Freeths LLP Talk Brexit, Permits & International Transfers!

David Keenan, Senior Associate at Freeths.

David Keenan, Senior Associate at Freeths.

Liverpool FC recently lifted one of the most coveted trophies in world football. They did so with a diverse squad featuring players from Egypt, Senegal, and Brazil. Debate on the positives and negatives of football migration in the UK, its processes and legalities have been a hot button issue since the 90’s.

The International transfer market does not lack cash, controversy, or speculation, and more often than not the fans knowledge of what goes on behind the curtain is frustratingly limited. So, what exactly are the legal considerations at play when a foreign player enters the UK? We sat down with David Keenan, Senior Associate at Freeths. Keenan provides advice in complex dispute resolution and commercial/regulatory matters. An expert in sports law he specialises in football, boxing, and horseracing.


How does the work permit system for foreign players work exactly?

‘Well the FA administers work permits for professional footballers, but only after having been authorised to do so by the Home Office’.


So, all foreign players need FA approval before boot sees ball?

‘Not quite, currently players who hold European passports are in most cases free to play professional football in the UK without requiring approval from the FA. That position may of course change depending on Brexit’.


How does a foreign player go about obtaining a work permit?

‘Players who hold passports from outside the EU/EEA need permission to work in the UK. The Home Office has a points-based system on which clubs must apply to The FA for a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE), which allows the player to play for that club’.


How is it that some players automatically qualify for a GBE?

‘If a player has made a certain number of appearances for their senior national team within a certain time period, (12 or 24 months dependant on the age of the player), that player will automatically be entitled to a (GBE). Within that time frame, players can also provide evidence of games they have missed due to injury or suspension. The number of appearances a player needs to have made depends upon the FIFA ranking of their national association, the lower the ranking the more appearances required’.


What happens if a player fails to meet the above FA requirements for automatic endorsement?

‘If a non-EU player does not meet the automatic criteria a club can request that an ‘Exceptions Panel’ consider the player’s experience and value (e.g. the transfer fee). Criteria for the ‘Exceptions Panel’ is split into ‘Objective’ and ‘Subjective’ criteria and 4 or 5 points are needed dependant on circumstances in order for the FA to grant that particular player a (GBE)’.


You mentioned Brexit, which these days is the quickest way to get thrown out of a dinner party. How will leaving the EU impact international football transfers?

‘It’s been more than 20 years since ‘Freedom of Movement of People’ changed the face of English football beyond all recognition. Currently, players who hold an EU passport are able to play in the UK without much issue. As there is ongoing uncertainty over Brexit whether that ultimately changes is impossible to say. If the UK leaves the EU in a no deal scenario it is doubtful all EPL clubs would immediately have to source work permits for all their foreign players. It is unlikely that the contracting of EU players would suddenly be brought to an end. However, one possibility is that EU players would become subject to non-EU player policies and procedures with regards to work permits from the Home Office. If that were to happen, I’d venture a considerable number of players in Europe who at present are free to play football in the UK would no longer meet the criteria. For example, N’Golo Kante, a two-time Premier League title winner would not have met the automatic criteria for a work permit prior to his transfer to Leicester in 2015. Brexit could also create an issue in relation to younger players. As it stands FIFA regulations allow players aged 16 and 17 to transfer between clubs who are in the EU or the EEA. Clubs have of course taken advantage of this to secure topflight talent at an early age. Brexit may well take English clubs outside those institutions, if so, it will make transfers similar to Liverpool’s recent signing of Sepp van den Berg much more difficult’.


Established in 1895, Freeths LLP is one of the largest full-service commercial law firms in the UK. Freeths offer a range of services from banking & finance, reputation management, defamation & privacy, to media entertainment & sport. Freeths are winners of the ‘UK Diversity Legal Awards’ ‘Firm of the Year’ and are amongst ‘Lawyer Magazine’s’ ‘Top 50 UK Law Firms’. Freeths LLP also ranks in the Sunday Times ‘Top 100 Best Companies to Work For’.

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