The Home Office and the English Football Association have recently approved changes surrounding the “International Sportsperson” immigration route which have been in force since the start of the summer transfer window (14th June). Here, Alex Christen, Myles Thomas and James Williams discuss the change.
Under old Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) criteria which was implemented following Brexit ahead of the 2021 winter transfer window, clubs have found that it difficult to sign overseas talent, blaming the restrictions in place preventing work permits from being granted to young players. These players were rarely able to satisfy the GBE points-system requirements that allowed for a work permit to be granted, they were therefore unable to legally play for their proposed UK club. There has been criticism of the old rules, particularly that they have left English clubs less able to compete with other European clubs.
However, the changes will allow clubs to bypass the GBE restriction by being allocated slots for Elite Significant Contribution (ESC) players in their squads. The GBE requirements still apply, but clubs in the English football pyramid will be allowed to employ a limited number of players who would have previously been unable to gain a work permit under GBE criteria, provided the FA agrees that these players meet the new ESC criteria.
These changes are a welcome benefit following complaints from clubs around the restrictions on players that they could sign. As well as this, the changes are intended to benefit clubs by utilising and promoting their young, homegrown talent to maximise their ESC slots. Each club is allocated a certain number of slots depending on the league they play in, and the amount of playing time allocated to England Qualified Players (EQP) in the previous season.
For example, in 2023/24 the number of ESC slots available to Premier League and Championship clubs ranges from 4 to 2. If the percentage of minutes played by EQPs is over 35%, the club will be allocated the maximum amount of slots; if over 30%, they are allocated 3; and if below 30%, they will receive 2. Both League One and Two clubs have been assigned 2 slots each for 23/24 regardless of EQP minutes.
As 23/24 acts as a transitional period, the rules from 24/25 onwards are different, but the principle is the same: for a club to properly benefit from this new change, clubs must promote homegrown players through their squad. This change therefore addresses concerns from the FA that homegrown players were losing out under the proposed influx of overseas talent.
Applying these rules last season (under the 24/25 rules): top-flight teams such as Fulham and Wolves fell well below the required EQP minutes and would not be allocated any ESC slots and would therefore fail to benefit from the new scheme.
Teams may be worried about using their hard-earned ESC slots if they are unable to maintain EQP minutes in the following season because they may be under the impression that they may have to offload their ESC players to keep up with regulations.
However, the rules allow for clubs to convert their ESC players into non-ESC, freeing up slots for more players. This process can occur after a player has been at the club for 12 months. After the 12 months, if the player fulfils the GBE criteria or meets the 15-point threshold required to play they become a non-ESC.
Additionally, if a player plays in 25% or more of the club’s qualifying matches or the required percentage of available minutes, they can again be converted to a non-ESC player; this is separate to the 12 month12-month rule and provides a different option for clubs to maintain their ESC slots. The number of minutes needed depends on the league the player plays in; players in lower leagues must play more minutes to become eligible for a GBE.
Although these rules may seem complicated, clubs must abide by them if they want to profit on previously unavailable talent. It pays to pay attention!
These new rules are still hot off the press, but clubs seem to already be making the most of them. Brentford’s signing of 18-year-old centre-back Ji-Soo Kim from K-League 2 side Seongnam FC via an ESC spot demonstrates the use of these new regulations because Kim does not have the points under GBE requirements. Previously, a move like this would not have been possible.
Chelsea’s move for Ecuadorian teenager Kendry Paez would also have previously been prohibited. Although set to join in 2025 from Ecuadorian champions Independiente del Valle when turning 18, Paez would currently fall short of the GBE point requirements. If Paez doesn’t become eligible via the GBE point requirements, Chelsea will have to keep an ESC slot open for him in the 2025/26 season.
Additionally, Sunderland’s signing of Luis Hemir Silva Semedo from S.L. Benfica demonstrates the use of ESC outside of England’s top-flight. Semedo lacks the points to be considered a GBE competent player and therefore Sunderland must use an ESC slot for his signing.
Clubs can now feasibly sign unproven players from all over the world, which marks a big opportunity to scout new and upcoming talent from places previously disregarded because of restrictive work-permit requirements. The FA’s decision to allocate this benefit to clubs who promote English players into their starting XI seemingly offsets the possible detriment that may have been suffered by domestic players.
It is clear to see that this new ruling marks a significant change in both immigration law and the beautiful game. Please get in touch with our Employment and Immigration team if we can help with managing your elite talent!