Nick Westby: European vote could open the door for our home-grown talent

Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Sweden's Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
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There is something wickedly mischievious about the thought of Zlatan Ibrahimovic at the British Embassy in Paris, queueing for a work permit.

You could almost see him bobbing his head from left to right, standing on his tiptoes to peer above the waifs and strays of society, trying to get the attention of the over-worked desk clerk whose sole focus is on the passage of time, not the reduction in the queue in front of them.

“Don’t you know who I am? I am Zlatan,” the biggest ego in football would shout, before tossing his unsigned permit papers in the air and heading off to sign for AC Milan, Real Madrid or any other continental European club that would not put such restrictions on his freedom of movement.

Granted, the decision of the majority of people in this country to leave the EU on Thursday may have come too late in the day for Ibrahimovic’s widely-reported move from Paris Saint-Germain to Manchester United to get tangled up in red tape. But in the not-too distant future, when the dust settles and the full ramifications of our exit from Europe are known, such a scenario might not be so far from the truth. Brexit might come to be known as a dark day for the Premier League, but the dawning of a new age for English football.

Possible restrictions on the freedom of movement may in the long run revive the flagging fortunes of our footballing nation.

There are currently 432 European footballers registered with Premier League clubs, all of whom under EU law are free to work and live in Britain.

Those players will not have to leave the country, but the country’s decision last week means any new European players coming into this country to play football could now be subject to the same immigration rules as non-EU players.

That means that in the future any European footballer, whether they are one of the biggest names in the game or a lower-league player heading to a League Two club, will have to have a work permit.

To be granted a work permit, any player from a top-10 nation has to have played in 30 per cent of games in the two years prior to the date of application.

Put simply, an Ibrahimovic, an Antoine Greizmann or Ivan Rakitic will be granted a work permit because they fulfil that criteria of playing in a top league in over a third of games.

But what any future ruling might restrict is the 18-year-old academy product from Spain, who has yet to play a first team game for his super club, being picked up by an Arsenal, Manchester United or a Manchester City and being afforded the same benefits of a young lad who has grown up on the doorstep of his boyhood club, only to be crowded out by the influx of foreign talent.

In the immediate future, Britain’s decision to leave the EU could decrease the number of European players plying their trade in England’s top flight, which may then in turn damage the Premier League’s global status as one of the most attractive competitions in world sport.

The knock-on effect of that is it may benefit young English players whose path to the top is currently blocked by the amount of European players in their club’s academies and first teams.

England should beat Iceland tonight and may even go on to win Euro 2016. If they do not, the above scenario made possible by Brexit would give this country a greater chance of winning a tournament as there will be more English players free to play in their home top flight.

The impact of the country’s decision to leave the EU on football and sport is inconsequential when compared with far greater issues, such as economics, trade, security and the NHS. It is certainly not enough to have swayed votes either way. But the separate responses of the Premier League and the Football Association on Friday revealed apprehenshion on the part of the all-consuming League, and optimism from the grass-roots organisation.

“The Premier League is a hugely successful sporting competition that has strong domestic and global appeal,” began a spokesman for the League. “This will continue to be the case regardless of the referendum result.

“Given the uncertain nature of what the political and regulatory landscape might be following the ‘Leave’ vote, there is little point second-guessing the implications until there is greater clarity.

“Clearly, we will continue to work with Government and other bodies whatever the outcome of any process.”

Greg Dyke, the Football Association chairman, said: “My position has always been that the decline in the number of English players getting through the system into first teams in the Premier League is a shame and we’re now down to 30 per cent. If it (the vote to leave) stops that it is to be welcomed, if it increases the number of English players it is to be welcomed.

“But you don’t want to lose the best of the European players coming to play here.”