The Prime Minister was urged on Thursday to make Premier League footballers exempt from immigration curbs on European Union nationals in Brexit Britain.
Two of the top flight’s most influential club owners, West Ham United’s David Gold and Stoke City’s Peter Coates, called on Theresa May and her Government to safeguard their ability to sign and field players from within the EU when the country quits the union.
Gold and Coates spoke out 24 hours after May formally triggered Article 50, notifying the EU of Britain’s intention to end its 40-year membership.
Dozens of top European stars playing in the Premier League would not currently qualify for work permits once Brexit is complete under rules governing visas for other overseas players.
That follows the introduction a new system two years ago for assessing the eligibility of foreign players by the Football Association – which wants more England-qualified starters in the Premier League – with the support of the Home Office.
The Chancellor last year indicated highly-skilled, highly-paid EU workers would be exempt from post-Brexit immigration controls.
Asked if those should include footballers Premier League clubs wanted to sign, West Ham co-chairman Gold said: “Of course. Governments are equally business people to a degree or people advising them, and the bottom line is the Premier League is the greatest league the world has ever known.
“It’s a fantastic advert for Britain, for England. I know people talk about the wealth that’s there, but these guys are on huge salaries and all the tax is going into the exchequer.
“Why would you stifle that? Why would you want that to change? It’s a great advert.
“The Premier League goes around the world and it’s ever expanding. I don’t see a Government doing something potty to disturb that.
“I don’t know about free movement but the structure would be that the best players would receive work permits.”
Gold’s sentiments were echoed by Stoke chairman Coates, who said such players should be classed as highly-skilled workers, before admitting nothing was certain.
“We’d expect them to be included,” he said. “But we have to wait and see. We don’t know.
“And I can tell you the Prime Minister doesn’t know; the guy leading it, David Davis, doesn’t know; Boris Johnson certainly won’t know.”
He added: “I’m pessimistic about leaving. Nothing’s changed my mind. Hopefully, football will find a way of looking after itself when it finally happens – whenever that will be. That could be years down the line.
“In Europe, we can get free movement. And that will change – or may change.
“What this is creating is uncertainty and we shall all look back in five years’ time and think, ‘What the hell have we done this for? We’re worse off’. And, in 10 years’ time, we’ll still be saying the same thing.”
Gold said Brexit had already had a negative impact on Premier League clubs’ ability to sign players but a positive one on its multi-billion broadcast rights deals due to the falling value of the pound against the dollar and the euro.
“It’s already affecting us because they [players] are more expensive to buy because of the pound,” he said.
“Brexit has already had an impact on us in that sense and also the deals that the Premier League has done have been done in dollars, so we have a benefit there.”
Coates said the impact of Brexit had yet to be discussed formally by top-flight chairman following Thursday’s Premier League shareholders meeting.
He added: “What can you discuss? We’ve can’t discuss it. We don’t know what’s going to happen. There’s nothing to discuss.”