This time last year, he was a relatively unknown footballer in France’s top flight, Ligue 1. Now, he is a celebrated midfielder, the dynamo of Leicester City’s unlikely run to the top of England’s Premier League. And this time next year – well, who knows? N'Golo Kante may have just made his debut for the French national team, but could he soon be on his way out of Britain?
One outcome of a Brexit result could be that Kante finds himself failing to meet work permit requirements. And he wouldn’t be alone in this. Reports suggest that between 300 and 400 footballers in England’s top two leagues and Scotland’s Premier League would fail to meet Britain’s current non-EU work permit requirements. Forecasts of apocalyptic scenarios abound, with some predicting a mass exodus of players who are in Kante’s position.
Under current EU rules, players from member nations do not need a work permit to play football in Britain. In the event of Brexit, the rules that are applied to non-EU players may well apply to Spanish, German and other EU players. In Kante’s case, France is currently ranked 21st in the world. This means he would need to have played in at least 60% of his national team’s competitive matches for which he was available for selection in the two years preceding his work permit application. Kante though has only ever played twice for his country, both friendlies.
In a recent article, Gordon Brown, the former prime minister, extolled the dream that is Europe for football. Some people in football nevertheless believe that the departure of Kante and others like him would be a good thing for domestic football. Former Arsenal defender and aspiring Conservative MP Sol Campbell is one of them. British football has in recent years witnessed a massive influx of players from the EU, leading people such as Campbell to conclude that this has crowded out British talent and affected the national team’s performance. The theory is that a Brexit will result in more opportunities for domestic players and in turn lead to stronger national teams for England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.
Others commentators alternatively doubt whether it will come to this, even if Brexit becomes a reality. The Premier League in particular is an important revenue earner for the British economy, so it seems unlikely that the government would undermine its global competitive advantage by restricting football’s access to the world’s top talent.
Indeed, in recent years the English Football Association, the sport’s governing body, worked with the government to create its work permit regulations for non-EU players and would surely perform a similar role in the aftermath of a Brexit. Perhaps tellingly, the Premier League’s official position is that EU membership is a matter for voters, and that it always works with “the government of the day”.
Entering the unknown
Despite the polarity of the debate, however, it is hard to predict what the precise effects of a Brexit will be. The legal environment in a post-EU Britain will be extremely complex and it will likely take a long time to address the issue of player transfers. What happens in the meantime, who knows?
As such, it remains unclear what could happen to football after June 23. If fans are to vote in an informed way, this at least demands a response from those running the leave campaign. What exactly will British football look like in five years’ time?
Critics highlight the disparities and inequalities the Premier League has created, but these could actually deepen if Britain leaves the EU. But, in England, the ever-inflating rights fees paid by broadcasters to show games on television have become premised on the biggest names from across the world plying their trade in Britain.
In the short to medium term, Premier League clubs will continue to have at their disposal the money that enables them to buy the world’s best players, irrespective of whatever the future work permit regulations might be. Moreover, these clubs will have the stature, position and resources to lobby the authorities responsible for managing the award of player work permits.
Smaller clubs lower down the league structure would be likely to struggle on both counts, possessing neither the money nor the influence to address the implications of Brexit. In recent years, it may have been relatively easy for smaller Premier League and other clubs to pick up a European bargain – Kante being a case in point, having cost £7m and earning £55,000 a week. However beyond Brexit, signing similar players could be considerably more difficult.
This would mean such clubs having to focus on the development of domestic talent – something that could be problematic for a decade or more. Some clubs have disbanded their reserve teams and others rely on hiring loan talent. Addressing either of these issues would require investment and time, placing lower league clubs at a significant competitive disadvantage.
So Kante is an unlikely figure, effectively the contemporary face of what EU membership means to English football. With the leave campaign remaining extremely vague on its plans for football should it win the EU referendum campaign, Kante may ultimately become the face of what English football used to be.