Brexit problem of Scottish football: No entry and no exit


Juhani Ojala knew he would have to wait. Travel restrictions were still in force in Scotland, when in mid-July the Finnish defender agreed to join Motherwell, a club of modest means and sober ambitions in the country’s top division. Ojala knew that after landing he would have to spend 10 days in isolation at the hotel before joining his new teammates.

What he didn’t know was how long he would wait after that. Even after completing his mandatory isolation, Ojali was still not allowed to begin pre-season training. Legally, he was not even allowed to shoot the ball for another two weeks. Quarantine was one thing. It turned out that the bureaucracy was completely different.

A year ago – indeed, at any point in the last two decades – Oyal’s move to the Scottish Championship would have caused as much noise as attention. If Motherwell agreed to a fee with his former club and a contract with the player, it would be a simple matter to “jump on a plane and get a medical examination,” Motherwell CEO Alan Burrows said. “He would be ready to play within 24 hours.”

That all changed in January, four and a half years later Brexit referendum – Britain has formally and finally left the European Union. From that point on, clubs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland no longer had unrestricted access to players from the 26 Member States (a different set of rules applies to Ireland) that they had enjoyed since the 1990s.

Instead, potential recruits to Britain from Europe — as well as the rest of the world — are now graded according to a scoring system that takes into account everything from their international career and the success of their club team to how much they go to be paid. Access to the British leagues is granted only to those players who can collect 15 points or more.

For cash-soaked Premier League teams, that change meant little. There are occasional administrative delays – Manchester United had to wait a few days for Raphaël Varane to get a work visa even after it was approved – but the vast majority of potential recruits easily remove the new, higher ladder.

The effect, however, was significantly different in Scotland. Unlike the Premier League, the Scottish Premiership is not one of Europe’s financial powers. His clubs do not recruit the usually decorated internationals or kidnap stars from one of the most glamorous leagues on the continent.

Instead, their budgets dictate that they must look for lesser-known names in smaller markets. That approach, many say, has made Brexit rules immeasurably more complex. As the cost of hiring players from England increases, clubs and their executives are increasingly concerned about what the future of Scottish football might look like.

“What we’ve really seen is that the markets are chalk and cheese, but we have a solution that suits everyone, ”said Motherwell’s Burrows. “There is a premium for current international players that is beyond the financial means of most Scottish clubs.”

The biggest British teams do not face such obstacles. The current system gives an instant work permit to any player who has played in at least 70 percent of competitive matches for any of the top 50 football teams in the last two seasons. This means that any player who has also been a regular in a successful club team in one of the better leagues in Europe will almost certainly receive a pass – or, to put it technically, the approval of the Governing Body. It is in these rich waters that clubs in the Premier League mostly fish.

In Scotland, however, only two dominant clubs in the country, Rangers and Celtic, can even dream of looking for players of such quality. The rest of the Scottish teams strive to buy good prices or at least value every time the transition period opens. “It’s clear to me,” Motherwell’s Burrows said, “that we’re going to fight for everyone who can afford to score 15 points.”

That was certainly the case with Ojal. For Burrows and his team, the defender represented something like a coup: not only a Finnish international, but a player who was occasionally the captain of his country; a veteran not only of the Danish league, but also with experience in Switzerland and Russia.

But when Motherwell added up how many points he was worth, he didn’t come close to the requirements.

“The Danish league is ranked in the fifth of the six rankings of the Home Office,” Burrows said. “He got a few points there. We have a couple more for his salary compared to the league average. But his team finished fourth from the bottom in Denmark. He did not play in Europe. He did not play enough international matches. “In the end, Ojala’s application collected only eight points.

That’s where the bureaucracy came in. Clubs in Scotland currently have access to an appeal system. They can turn to the Scottish Football Association for an exemption, scheduling a deadline to apply as to why a player who is left behind would still be worth a signature.

That, however, is only the first step. If the authorities approve the Governing Body on appeal, the player – with the help of the club – must apply for a work visa: filling out an online form, followed by booking a biometric appointment at the visa application center, run by a number of external companies. entrusted to the British Government. Only after this is completed is the player given a visa and the transfer signed by the government.

While the “mostly faceless” process can be smooth, according to Stuart Baird, a partner at Centerfield Law, a firm that specializes in international sports law, clubs running it for the first time — an increasingly common case after Brexit — haven’t always found it easy.

“One of the problems is that many clubs did not have to use the Home Office sponsorship system, because previously it was only necessary for players outside the EU,” he said. “Sometimes it can depend on having the right people at your disposal to help you get the timely answers that clubs need.”

The concern of many clubs in Scotland is that the current system does not seem to take into account the type of players they can afford to sign. Many markets to which Scottish teams have access – say in Scandinavia and the Balkans – are ranked in the lower classes of the Home Office criteria, and a small number of their teams compete in the later stages of European competitions.

One employment boss on the Scottish Premiership team, in the rare empty moments during the summer, developed a thought exercise to determine if a theoretical goal could collect 15 points.

So far, even in his most fantastic scenario – signing an occasional international (no points) from the Czech league (Band 4, four points), who regularly played (four points) in his club’s unexpected departure to later stages of the Europa League (Band 2, four). points) – mathematics failed him.

For some, the lesson is clear: Clubs must learn to adapt to the new rules, to find recruits in places where they have not always been sought.

“If we work like we’ve done before, it’s not going to get us anywhere,” said Ross Wilson, Rangers ’technical director. “Clubs will have to build strategies around the scoring system.”

Rangers, for example, began to show greater interest in players in South America, realizing that while it will no longer be easy for him to sign a player from a traditional market like Scandinavia, a regular Paraguayan or Venezuelan international could go through the application process.

“The world is much smaller now,” Wilson said. “More data is available, more advanced reconnaissance systems, more intelligence. We can access a far larger market than we could before. ”

Wilson said he doesn’t believe costs should be an obstacle to creating a “solid infrastructure”, noting that clubs can use third-party platforms like Wyscout and Scout7 to find players in every way, but the far greater resources Rangers and Celts have – can be dedicate to scouting the dwarves of most of its competitors in the Scottish Premiership.

The future is difficult for these clubs. Burrows noticed the Scottish teams “squeezed at both ends”. Not only is it harder to identify players from abroad who meet the visa criteria, but clubs in the English lower leagues are increasingly shying away from importing talent.

That led to “significant inflation in domestic salaries”, he said, appreciating Scottish teams outside the market in the second, third or even fourth rank of English football. “It’s a simple supply and demand,” Burrows said. “Players are a kind of commodity, and those players have become infinitely more valuable.”

What’s worse, this may just be the beginning. As things stand, the exemption system that eventually allowed Motherwell to sign Oyal this summer will be lifted at the end of the current transition period. If the grievance mechanism is not maintained or the planned system is not changed, many Scottish clubs will find it impossible to import players.

“I hope that in the next four or five months, between the windows, we will find a solution that is not a 15-point system,” Burrows said. “If it stays in the rankings, the market will shrink to any recognition, and that will make life very difficult not only for Scottish clubs, but also for teams in England, outside the Premier League.”

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