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Brexit: new immigration rules for football players – are you ready for the January transfer window?

The UK’s new immigration system will fundamentally impact the way in which football clubs can engage players from Europe and beyond.  From 31 December 2020, free movement for European Economic Area and Swiss nationals will end and clubs will need to engage with the new regime.  This, coupled with The Football Association’s new endorsement criteria, means that the January 2021 transfer window will be more difficult to navigate for signings from outside the UK and Republic of Ireland.

How does the immigration system work?

  • The club purchasing the player (or receiving them on loan) is required to hold a sports specific sponsor licence.
  • Before a player is able to apply for a visa, the club must obtain an endorsement from The FA.
  • The club must then assign a certificate of sponsorship to the player. Sponsorship will be for one of two types of visa: “T2 Sportsperson” (which will allow the player to be sponsored for up to six years, with eligibility for settlement after five) or “T5 temporary sporting worker” (with a maximum stay of 12 months).
  • Football clubs that lie outside the top four divisions of men’s football or the top two divisions of women’s football cannot obtain a sports sponsor licence. These clubs will no longer be able to recruit EEA nationals unless the player obtains a visa outside of the sponsored worker system and that visa permits them to play football.
  • From 1 January 2021, The FA’s criteria for awarding an endorsement – which will, at that point, be extended to apply to all EEA footballers arriving from abroad – will change.

How does The FA endorsement work?

  • Players who have made a certain percentage of international appearances for the best-ranking national teams over a certain period of time will receive an automatic endorsement, as is the case under the outgoing scheme.
  • However, a secondary, points-based scheme will come into play where a player is not awarded an ‘automatic’ endorsement. In summary, points are based on criteria such as: the quality of the league of the selling club; minutes played by the player; and the domestic league and continental cup progression of the club they played for at the end of last season.
  • Youth players (under the age of 21) have the opportunity to be assessed on youth-team specific criteria if they fail to meet their respective points pass marks.
  • An application will cost £500 plus VAT. Clubs can appeal to an Exceptions Panel in the January 2021 window only, paying a fee of £5,000 plus VAT, in respect of players who fall a certain number of points below the threshold due to exceptional circumstances.
  • This new scheme is only intended to be in place for the January 2021 transfer window. A full review of the endorsement process will be undertaken ahead of the summer transfer window.

Full details of the requirements can be found here.

The impact

Clubs may lose out on engaging many talented footballers who have not yet reached international level or the top flight of their professions.

Premier League and Women’s Super League clubs, and to an increasing degree Championship clubs, recruiting from abroad often target players from the top divisions in Europe. Players from these leagues who gained regular minutes for their previous club will generally score enough points to be eligible under the new system.

However, many current Championship players would not meet the new criteria and, whilst the majority of League One and League Two and Women’s Championship players are UK or Irish nationals, prospective recruits from abroad will be unlikely to obtain an endorsement.

For example, Huddersfield Town’s Christopher Schindler, a German national, has been a mainstay in their defence since he joined from 2. Bundesliga side TSV 1860 Munich and helped them to reach the Premier League.  However, if visa restrictions were in place at the time of his transfer, he would not have met the new points-based threshold.

Practical steps to take

With clubs no longer able to benefit from free movement of European nationals for the January 2021 transfer window and beyond, it is vitally important that clubs are prepared:

  1. Apply for a sponsor licence if you have not already got one, or obtain a renewal if the current licence is due to expire. Consider the number of certificates of sponsorship you have or are applying for and whether these will be sufficient for your recruitment needs.
  2. If you have a licence, consider whether it is fit for purpose:
    • Are the people who are responsible for administering the licence up to speed with the new rules?
    • Does the licence cover the correct categories? Clubs should ensure that it covers both categories (T2 sportsperson and T5 temporary sporting) in order to provide maximum flexibility, as there is no English language requirement for the temporary route.
    • In the event that you will wish to employ non-playing staff who are not UK or Irish nationals, who do not have settled status, you will also require the ability to sponsor staff under the separate skilled worker category.
  1. Forward-plan:
    • The FA has indicated that applications for endorsements should be made by no later than 12pm on transfer deadline day. Whilst a club could feasibly sign a player without an endorsement, it would then run the risk of the application being unsuccessful, leaving the player unable to obtain a visa and therefore unable to play for the club.
    • To avoid wasting time negotiating with clubs in respect of players who ultimately will not receive endorsements, obtain the relevant information for prospective targets and analyse it against the criteria as soon as possible, to determine whether The FA would be likely to issue an endorsement.
    • In light of the above, ensure that your recruitment staff are aware of the above changes.

For further information, please contact our sports immigration lawyers below.