What requirements are there for international footballers to have work permits?

International footballers and the FA Premier League

The Football Association Premier League is one of the most cosmopolitan football leagues in the world, with players from around the globe plying their trade in England. The way the League has shaped up since its inception in the early 90s has been that most of the players would be from the home nations, the only foreigners coming from Europe. Occasionally, an African or South American player would emerge – but this was not the norm.

Today, there are huge numbers of players from Africa, South America and even Asia, in addition to the numbers of European players. However, because some foreign players can be procured for cheaper transfer fees than home grown talent – many clubs in the lower divisions of English football are turning their attentions and transfer budgets to foreign players.

Free movement of workers

As a member of the European Union, workers can move freely between European Union Member States without the need for work permits and visas. Footballers are regarded as ‘workers’ for these purposes and therefore have EU treaty rights of free movement. With the impending Brexit, free movement may be curtailed but this may not be for a few years.

With this free movement of workers, a football club in England can procure the services of a EU footballer without the need to apply for a work permit.

The Bosman Decision

The Bosman decision more than 20 years ago has also enabled players from within the EU to move freely between clubs based in EU Member States when they are not under contract with any club. The ruling barred any restrictions on foreign EU players within national leagues, and allowed players within the EU to move to another club at the end of a contract -without a transfer fee being paid. The effect has been freer movement of players to the lower leagues of English football.

But what about non-EU footballers?

Which players do need work permits?

Footballers from outside the EU must still obtain a work permit if they wish to play for English football clubs. Every non-EU footballer must successfully apply for a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) with the FA before the Home Office will consider issuing a work permit.

The system has recently been tightened and now only non-EEA players who are internationally established at the highest level, and whose employment will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport at the highest level, are allowed to play in the UK. One of the reasons for the rule change was that only 58% of football players who were given work visas played any top-flight football in their second season.

What are the criteria which will be used?

Until 2015, football players needed to have played in at least 75% of their country’s senior international matches over the previous two years to play in the UK. Eligibility for a GBE now depends on a national team’s FIFA ranking, as follows:

Official FIFA Ranking Required % of international matches in past 2 yrs
FIFA 1-10 30% and above
FIFA 11-20 45% and above
FIFA 21-30 60% and above
FIFA 31-50 75% and above

In the case of players aged 21 or under at the time of application, the period is reduced to one year. The aim is to make it easier for young, outstanding talent to grow their game in the UK.

If a club’s application is rejected, there is an appeals process. The Exceptions Panel is the appeals body which will consider, on a points based system, the player’s experience and value before deciding whether the player can join the club, regardless of their failed application. A stricter assessment of relevant objective criteria will now be applied in an appeal.

Who has to submit the application?

Technically, it is the player’s responsibly but invariably it is the club wishing to sign a player who will apply for a work permit, and it must agree to sponsor that player to be in the UK. The club will issue a certificate of sponsorship which must then be submitted to the relevant FA for it to consider a GBE. If it is refused, the club can appeal (see above). If a GBE is issued, an application for a work permit can then be made.

What’s the player’s immigration status?

A non-EU football player can apply for a tier two or tier five work permit, the relevant tier depending on his grasp of the English language. Under tier 2, the player can stay in the UK for three years with a possible extension for another two years. He must, however, have 70 immigration points (50 for an FA endorsement; 10 for proving he has sufficient funding to stay in the UK; and 10 in satisfaction of the English language requirements).

Alternatively, under tier 5, a player can only stay for one year. However, he can sit an English language test and, if satisfactory, can then apply for tier two status.

What happens if a club wishes to retain a player, or renew his contract after the initial contract expires?

If a player does not have a valid work permit he cannot play for the club until a valid work permit is in place. If the club wishes to retain the services of the player, it must therefore apply for an extension before the permit expires. If the player meets the required criteria it will be granted for the period of the player’s contract. If the player does not meet the criteria the club can appeal.

If the club wants to renew a player’s contract, it will need to apply for another work permit as above.

About the Author

Nicola Laver LLB

Nicola is a dual qualified journalist and non-practising solicitor. She is a legal journalist, editor and author with more than 20 years' experience writing about the law.

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