Ruined reputation: Brexit and racism in the Premier League

This article has been provided by Conor Kavanagh who is a specialist content writer for the Immigration Advice Service – an organisation of leading UK immigration solicitors.

British football has come a long way since the early 1970’s. When the first black footballer to play for England, Laurie Cunningham, made his debut the stadium terraces were filled with racist chants. People like Cunningham were part of a new generation who were both from Afro-Caribbean descent and born in the UK. Many generations later and black English talent has formed the backbone of many English clubs and the national team, with players like Raheem Sterling, Marcus Rashford, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Jordan Sancho and Ruben Loftus-Cheek being seen as players who will propel the national team to new heights. Many of the league’s biggest stars are also BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) migrants.

A recent spate of incidents in British football has made the country a less desirable place to play the beautiful game. It is not surprising that Tommy Robinson and his followers sprung out of football hooliganism as the terraces have acted as a safe space for unchecked racism across the decades. The complications from Brexit to British clubs acquiring youth talent and recent racism could combine to hurt British football in the future.

The reemergence of prominent racist incidents in British football

While racism never went away from the British game, there have been several high-profile incidents on and off the pitch since the beginning of the decade. Former England Captain and Chelsea legend John Terry was found guilty by the FA of racially abusing QPR defender Anton Ferdinand in 2011 and was banned for four games. In the same year, Liverpool striker Luis Suarez racially abused Manchester United defender Patrice Evra and was subsequently banned by the FA for eight games. However, the way Liverpool handled the case was extremely insensitive. In the subsequent match the Liverpool squad donned white training tops with Suarez’s name and squad number to show solidarity with the banned player – a ban he had received for being racist.

In terms of racial abuse from British fans there have also been many high-profile incidents in the last decade – especially in the last several years. Much of it has stemmed from London clubs. There have been many incidents involving Chelsea, namely the Terry incident back in 2011. In February 2015, two Chelsea fans on their way to a match with Paris Saint-Germain, pushed a black man off a train before proceeding to chant with several others ‘we are racist and that’s the way we like it’. Several of these fans were found guilty by a French court in 2017 and ordered to pay fines with some receiving suspended sentences. In 2017, Chelsea fans were also observed participating in anti-Semitic chants during a game with Tottenham. In late 2018, four Chelsea fans were suspended from attending games after racially abusing Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling. Most recently in April 2019, Chelsea fans travelling to the Czech Republic for their Europa League tie with Slavia Prague began chanting ‘Salah is a bomber’ in reference to ex-Chelsea and current Liverpool forward Mo Salah, who is a Muslim from Egypt. There are also allegations that a travelling black Chelsea fan was racially abused before this game by his fellow supporters which the club are still investigating.

Chelsea is the most notable example but other London clubs have been guilty of racism. In April 2019 a Brentford FC season ticket holder was arrested after directing racist abuse at Derby player Duane Holmes during a 3-3 draw at Griffin Park. Currently the police are investigating another incident from April with West Ham fans being caught on camera singing about ‘f***ing Jews’ in reference to the fans of their London rivals Tottenham who have a prominent local Jewish fan base.

While the football world has a larger problem with racism it is clear that Britain, which supposedly prides itself on tolerance and diversity, still has an obvious problem with racism in football and more has to be done to tackle it.

Brexit will make Britain a less desirable place for young and established European talent

Currently the UK is quite accessible for young emerging talent. While FIFA bars all players under 18 from moving to a foreign club, they have an exception where those aged 16 and 17 can move across teams and within countries in the European Economic Area. One of the most notable Premier League stars who took advantage of this FIFA arrangement is Manchester United midfielder Paul Pogba, who moved to United from French club Le Havre as a teenager in 2009.

When the UK does leave the EU, transfers like Pogba’s will no longer be so easy. British clubs will miss out on young emerging talent, who will be snapped up by European clubs that will still take advantage of being able to sign 16- and 17-year olds. The break with the EU will also make Britain less attractive for adult stars wanting to join a British club. As the freedom of movement ends, European players will have to apply for a Tier 2 Sports Visa. This Visa requires the FA to endorse the application and the player will have to be seen as an ‘elite’ sportsperson at the highest level of the profession. Potential players will also have to apply for the Visa three months prior while the Visa covers a stay of three years which can be extended to six. This may not deter the best and highest payed stars but the lower leagues may suffer from less Europeans willing to deal with the hassle of applying for this Visa rather than easily moving to a club in the EU.

The high-profile racist incidents may already be factoring in players decisions to come and play Britain. This skepticism will only be exacerbated by the changes coming with Brexit. Britain will be at a disadvantage in signing the best young talent compared to countries like Germany and France and the arduous Visa process may play into a player’s decisions on where to move for their career. Racism and Brexit may come together to seriously hamper Britain’s ability to procure young and mature European talent despite the wealth of it’s leagues.

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