This past spring, Nicholas Walton wrote a tongue-in-cheek essay on how the performances of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at EURO 2016 might influence the Brexit vote. But one thing the former Europe editor for BBC World Service never expected was that the leave votes would carry the referendum. In the wake of the historic vote (and England’s ignominious exit from the tournament), Nicholas takes a more serious look at how leaving the EU might affect British sport.
Well that escalated quickly!
No sooner had the United Kingdom voted in favour of leaving the European Union than the England team acknowledged their own obligations and duly surrendered to plucky little Iceland in the knockout rounds of the current European Championships. So far, so tidy.
There will likely be other implications of Brexit for British sport. Before speculating about these, I will first make an admission. I did not expect this result, and – like many – I was profoundly shocked at it (I’m talking about the referendum, although the Iceland result had a similar impact). Nobody quite seems to know what happens next, although the initial collapse in the value of the pound suggests that the worst warnings about the impact of Brexit may be true. The country is deeply divided, involving strongly held feelings of identity (not to mention real implications for the economy). Remarkably, there are many who still believe the result is reversible, which makes any article about its impact rather hard to write. But here goes…
Let’s start with the country’s ability to attract footballing talent. Before the vote, studies and blog posts were published (by those wishing to remain in the EU) noting just how many of the English Premiership’s foreign soccer stars might have to leave their clubs if Britain leaves the EU. Looking at last year’s twenty EPL teams, we find 117 who could be affected. The worst scenario would see clubs stripped of many of their better players. The excellent Untypical Boro blog, covering my own team, newly promoted Middlesbrough, said that without the EU’s freedom of movement, seventeen of our players would have to apply for work permits. Worse, under current rules, only Uruguay’s Cristhian Stuani would succeed.
These issues matter. The Premiership has become a global sporting juggernaut on the back of great clubs, exciting football, and star names. Arguably, the EPL is England’s most effective source of soft power in the world (especially if the nation’s football team continues to find new ways to be humiliated). This would be sorely undermined if there is a mass cull of talented foreigners. Think of Sergio Agüero, Alexis Sánchez, Anthony Martial, and Willian all taking their talents – and their bank accounts – elsewhere.
Even more of a threat to those talented foreigners than the loss of freedom of movement is the economic health of a post-Brexit Britain. The pound crashed on currency markets straight after the referendum, and some experts predict further falls as a recession starts to bite (and not just at home – the UK is the world’s fifth biggest economy, so this will mess up other economies too). On a simple level there may be less money coming in from crowd receipts and sponsorship deals. Most notably, as the pound falls so does the purchasing power of clubs compared to international rivals. These could be lean times for the Premiership, while the other big leagues in Europe (and beyond, if Chinese clubs continue to chuck money around) will find their own wages far more competitive.
And what of the England’s national team? With rose-tinted spectacles I might imagine that a greater concentration of domestic players in the Premiership could help bring through more talented Englishmen for the national side. Then again, England had plenty of players to choose from in the 1970s and 80s and that led precisely nowhere. Iceland might be a post-Brexit nadir, but England’s football team is so adept at miserable failure it’s hard to see how this will change.
Before the vote I wrote an article suggesting that the fortunes of England, Wales, and Northern Ireland at the Euros may impact the vote. Scotland did not qualify for the tournament, and duly delivered an expected vote to stay in the EU. Northern Ireland also voted to stay, which is in keeping with its close ties to the Republic of Ireland. The surprising vote was in Wales, which overall voted to leave. Possibly, in keeping with the tone of my article, voters in Wales were emboldened by their team’s surprisingly good results on the pitch. Likewise, perhaps the false promise of the Three Lions’ group games encouraged some drunken English voters to believe in some unproven superiority. Maybe not.
In sporting terms, the British Isles are already one of the most idiosyncratic hodgepodges out there. In rugby there are England, Scotland, and Wales, and then a single, united Ireland team. In football each nation has its own team, although Northern Ireland and the Republic are able to pick each other’s players (Wales also has a fair share of players with English accents). Some clubs operate over borders – think Swansea in the EPL, for instance, or Berwick Rangers in the Scottish league system. England’s cricket team includes players from the other home nations, whose own national teams operate at a much lower representative level. At the Olympics there is the Great Britain team (although that is geographically just the name of the largest island) and then the Republic of Ireland team. For decades the football associations of Scotland and the other smaller nations prevented Great Britain from entering a team in the soccer competition at the Olympics, fearing it would compromise the historic case for their own, non-English national teams. Fans of such confusion can look forward to more complications as this whole Brexit saga plays out. As several commentators have noted, a split between the nations of the United Kingdom may be just over the horizon. Scotland’s ruling Scottish Nationalist Party is already demanding another referendum on independence so that it can remain in the EU. Few would bet against its independence coming within the decade.
The rest, I’m afraid, fits in with that journalistic cliché of being too soon to tell. The historical confusion over representative national teams speaks to Britain’s leading role in shaping the world of sport. Those championing Brexit no doubt feel that, once free of the EU, their country will regain the dynamism and inventiveness that allowed it to shape modern sport. Maybe instead it will be closer to the England football team that finally deigned to take part in a World Cup in 1950, and then woke up in a cold sweat after encountering the shock of the real world (in the shape of a 1-0 defeat to the US in Belo Horizonte). Before the 2-1 humiliation against Iceland that result was considered England’s footballing nadir. In 2016 the history books are being rewritten.
Nicholas Walton is a writer and journalist. He is the author of Genoa, ‘La Superba’: The Rise and Fall of a Merchant Pirate Superpower, and was the BBC’s correspondent in Sarajevo and Warsaw. Nicholas tweets at @npw99.