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The not so beautiful game: how racism and Brexit threaten the future of British football


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The unwelcome increase in racist behaviour in football has caused ripples of outrage within the industry. As Brexit hovers on the horizon, promising challenges in recruiting Premier League players, what difficulties lie ahead?

A universally recognised game with the power to unify, motivate and inspire emotion across the country regardless of age, gender or background: it’s easy to see why football is so popular in the UK.

England created the world’s first football club in 1857 and ever sincea love affair between the UK and football has endured the tests of time. The Premier League, England’s top league, has only gone from strength to strength – and rich to richest – since it began in 1992. It is now one of the most cosmopolitan football leagues in the world, with the corporation owing its debts to immigration as foreign players massively boost teams to the top. The England squad alone boasts one of the most diverse teams, with 47.6% of its 2018 World Cup players being descendants of migrants, whilst 14 current players in the Euro 2020 qualifiers could have represented other countries. There is no doubt that the incredible success of England’s World Cup performance in 2018 couldn’t have been achieved without players with international heritage.

Despite Black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) and foreign players competing across all the top divisions of football in the UK and internationally, these players still face abhorrent racist abuse. It is almost unbelievable that such language and behaviour is still a reality in these modern times, yet, as rhetoric within media and politics becomes increasingly hostile towards immigrants, it is little wonder those with bigoted views are feeling ever more emboldened to voice them.

Stadiums all over Europe have closed parts of their stands or coughed up hefty fines as a result of racist actions. Croatia found themselves facing penalties of point deduction, a fine and being forced to play two matches behind closed doors during the Euro 2016 competition after a swastika was bleached onto the pitch. This is the same country that global football superstar, Luka Modric, originated from, having grown up as a refugee due to the horrors of the Croatian War of Independence in 1991. 

Image credit: via Wikimedia Commons

The regressive language of xenophobic racial slurs has become all too common in football, and it appears to be getting worse. In the last six months alone stars Raheem Sterling, Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, Danny Rose and Callum Hudson-Odoi have been subject to abuse that likened them to monkeys, including monkey-related chants and even banana peels being hurled at them. Arsenal fans have recently been accused of anti-Semitism and this April there was another attack, this time directed at Juventus’ Moise Kean.

As a result of the ramped-up hostility, the Premier League has launched a ‘No Room for Racism’ campaign to tackle the widespread problem. The campaign encourages fans to report abuse to police, stewards or through the Kick It Out app, but many argue that the measures are nowhere near the level they need to be.


As racism threatens to destroy the passion for the game, there’s an irrefutable threat to the status of the Premier League as the UK prepares for its exit from the European Union. The future for the league will need to take into account stringent immigration rules and visa fees that are likely to be enforced post-Brexit. A UK Sports Visa will need to be acquired for international sportspeople and/or for those who are recognised by their sport’s governing body as being an elite member of the profession. The visa is judged as part of the points-based system and is under the Tier 2 Skilled Worker Visa category, allowing the recipient of the visa to enter and live in the UK as a foreign national for a maximum of three years. The Skills-Based Immigration Plan for 2021 presents multiple barriers to the industry, from transfers to signing under 18s, reflecting a remarkably bleak future for the Premier League and English football, particularly regarding the transfers of under-18s.

Elite football stars from the EEA will be required to meet the requirements of the Professional Sportsperson Visa and the FA’s own requirements, whereas current players can transfer between clubs freely without the need for a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the FA. The rigorous conditions mean all future EEA players will be subjected to the FA’s points system and the Home Office’s tightened requirements. Figures report that as high as 58% of current players in the UK would not qualify under these rules after the new immigration plans are put into effect. Perhaps Newcastle United’s failure to secure Brazilian Marlon Santos due to being unable to obtain a work permit last year is only a worrying sign of what’s to come.


Undeniably, the obstacles that will be presented to elite footballers and coaches in post-Brexit Britain will have a damning effect. Racism rearing its ugly head amongst fans of opposing teams is no doubt a deterrent for BAME and foreign players when considering a move abroad. This marriage of the end of free movement and prejudice is a real threat, looking to jeopardise the Premier League’s competitiveness on the global stage. 

Alexandra Jarvis is a content writer for the Immigration Advice Service, an organisation of UK immigration lawyers which provides legal support for those looking to migrate to the UK or hire overseas workers.

Lead image credit: Jonathan McIntosh via Flickr

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