Premier League academies fear losing out on future Hector Bellerins after Brexit vote raises transfer fears

English clubs rely on a European Union exception to a Fifa rule, and Brexit could stop Premier League clubs from signing European talent

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The Independent Football

The Premier League’s top academies are preparing for life after Brexit. England’s big clubs currently benefit from the European Union’s exception to Fifa’s Article 19, which allows them to sign 16 year olds from Europe, instead of having to wait until the player turns 18.

But after the news that the government will be pursuing a ‘hard Brexit’ from the European Union, clubs fear that these days are numbered. The director of one top academy has told The Independent that he is already planning for a future in which English clubs can only sign foreign talent when they have turned 18. His club, like many others, have had great recent success by signing European youngsters at 16.

Many of England’s top academies have focused on that marketplace over the last 10 years, although 85 per cent of 16 to 18 year olds in Premier League academies are British. Premier League clubs can offer very attractive salaries to foreign young players as well as the chance to develop their skills in a more physical competitive environment than they might find at home. The best example of this is Cesc Fabregas, who Arsenal signed from Barcelona soon after his 16th birthday, in 2003. He played over 300 games for the club before being sold back to Barcelona for £30million in 2011.

Since Arsenal signed Fabregas, all of the top Premier League clubs have been trying to find their own equivalent, by signing Europe’s best talents at 16. Manchester United signed Paul Pogba at 16 from Le Havre, although he left three years later for Juventus, before returning this summer. Arsenal right-back Hector Bellerin, now in his third season as first-choice, joined along with Barcelona team-mate Jon Toral at 16 in 2011.

But those three signings, and the hundreds of others that have been less successful, all depend on the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union or the European Economic Area. Article 19 of Fifa’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players states that “international transfers of players are only permitted if the player is over the age of 18”. There is an exception, though, stating that players can move between clubs in the EU or EEA between the ages of 16 and 18. That exception was agreed between Fifa, Uefa and the EU.

If the UK is no longer a member of the EU or the EEA in a few years’ time, it will no longer have the benefit of that exception. That would force clubs to re-appraise their current academy recruitment model. This would be the biggest single impact of Brexit on English football. Premier League executive chairman Richard Scudamore took an assertively anti-Brexit stance before June’s referendum, and while the league are now keeping their counsel, there is certainly some apprehension at the top of the game about the hard Brexit stance of Theresa May’s government.

With Brexit currently tabled for mid-2019 there will be another three seasons, including this one, for Premier League clubs to enjoy their Article 19 exception. But that could also see increased competition for Europe’s best 16-year-olds, before they fall out of English clubs’ reach, to the benefit of Real Madrid, Barcelona, Bayern Munich and the rest. Others may focus on the already ultra-competitive British teenage market, which some Premier League clubs are hoping to reform, clearing up the regulation surrounding the signing of 14 and 15 year olds.

One final possibility which has been discussed is that Premier League clubs could use partner or ‘feeder’ clubs which remain in the EU to sign players at 16, keeping them for two years before they could be transferred to the Premier League at 18.