Little Englandism after Brexit could endanger sport’s prowess and appeal

Elite level athletes and organisations have benefited from unfettered access to Europe; few are fully prepared for the ramifications of whatever happens on 29 March

It was during the death throes of the British empire that the penultimate high commissioner of Aden, Richard Turnbull, forecast: “When it finally sinks beneath the waves of history it will leave behind only two monuments: one is the game of association football, the other the expression ‘fuck off’.” How some Brexiters relish lobbing that expletive at the European Union, despite the pernicious risks to the national game and the rest of British sport.

Privately, some inside the Olympic and Paralympic system fear Brexit will make it harder to attract the best coaching talent. Others also warn that if sterling plummets further it will eat into budgets for training camps and Tokyo 2020 qualifying events. And if the economy tanks and government funding for elite sport gets a buzzcut, do not expect Team GB to finish second in the Olympic Games medal table again.

Insiders at UK Sport insist the risks can be mitigated. They also stress they can “bring pride” and “unite” a post-Brexit Britain with a two-pronged strategy of medals and hosting between 40 and 60 major sporting events, including the 2030 World Cup, over the next 15 years. Yet it may not be that simple. It was telling to hear Chris Kermode, the chief executive of the ATP tour, admit Brexit would be a consideration when looking at “what areas and countries are sustainable as hosts” for the World Tour Finals, currently held in London.

Essentially it boils down to economics 101: without free movement it will be harder to move people and equipment in and out of Britain. Politics is another factor. As Ed Warner, a former chair of UK Athletics, points out: “Already we haven’t got the greatest reputation as international players at European level and Brexit won’t help. The public may not care about sports politics but if the FA has the influence to bring the Euro 2020 semi-finals and final to the UK it clearly benefits the nation.”

Politics matters in other ways, too. As things stand the tripartite agreement enabling the free movement of horses between Britain, Ireland and France would no longer be valid if the UK leaves the EU with no deal – with potentially disastrous consequences for British racing. Leaving Europe will also mean customers will no longer be able to access Sky or BT Sports when abroad, as currently covered by the digital single market. Grassroots sport, one of the many victims of austerity, would also suffer further if local authority budgets are cut again.

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True, when it comes to football, the position is more nuanced. And if Britain does leave on 29 March the Premier League is unlikely to be affected in the short term. Measures will surely be put in place to ensure clubs can still buy European players, and while the FA and Premier League fundamentally disagree on how many non-homegrown players should be in each 25-man squad, one source points out: “The noises are not that we need to stop foreign footballers coming here.”

But in the longer term the picture is murkier. Fifa allows clubs within the EU and European Economic Area to transfer 16- and 17-year-olds but in a post-Brexit world British teams would have to wait until players are 18 to sign them from Europe. As the sports immigration specialist Owen Jones says: “People inside clubs are asking: ‘Will English football remain pre-eminent in Europe and are we giving advantages to our European rivals?’” It works both ways, of course. In future, Arsenal would not be signing the next Cesc Fàbregas at 16 – but nor would Jadon Sancho be able to leave England at 17 for Borussia Dortmund.

There is a bigger point, though. The Premier League has thrived partly because it has flung open its doors to anyone good enough, wherever they are from, with the added benefit of massive overseas TV rights sales. But what happens if there is a sharp retreat to Little Englandism? As Simon Chadwick, professor of sports enterprise at Salford Business School, explains: “Last week I asked a group of Belgian postgraduate students why they watched the Premier League over its rivals. They said it is cosmopolitan, diverse, and it attracts many of the best players in the world. That is its USP.”

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Visa changes are also likely to affect English cricket and rugby union for the worse. As things stand players from the African, Caribbean and Pacific Group of States enjoy the same rights as EU players under the terms of the Cotonou agreement and the Kolpak ruling. Once Britain leaves the EU that will change. True, homegrown players would benefit, as with football, but foreign stars and coaches have undoubtedly raised standards.

Of course some organisations have done their due diligence about a hard Brexit. The All England Club started planning almost immediately after the vote in 2016 and by March will have imported more than 50,000 tennis balls from Indonesia for this year’s Wimbledon. But it can’t plan for every actuality. How could it when 34,000 kilograms of strawberries are consumed during the Wimbledon fortnight – and three out of five British growers are finding it harder to recruit seasonal workers to pick and pack fruit?

They are not alone. As the clock ticks down to Brexit most sports are simultaneously trying to negate the threats and surf the opportunities, despite heading towards choppy waters. But one thing is clear from speaking to many insiders in recent days: crashing out without a deal would cause massive uncertainty. And nobody in British sport wants that.