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Footballing migrants

Greg Dyke, the Chairman of the Football Association, is proposing a new set of rules about the eligibility of non-EU footballers for work visas. The proposals, which would aim to reduce the numbers of non-EU players in the Premier League and the Football League, are out for consultation with these leagues, the Professional Footballers Association and the League Managers Association. If approved they would be submitted to the Home Office as recommendations about the regulations for Tier 1 visas (the provision for ‘exceptional talents’).

The proposals are part of Mr Dyke’s mission to increase opportunities for English players to play at the highest level, thus (in his view) strengthening the potential of the perpetually underachieving English national team, which has won nothing since the 1966 World Cup. Mr Dyke proposes that non-EU players should only be allowed in to the UK if they are from the top 50 FIFA-ranked footballing nations, have played in a high proportion of their recent international games, or cost a transfer fee of at least £10 million.

He argues that currently too many mediocre foreign players are taken on by English teams, filling up squad places at the expense of native-born youngsters.

These rules are arbitrary and would be likely to face challenges (for instance over the transfer fee condition) if implemented. They would discriminate against players from poorer nations such as smaller countries in Africa, the Middle East and parts of Latin America – as well as those from old Commonwealth countries such as New Zealand, Australia and Canada (which have produced a handful of very talented players in recent years). At the same time, of course, footballers from EU/EEA nations outside the top 50 – for example Hungary, Poland, Norway, Slovenia or Cyprus – would be exempt from these rules.

In fact the number of players coming from outside the EU is tiny – around 120 in the four-year period up until 2013. Greg Dyke’s plan might reduce this figure by half, on his own assumptions. The idea that the number of squad places freed up by the proposed regulations would significantly boost English players’ chances of appearing at the top level is laughable – particularly as there would be nothing to prevent the vacated places being taken by other EU nationals. It is as irrelevant to the objective of improving English football as his recent wheeze to create ‘B’ teams for top clubs and insert them into the existing Football League – a proposal which has been widely criticised for devaluing the status of lower-league teams.

But there is a wider point. Why should interest groups like the FA be allowed to influence immigration policy? The argument that English workers perform better when protected from competition from immigrants, many of whom are ‘mediocre’ anyway, might be used by every occupation if we accepted Mr Dyke’s dubious logic. I’ve known some pretty duff non-EU academics working in UK universities, but I don’t argue that we should keep them from applying for jobs here. We have some pretty duff academics of our own.

Every year about 200,000 Brits go abroad to work, and I think it’s great that they can do so. Most come back here much better for the experience. Why don’t any significant numbers of English footballers do the same? At the same time, about 200,000 come here to work and if they can do jobs as well or better than our natives, good luck to them. They benefit themselves and, to an extent, our economy. The net immigration figures which politicians are so concerned about are largely the consequence of big numbers of incoming students and family reunions: few of our emigrants leave to study or join families. A rational immigration policy would look at the overall picture rather than trying to outguess the market in determining which type of workers (including footballers) to let in.

If there are powerful reasons for restricting immigration – externalities such as the burden on infrastructure, for example – then we could introduce something on the lines suggested by the late Gary Becker. He argued for a fee or bond to be paid by incoming migrants which reflected any net costs imposed on the native population. If employers wanted foreign talent (footballing or otherwise) they could pay the relevant fee to the government.

Comments (3)

Dyke's logic seems to be that the best English players play regular first team football in the premier league, therefore we will have better English players if more of them play first team football in the premier league. This is a basic logical error.

The idea that mediocre players will become world class talents if they play regular premiership football has been tested to destruction by, for example, Shola Ameobi and Emile Heskey.

I would disagree that the England team under-achieves. I just don't think it is very good.
I'm afraid picking mediocre players that remained medicore is not an argument either Chris. The trajectory of an elite athlete is extremely difficult to predict, there are a huge number of variables. The English game for years has been rejecting smaller, technical players in favour of pure 'athletes' who do not flourish at senior level. Having 10 18yr olds go on to elite level is better than having 5 because it is almost impossible at that age to tell who will be able to develop into an elite level player. It is trial and error, if you don't have players trying out in that environment its difficult to ascertain whether they are good enough to play at that level.

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As in all IEA publications, the views expressed in this blog are those of the authors and not those of the Institute (which has no corporate view), its managing trustees, Academic Advisory Council or senior staff.

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