Brexit could slam door on star footballers

If superstar footballers like Messi and Neymar cannot enter the UK because of free movement restrictions, football matches could be held elsewhere. [LevanteMedia/ Shutterstock]

European football’s top official fears superstar footballers with ongoing court cases, like Messi and Neymar, could be refused access to the UK after Brexit. He even indicated that European matches could be held elsewhere in a worst case scenario.

UEFA President Aleksander Čeferin told The New York Times that “if Brexit happens, everything changes”.

He warned that if the UK’s exit from the EU makes it harder for players and fans to enter the country, especially if free movement rules are scrapped, then a severe rethink will have to be made about future games and competitions.

Čeferin insisted that his organisation is still committed to holding the final stages of the 2020 edition of the European Football Championships in London but said UEFA would be in contact with the British government and the English Football Association in the coming months and years about the issue.

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There is already precedent for footballers being refused entry: in November last year Ivory Coast footballer Serge Aurier, who plays for Paris Saint-Germain, was unable to play against London club Arsenal after the UK Home Office revoked his visa.

Aurier had been found guilty of assaulting a police officer and was appealing a two month prison sentence at the time, so was free to continue playing football. The UK authority had initially agreed to issue a visa but changed its mind, a decision UEFA called “regrettable”.

Čeferin said “that will worsen when Brexit happens, especially if the reasons were as formal. We could have a serious problem.” He added that he has no problem with the authorities withholding visas from “severe criminals”.

European and world football’s main box office draws, Argentinian and Brazilian players Lionel Messi and Neymar, who both ply their trade for FC Barcelona, could also be affected.

Messi, widely regarded as the best footballer in the world and one of the greatest to ever play the game, is currently appealing a 21-month prison term that a Spanish court handed down to him after being found guilty of tax fraud.

Last month it was announced that Neymar will stand trial on corruption charges after losing an appeal. The case revolves around the Brazilian’s high-profile transfer to Barcelona in 2013.

“Neymar and Messi both have procedures going on. This year, the Champions League final (Europe’s top club competition) is in Cardiff. Imagine if they did not let them in. That is a big thing for us,” Čeferin warned. The UEFA president added that “with free movement in Europe, it is much better”.

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Čeferin also indicated that any country bidding to hold the FIFA World Cup, which alongside the Olympic Games is the most watched sporting event on the planet, would be disadvantaged by any restrictions that might prevent players, fans or journalists from attending.

The United States is one of the favourites to host the 2026 tournament either alone or in a joint North American bid.

In direct reference to Donald Trump’s much-criticised immigration restrictions, Čeferin said that “I am sure it will not help the United States to get the World Cup.” The warning should be taken seriously given that the Slovenian is also vice-president of FIFA as well.

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