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FA work permit rules are rigged to benefit only the very richest clubs

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The FA's rejection of Lovre Kalinić's work permit has demonstrated massive flaws in the system.

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In order to purchase the contract of a footballer, a club must spend money. They send that money to the footballer's current club when the two sides come to an agreement of how much money is required to make the transfer a beneficial one for both sides. This means that a buying club has already determined a few things. 1) They want a certain player. 2) They are willing to pay a certain amount of money for that player. 3) They are willing to accept the inherent risk involved in purchasing a player.

In a logical world, this should be the only regulation needed for purchasing players. A club that makes a bad decision stands to lose financially and in terms of performance (which, in turn, would lead to further financial losses). This is a pretty good system of checks and balances that the FA have decided they need to muddy.

The FA like to make their website difficult.

For Aston Villa fans, the flaws in this system became apparent last week when the club were denied a work permit for Croatian goalkeeper Lovre Kalinić. Nevermind the fact that Croatia is a part of the European Union and thus a part of the European Economic Community and Kalinić would thus be able to avoid work permit issues if it weren't for the British government taking as long as is possible to honor the agreements that are a part of that system. Instead, let's just pretend that Croatia isn't even a part of the EU and that we don't have that extra little bit to be angry at. What would Villa have to do to ensure a work permit for Kalinić? The following is taken from this page. Once there, click on "Governing Body Endorsements - Criteria." Apologies for not directly linking, but the FA like to make their website difficult.

Well, there is an easy route that would automatically qualify him. Croatia in ranked 15th in the 24-month average of FIFA world rankings. As such, if Kalinić had played in 45% of his country's international matches in the last 24 months, he'd be good to go. But he's a goalkeeper, so there are likely only one or two Croatians who can make that claim. That means we go to the next level of selection criteria.

Here, the FA look at a number of different possibilities and assign them a point value. "If a player scores four (4) points or more, the Exceptions Panel may recommend that a GBE is granted but is not obliged to do so." Those criteria are:

  • 3 points - The value of the Transfer Fee being paid for the player is above the 75th percentile of Qualifying Transfers
  • 2 points - The value of the Transfer Fee being paid for the player is between the 50th and 75th percentile (inclusive) of Qualifying Transfers
  • 3 points - The Wages being paid to the player by the applicant club are above the 75th percentile of Qualifying Wages
  • 2 points - The Wages being paid to the player by the applicant club are between the 50th and 75th percentile (inclusive) of Qualifying Wages
  • 1 point - The player's current club is in a Top League and the player has played in 30% or more of the available domestic league minutes
  • 1 point - The player's current club has played in the group stages or onwards of a Continental Competition within the last 12 months and the player has played in 30% or more of the available domestic league minutes
This, of course, is a decided advantage for rich clubs.

As you can see, the easiest way to amass points is to pay a lot for the player you're looking for. If the player is very good and already well-known, this is probably happening by default. But it would be equally easy to rig the transfer such that a (rich) club pay more than a player is worth just to make them reach the 50th percentile threshold in both wages and fee. Doing so would make for four points and likely get a work permit sorted. (Not to mention the fact that doing so would bring up the average wages and fees and thus make the 50th percentile threshold even higher.) This, of course, is a decided advantage for rich clubs. Clubs who do not have money to throw around may look internationally for bargains (due partially to the higher fees and wages demanded by UK players thanks to protectionist policies such as this one) but they almost certainly will not be able to afford 50th percentile wages or fees for those players. In a best case scenario for teams who cannot spend that much, we can see two points. Far from the threshold to obtain a work permit.

What recourse do smaller clubs have, then? Well, there is a set of secondary review criteria. From these, and (I believe?) combined with the others, a player would need five total points. You can get one point each if the fee or wages are "within 20% of the 75th and 50th percentile of Qualifying" transfers or wages. Whatever that means. You can also get a point if "The player's current league club is in a Secondary League and the player has played in at least 30% of the available domestic league minutes" or if "The player's current club has played in the final qualification rounds of a Continental Competition within the last 12 months and the player has played in at least 30% of the available domestic league minutes."

At this point, I honestly have to throw my hands up and say that I can't tell which, if any of these, Kalinić or any other player would fall under. The FA have made the document so opaque that it's nearly impossible to decipher. On the definition of "Secondary League" for Europe they write "the 2 European leagues which are not Top Leagues but provide the next most players to the top twenty (20) squads in the FIFA Aggregated World Rankings at the relevant point in time." They add that "A list setting out the Secondary Leagues will be published on The FA website www.thefa.com prior to each transfer window." So far as I can tell, no such list exists.

If a player STILL does not have the necessary (arbitrary) points, a club may appeal in writing that there are extenuating circumstances.

Clubs can only purchase non-EEC foreigners if they pay a lot of money for them or they jump through a lot of poorly-defined hoops.

So what this all boils down to, if I am reading it correctly (and thanks to the horribly written document, there is a decent chance that I am not), is that clubs can only purchase non-EEC foreigners if they pay a lot of money for them or they jump through a lot of poorly-defined hoops. This is a system that is, seemingly, designed to do two things. The first, and most obvious, is the protection of "the English game." By limiting the amount of foreign-born players who may ply their trade in England, the FA is ensuring that teams will have to fill their rosters with UK-born talent. There are, of course, already provisions about just this issue in terms of roster building (to wit: the home-grown player rules).

The push to keep English rosters stocked with UK-based players signals, to me, an admission of defeat on the part of the FA. "We haven't done enough to develop players who will be chosen by English teams on their own talent, so we must force teams to choose them." If you want more English/UK players in the English game, develop better players.

(There is a particular irony in the protectionist policies of the FA, the very same organization who told English players that if they aren't getting enough playing time, they should go abroad. "We won't take less-talented foreigners, but foreigners should absolutely take our less-talented chaff" is the gist of that.)

The second thing this system does is promote the welfare of richer clubs. Who can afford players that will be able to meet the work permit requirements? Rich clubs. What will that do to the requirements? Make them so that they are more and more expensive. What will that do to the remaining pool of UK-born talent? Make them more expensive as they are picked up to fill quotas. When the talent supply becomes scarce, the demand and price will rise.

It is a cyclical system that is guaranteed to screw over the vast majority of English clubs. It's also a system that ignores the fact that clubs are (theoretically) rational economic actors that know what players they want and need. By not only having this system, but also enshrouding it in an air of mystery, the FA are assuring that English football fans of all but the largest clubs will suffer.

This is a deplorable restriction of the basic tenants of free trade, and it's one that needs changing quickly. Let clubs make their own decisions. Just because you're terrible at running your own organization, FA, doesn't mean that all of the clubs under your umbrella are as well.