Cricket and Kolpaks, the Brexit link

On the surface Brexit shouldn't have too much direct influence on sport, as sport is governed by international organisations such as FIFA and UEFA, but scratch beneath the surface and Brexit could have a serious impact on many of our domestic teams and leagues. Whether this is positive or negative depends on your view of foreign players playing in domestic leagues.

Anyone who plays the "football manager" computer game got an early taste of this. In the latest edition, European players became much harder to buy after 2019 as, in the game at least, they came under the same rules that currently apply to non-EU players. That meant EU nationals needed work permits which are only given when a player has played a certain number of matches for his country in the last couple of years. This meant it became virtually impossible to sign new, young European talent and players of the game were very unhappy, with many complaining about it on social media.

The Football Manager 2017 Logo

However, the government appears to be softening its stance on EU nationals so there is likely to be a lighter touch regime for European footballers. The impact therefore on the Premier League may not be as great as that game predicted, however one sport that could face a major shake up is cricket.

County cricket has for many years had a strict rule governing the number of overseas players that can play in a county team. It has fluctuated between one and two over time but the basic premise is that as many slots in the team need to be kept free for English qualified players as possible. The premise being that cricket, like rugby, drives most of its revenue from the international rather than the club game and therefore developing players for the England team is a key part of the county game.

However country cricket has been affected by two European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings. The first was the Bosman ruling, which meant no EU nationals could be restricted from working anywhere in the EU based on their nationality. As a result there are around 20 non English, EU players, playing county cricket as domestic players. However, as England is the only major test playing cricket nation in Europe this ruling doesn't have a major effect, as Europeans had played in county cricket as non overseas players before the Bosman ruling.

However the Kolpak ruling continues to have a major effect. In 2003 the ECJ ruled that Maros Kolpak, a Slovakian Handball player who legally resided in the EU (despite Slovakia not being an EU member at that time) had been unfairly discriminated against because of the quotas in the German Handball league which said that no more than two players per team could be non-EU citizens.

Slovakia had an association agreement with the EU at the time and therefore the ruling meant that quotas on non-EU players couldn't apply to people from these countries. For cricket this was a game changer because one of the EU's biggest association agreements is the Cotonou Agreement, with the countries of the ACP (African,Caribbean,Pacific). This includes most of the West Indian islands, Zimbabwe, and crucially South Africa. Rugby also faces challenges as Islands such as Fiji, Tonga and Samoa are also included.

Any cricket follower knows the challenges that exist in South African cricket. There is a quota policy based on race which has brought the game to many more communities in South Africa but which limits the opportunities for white South African cricketers and means that many are looking for opportunities outside of the country.

Those with British roots such as Kevin Pietersen and Jonathan Trott were able to play in the UK in their own right, as had Allan Lamb, Robin Smith and Zimbabwean Graeme Hick in previous generations, through ancestry or residency. However the Kolpak ruling opened the route for South Africans with no British links and since 2003 many, including current test players, have come to play in the UK where they count as non-overseas players.

Some counties have fielded as many as five non-English qualified Kolpak players in a game. In a famous game between Northamptonshire and Leicestershire in 2008 half the players on the pitch were non-English qualified.

In 2009, the English Cricket Board (ECB) tried to tighten the rules up, and after getting an agreement from the EU Commission the Home Office introduced new criteria that meant that players could only qualify as Kolpak players if they had played a number of international games for their country recently. Each Kolpak player fielded by a county also reduces the financial grant a county gets from the ECB.

That reduced the numbers a little, but with Brexit looming in 2019 and with it the Kolpak option fast running out, many current South African test players are making the leap to county cricket now, giving up on their international careers to ensure they are playing in the UK before the option closes.

Kyle Abbott is a famous case, soon after establishing himself in the South Africa team with a series of exceptional performances he gave up his Test career to sign for Hampshire, in January of this year. Hashim Amla and Morne Morkel, two of South Africa's most influential test players, are rumoured to also be about to sign county contracts.

Cricketer Kyle Abbott

To lose such players is disastrous for South African cricket, very bad for Test cricket in general, and also very bad for young aspiring English cricketers who will likely see their path to county cricket blocked by many more overseas players than the ECB have ever wanted in county cricket.

However the window is closing and once we have left the EU, the Kolpak route is almost certain to close, along possibly, with the Bosman route.

County cricket will need a strategy to deal with this, as Test players on show at county grounds across the country can help pull in crowds, and for the past few years the County Championship has effectively been the British, EU and South African domestic league.

However for young English players of the future, new opportunities may start to be opening up.