player can only sign for a British club if they have played in at least 75% of their nation’s senior competitive international matches in the last two years and that their nation has averaged in the top 70 in the FIFA World Rankings in this time.
Special considerations are made for younger players and players from nations outside of the top 70.
In essence, work permit regulations are designed to ensure that only non-EU players of the highest calibre can play in English football. As the law itself states, only non-EU players who can ‘contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in the UK’ can sign for British clubs.
Therefore, although work permit regulations may have stopped a 17-year-old Di Maria from joining Arsenal, these laws are going to pose much larger restrictions to clubs who are not looking to sign players of the absolute highest calibre—a category which contains pretty much all clubs outside of the top six in England.
An example of such a club losing out to these laws are Stoke City and their attempted January 2014 signing of highly rated US starlet Juan Agudelo. The 22-year-old striker had signed a pre-contract with the Potters in summer 2013, only to fail in obtaining a work permit.
Stoke therefore loaned him out to FC Utrecht of Holland before reapplying for a work permit six months later, only to fail again, which lead to his Stoke contract being terminated.
Although we will never know what kind of impact Agudelo would have had at the Britannia Stadium, the fact that Stoke followed up the failure of securing his work permit with the seemingly hurried signing of Peter Odemwingie suggests that he was expected to make had an instant impact in the first team.
The Agudelo case highlights what is the biggest injustice with the footballing work permit laws, namely that ‘contribut[ing] significantly to the development of the game at the top level in the UK’ is interpreted as being good enough to play for a very small handful of England’s biggest clubs.
Therefore, bar a few cases, clubs outside of this small elite miss out on being able to sign non-EU players altogether.
This has the obvious effect of widening the already worryingly large gap between “the elite” and “the rest” in the Premier League, as clubs that cannot attract international regulars have the net with which they trawl for talent greatly reduced.
It also means that fans of smaller clubs being treated to exotic talent will become an increasingly rare thing. Anyone who has reduced a Middlesbrough supporter to tears of joy with barely the utterance of the name ‘Juninho’ will know that such a restriction is nothing short of a travesty.
So, what can be done to make restrictions on the amount of non-EU players in English footballer fairer to the majority of clubs?
One potential solution could be to adopt the continental system of only allowing a certain amount of non-EU players in a squad or transfers in a season, but keeping this number the same for each and every club. This system certainly allows for fans of smaller clubs to enjoy watching talent from all over the globe.
It is hard not to imagine that Alexis Sanchez’s three-season stint at Udinese will live long in their fans’ collective memories, and that such cases will have fans of smaller top flight clubs in England staring across the sea enviously.
It is not only smaller top-flight teams who are restricted by work permit laws. As fans of UK lower league management in Football Manager will know all too well, it is near impossible for Football League teams to sign non-EU players, even when they have the ability to make a large positive football to the English game at the level at which they play at.
Surely if the FA’s aim is to create a domestic game which gives equal opportunity to all teams this final clause needs to be added to the premise which governs the UK’s footballing work permit laws.