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English football clubs to benefit from new immigration rules

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New immigration rules, endorsed by the UK Home Office, will help football clubs in England looking to enhance their playing squads through the recruitment of talented players from overseas, according to legal experts.

The ‘International Sportsperson’ immigration route enables international players to gain visas to play for English football clubs. The availability of the route depends on a  points-based system that now includes a new and significant exemption in the men’s game.

Joe McMorrow of Pinsent Masons said that before the new exemption, it was hard to avoid the strict criteria that must be met under the points-based system for overseas players to be eligible for an international player visa. The criteria includes things like the number of international appearances the player has made, the number of minutes the player has featured in domestic or continental competition, the success of the player’s previous club and the quality of the domestic league in which that club competes.

“The new rules allow some leeway for clubs to sign players who do not fulfil the criteria in the main points-based system, albeit with significant limitations built in,” McMorrow said.

The central limitation is that the maximum number of overseas players that English Premier League and EFL Championship football clubs will be able to sign via this new exemption route at any one time is four, though that number will vary – and for the 2023/24 season could reduce to as low as two – depending on the number of minutes on the pitch for players in their squad who are eligible to play for England. The numbers are lower for EFL League One and EFL League Two clubs. 

“This mechanism is designed to provide some protection for the development of homegrown English players,” McMorrow said.

Clubs will also have to evidence to the Football Association’s (FA’s) satisfaction that the player is an elite player and will make a significant contribution to the sport. The FA expects that, as a minimum, the player will have played in a certain number of qualifying matches.

Further restrictions apply to the recruitment of youth players via the International Sportsperson route.

McMorrow said: “In this regard, the starting point is that, to prevent child exploitation, FIFA generally prohibits the international transfer of minors – i.e. players under the age of 18. There are exceptions to the rules, which are regulated and overseen by FIFA. One of those is where the transfer takes place within the territory of the European Union (EU) or European Economic Area (EEA) and the player is aged between 16 and 18 and other conditions are met. Post-Brexit, English clubs do not enjoy this exception, meaning that they are not usually allowed to sign players from the EU – or anywhere else – until they are 18.”

“There are other, well used, exceptions to FIFA’s international rules, including where the player’s parents move country. Until now, those exceptions have not been all that helpful because, even where it could be used for a player under 18, the strict criteria may have caused the move to be blocked, although there is already some flexibility for youth players. However, the new leeway being granted does now open that up further.  Similarly, the points scoring model has been updated in the women’s game with the addition of a youth player exceptions panel providing clubs with access to high potential players who might fall outside the current criteria, but are of proven ability” he said.

Shara Pledger, also of Pinsent Masons, said: “International Sportsperson is purposely an exclusive route. Intended only for elite sportspersons or qualified coaches, it can be difficult for talented players and athletes to meet strict criteria. Each sport has its own governing body which must endorse each individual application. As the relevant body for football, the FA’s announcement that it will expand the basis on which it can support future applications will be very welcome.”

“These changes to the International Sportsperson route demonstrate a weakness of the UK’s points-based system for immigration. As opposed to other jurisdictions which have systems that operate flexibly – giving multiple opportunities and means for an applicant to qualify for visa points – the UK’s system is nothing more than a series of rules which an applicant will or will not satisfy. It is great to see another rule added to International Sportsperson giving a wider pool of candidates the opportunity to qualify, but it does raise the question as to why the UK persists with an overly complicated points-based structure at all,” she said.

FA chief executive Mark Bullingham said: “As English football’s governing body, we oversee the whole football ecosystem, and we wanted to create a new model which would meet the different objectives of our football stakeholders. We worked closely with the clubs and the leagues, and have designed a progressive solution which will give clubs additional access to international talent and incentivise playing opportunities for English talent.”

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