The 2017 summer transfer window in English football was notable as much for the transfers that did not happen as for those that did. Thus does the settling dust reveal scowling faces on Philip Coutinho, Diego Costa and Alexis Sanchez, and a knowing grin from Ross Barkley. In one case however – the aborted transfer of Ogenyi Onazi from Trabzonspor in Turkey to English Championship side, Birmingham City – the spirits were willing all round but the papers were weak.
The failure of the Onazi transfer is a salutary reminder of how things might change when Brexit happens. The Nigeria midfielder does not hold an EU or EEA passport. He did not therefore have the freedom to work in the UK that the document currently affords. Birmingham had to apply to the Home Office for a work permit.
Birmingham had to show that Onazi was internationally established at the ‘highest level’ and would make a significant contribution to the development of football in the UK, again at the ‘highest level.’ To do this, the club had to obtain a Governing Body Endorsement (GBE) from the English FA.
A player will automatically get a GBE if he has played a certain number of competitive matches for his national team in the two years before the application (or one year, if he is less than twenty-one years old). The required percentage of matches depends on the country’s average FIFA rankings over the period of calculation.
|FIFA Ranking of National Team||Minimum Matches by Player|
As of August 2017, when the FA considered Birmingham’s application, Nigeria was number 38 on the rankings. However, in the two years prior, Nigeria’s average ranking was 54. Onazi was therefore not automatically qualified for a GBE as his country’s rankings were out of the frame for consideration. This was despite the Super Eagles’ vice-captain having played over eighty percent of the matches for Nigeria in that period.
The fate of Onazi’s transfer then lay in the hands of the FA Exceptions Panel to whom Birmingham duly appealed. The Panel uses a points-based system to determine whether a player should be granted a GBE. There are two groups of objective criteria.
The first group, Part A, assesses the size of transfer fees paid and the player’s proposed wages (for a maximum of three points each) relative to those of other players in the league. Another point is awarded if the player’s current club is in a ‘top league’ and the player has played in at least thirty percent of available minutes. Yet another point is given if the player’s current club has played in the group stages of a continental competition within the last twelve months, with the player featuring in at least thirty percent of the available minutes.
The second group, Part B, includes a point each for transfer fees and player wages occupying a lower percentile than those in Part A. A point is available if the player’s club is in a league designated by the FA as ‘secondary’ and he has played in at least thirty percent of the available minutes. Another point will be awarded if the player’s current club has played in the final rounds of a continental competition within the last twelve months and the player has played at least thirty percent of the available minutes.
Furthermore, a point is given for the player having participated in the ‘secondary percentage’ of senior, competitive international matches as follows:
|FIFA Ranking of National Team||Minimum Matches by Player|
Alternatively, the player will score the point if his national team was a semi-finalist in the Asian Cup or African Cup of Nations in the twelve months before the application.
It is not clear that Onazi scored the minimum of four points required in Part A or five points for both Parts combined. The media in his native Nigeria lamented the country’s inability to qualify for consecutive Nations Cups as having had a major impact. But then, only one point was available to Onazi if Nigeria had qualified and gone on to make the semi-finals at the 2017 Nations Cup in Gabon. Onazi’s appeal was probably hindered, equally or more so, by a middling transfer fee (£4 million), the relatively modest wages of a Championship side, Trabzonspor’s absence from European competition in 2016-17 and the Turkish Super Lig not being designated a ‘secondary league’ by the FA.
However, even if Onazi scored the points required under Parts A and B, the Panel was not obliged to grant a GBE. It could, at its discretion, insist on Birmingham providing additional information, which would usually be in the form of player analytics, before making a decision.
The Exceptions Panel eventually refused Birmingham’s application, to manager Harry Redknapp’s disappointment. Birmingham can apply again after four months. If Redknapp’s interest in Onazi has not cooled with the signing of the Spaniard Jota on deadline day, we might see another application during the January transfer window.
Onazi is not the first Nigerian international to have work permit problems. Back in July 2005, Middlesborough’s application for Yakubu Aiyegbeni was rejected for his not having played seventy-five percent of Nigeria’s games in two years. Middlesborough got the decision overturned by showing that the Yak would have played more games but for disagreements with national team coaches, first at the 2004 African Cup of Nations in Tunisia and then through World Cup qualifiers the next year.
Yakubu’s replacement at Portsmouth faced similar problems. Collins Mbesuma’s application was initially rejected because Zambia was not regular in the rankings cutoff over the previous two years. Portsmouth managed to convince the FA that Mbesuma was an exceptional talent who contribute significantly to the English game and the work permit was granted. As it turned out, Mbesuma never started a match for Portsmouth in his two years there, coming on for four substitute appearances and scoring no goals.
The same summer, Mark Gonzalez, was denied a transfer to European champions, Liverpool, as Chile had not made the rankings cutoff, on the average, from 2003. Liverpool’s appeal failed. Rafa Benitez blamed the outcome on Gonzalez’s relatively low wages which suggested to the Panel that he would be a fringe player. Liverpool got their man when a work permit was granted a year later but injury limited his appearances and he was sold to Real Betis after one season.
When the UK exits the EU, players from the continent could find themselves facing the hurdles that have bedeviled their African and South‑American counterparts for years. It is estimated that over a hundred players in the Premiership might have been denied work permits if they had not been EU citizens. Among them are N’Golo Kante, 2017 PFA Player of the Year and back-to-back title winner with Leicester and Chelsea, and Riyad Mahrez, PFA Player of the Year in 2016. We’ll just leave that right there as we cry into our teas again at Brexit and its portents.
Dr Peter Ntephe is an English FA Licensed Football Intermediary.