UK: The Foreigner Debate: The FA's New Work Permit Regulations Explained

Last Updated: 23 December 2015
Article by Daniel Geey

By Daniel Geey and Jonny Madill

So what has happened?

It was announced earlier this year that the Football Association (the FA) was changing its rules on non-EEA (European Economic Area) players playing in the UK after consultation with the Premier League, Football League, League Managers Association, Professional Footballers Association and Home Associations.

The FA Chairman Greg Dyke explained1 that the current system needed to be tightened so as to only allow non-EEA players who are:

  • "internationally established at the highest level"; and
  • "whose employment will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level".

A number of important statistics were used by the FA to demonstrate their view that too many sub-elite 'foreigners' were able to play in the UK, thus blocking English player pathways through to the first team. Such statistics included:

  1. Roughly 50% of all non-EEA players joined clubs via the appeals panel;
  2. 79% of all appeals were successful;
  3. 55% of non-EEA players who joined Premier League clubs played fewer than the league average number of minutes; and
  4. Only 58% of players who were given work visas played any top-flight football in their second season.

Dyke was keen to stress that:

"The new system will make it far easier for us to identify and attract top quality players that truly are at the elite level, and it will make it far tougher for those who don't meet the quality standard to get to play in Britain."

How does the new work permit system work?

Previously, in order to qualify to play in the UK, football players needed to have played in at least 75% of their country's senior international matches over the previous two years. There was an appeals process too if that criteria was not fulfilled. Under the previous system, players must have played for a top 70 ranked country (averaged over two years). That has now been changed to a top 50 ranked country.

Those regulations no longer apply. Eligibility is now determined according to a national team's ranking, as set out in the table below:

Official FIFA Ranking Required % of international matches over previous 24 months
FIFA 1-10 30% and above
FIFA 11-20 45% and above
FIFA 21-30 60% and above
FIFA 31-50 75% and above

By way of example, to automatically qualify for a work permit to play in the Premier League, a Brazilian player is only required to play a minimum of 30% of national team matches over the last two years (given that Brazil is within the FIFA top 10 ranking positions2). At the time of writing, Ivory Coast was ranked 19th meaning an Ivory Coast player would be required to play in 45% of matches over the last two years. However the two year period is reduced to one year for players aged 21 or under at time of application to potentially make it easier for young, outstanding talent to avoid being disadvantaged.

Can a player still appeal if initially rejected?

If the automatic criteria mentioned above is not met, the player can request that an appeals body (called the Exceptions Panel) considers the player's experience and value to decide whether the player should nonetheless be allowed to join the club. The detail can be found here

The appeals process is a points based system under which the panel will award points depending on the circumstances of the transfer. If a player scores four points or more, the panel may recommend that the application is granted. Nonetheless, the panel can still reject the application even if four or more points are scored.

Criteria  Points 
The value of the transfer fee being paid for the player is in the top 25% of all transfers to Premier League clubs in the previous 2 windows 3 points
The value of the transfer fee being paid for the player is between the 50th and 75th % of all transfers to Premier League clubs in the previous 2 windows 2 points
The wages being paid to the player by the applicant club is in the top 25% of the top 30 earners at the club 3 points
The wages being paid to the player by the applicant club are between the 50th and 75th % of all the top 30 earners at the club 2 points
The player's current club is in a Top League[3] and the player has played in 30% or more of the available domestic league minutes 1 point
The player's current club has played in the group stages or onwards of the Champions League, Europa League or the Copa Libertadores within the last 12 months and the player has played in 30% or more of the available domestic league minutes 1 point

If the player does not meet the above points based system review, there is a secondary examination under which if the player scores 5 points or more, the panel may recommend that an application is granted. Points can be scored if, for example, the player has played in the final qualification rounds of the Champions League, Europa League or the Copa Libertadores within the last 12 months and the player has played in 30% or more of the available domestic league minutes. The review at this stage is more flexible meaning that the panel can take into account the circumstances if no transfer fee is payable (perhaps because the player has reached the end of his contract) or if the player satisfies some but not all of the automatic criteria.

If the player fails to score 5 points or more, there is one final review stage during which further arguments can be made if there are extenuating circumstances that are beyond the control of the player or national association (for example, a long term injury or suspension that has prevented the player from appearing in the last year).

Will it make a difference?

With the winter transfer window approaching, clubs will not only be looking carefully at the type of player required to bolster their squad, but they may now have a more difficult time in successfully receiving work permits for prospective targets. As explained above, under the old regulations there was a high probability of success on appeal when an initial work permit application was rejected. Clubs may, however, need to consider the likelihood of targets satisfying the new automatic criteria as the appeal panel route may in the future be a more difficult route to successfully navigate.

The FA estimates that 33% of the players who gained entry under the old system would not have been granted a work permit under the new rules. According to the FA, that means that over the last five years there would have been 42 fewer non-European players playing in the Premier League and Football Leagues.

Whilst this is true, there is nothing that the FA can do to stop European players from playing in the Premier League or Football League because the FA cannot, under EU law, directly discriminate on the basis of nationality. Although clubs throughout Europe are restricted in the number of non-'home-grown players' a club can have in its 25 man playing squad (which we will explain in a future blog), the outcome is that these changes may still not add any further English player talent to Premier League squads. Only a (unlikely) referendum win for those wanting the UK out of the EU would make it easier to restrict the number of European footballers wanting to play in the Premier League and Football League.




3. Defined as the six European leagues which provide the most players to the top 20 squads in the FIFA World Rankings and the two Central and South American leagues which provide the most players to the top 20 squads in the FIFA World Rankings.

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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