Juhani Ojala knew he would have to wait. Travel restrictions were still in place in Scotland when the Finnish defender agreed in mid-July to join Motherwell, a club of modest means and level-headed ambitions in the country’s top division. Upon landing, Ojala knew, he would have to spend 10 days in isolation in a hotel before joining his new teammates.
What he didn’t know was how long he would wait after that. Even after going through his mandatory isolation, Ojala was still not allowed to start preparing for the season. He was legally not allowed to kick a ball for another two weeks. The quarantine was one thing. The bureaucracy, it turned out, was something quite different.
A year ago – indeed, anytime in the past two decades – Ojala’s move to the Scottish Premiership would have caused as little fuss as it did attention. Once Motherwell had agreed a fee with his former club and a contract with the player, it would have been a matter of “jumping on a plane and getting a medical,” said Motherwell CEO Alan Burrows. “He would have been ready to play in 24 hours.”
That all changed in January, when – four and a half years after the Brexit referendum – Britain formally and eventually left the European Union. From then on, clubs in England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland no longer had free access to players from the 26 member states (Ireland has different rules) that they had had since the 1990s.
Instead, potential recruits to Britain from Europe – as well as around the world – are now judged on a points system that takes into account everything from their international career and the success of their club team to how much they will be paid. Entry to the UK leagues is only granted to players who can accumulate 15 points or more.
For the money-soaked teams of the Premier League, that change has meant little. There are occasional administrative delays – Manchester United had to wait several days for Raphaël Varane to get his work visa, even after it was approved – but the vast majority of potential recruits pass the new, higher bar with ease.
However, the effect has been very different in Scotland. Unlike the Premier League, the Scottish Premiership is not one of Europe’s financial superpowers. The clubs don’t usually recruit decorated internationals, or pick stars from one of the continent’s most glamorous leagues.
Instead, their budgets dictate that they look for lesser-known names in smaller markets. According to many, that approach has been made immeasurably more complicated by the Brexit rules. With the cost of hiring players from England also rising, clubs and their executives are increasingly concerned about what the future of Scottish football might look like.
“What we’ve really seen is the markets are chalk and cheese, but we have a one-size-fits-all solution,” Motherwell’s Burrows said. “There is a premium on current international players that is beyond the financial means of most Scottish clubs.”
Britain’s biggest teams have no such hurdles. The current system gives an immediate work permit to any player who has played in at least 70 percent of competitive matches for one of the top 50 national football teams in the past two seasons. That means that any player who has also regularly played for a successful club team in one of Europe’s better leagues will almost certainly receive a pass – or, to use the technical term, an endorsement from the governing body. It is in these rich waters that Premier League clubs do much of their fishing.
In Scotland, however, only the country’s two dominant clubs, Rangers and Celtic, can even dream of chasing players of that quality. The rest of the Scottish teams tend to shop for bargains, or at least value, every time the transfer window opens. “It’s clear to me,” said Motherwell’s Burrows, “that we would have a hard time getting someone we could afford for 15 points.”
That was certainly the case with Ojala. For Burrows and his team, the defender was something of a coup d’état: not just a Finland international, but a player who occasionally captained his country; a veteran not only of the Danish league, but also with experience in Switzerland and Russia.
But when Motherwell added up how many points he was worth, he didn’t come close to meeting the requirements.
“The Danish league is ranked in fifth band of six by the Ministry of the Interior,” said Burrows. “He took a few points there. We have a few more for what his salary would be relative to the league average. But his team had finished fourth from bottom in Denmark. It hadn’t played in Europe. He had too few caps. played.” Ojala’s application ultimately yielded only eight points.
This is where the bureaucracy came in. Clubs in Scotland currently have access to an appeal system. They can apply for an exemption from the Scottish Football Association and make an appointment to make their case as to why a player who falls short is still worthwhile.
However, that is only the first step. If the authorities grant approval from the governing body on appeal, the player – assisted by the club – must then apply for a work visa: filling out an online form, followed by booking a biometrics appointment at a visa application center, run by a number of outside companies to whom work has been outsourced by the UK government. Only when that is completed will the player get a visa and the transfer will be signed by the government.
While the “largely faceless” process can go smoothly, first-time clubs have not always found it straightforward, according to Stuart Baird, partner at Centrefield Law, a firm specializing in international sports law.
“One of the problems is that many clubs have not had to use the Home Office sponsorship system, as previously it was only needed for non-EU players,” he said. “Sometimes it can depend on the right people being available to help you get the timely answers clubs need.”
The concern for many clubs in Scotland is that the current system doesn’t seem to take into account the type of player they can afford to sign. Many of the markets Scotland’s teams have access to, for example in Scandinavia and the Balkans, are ranked in the lower tiers of the Home Office criteria, and few of their teams compete in the later stages of European competitions.
A Scottish Premiership squad’s recruiter has, during his rare moments of inactivity over the summer, developed a brainwave to determine whether a theoretical target could score 15 points.
So far, even in his most fanciful scenario – attracting an occasional international (no points) from the Czech league (Band 4, four points), who had played regularly (four points) in his club’s unexpected run to the later stages of the Europa League (Band 2, four points) – he failed to make the math work.
The lesson is clear to some: clubs must learn to adapt to the new rules and find recruits in places they haven’t always looked for them.
“If we work like we’ve done before, it won’t get us anywhere,” said Ross Wilson, technical director at Rangers. “Clubs will have to build strategies around the points system.”
Rangers, for example, is more interested in players in South America, realizing that while it may no longer be easy to attract a player from a traditional market like Scandinavia, a regular Paraguayan or Venezuelan international can sail through the application process.
“The world is much smaller now,” Wilson said. “There is more data available, more advanced scouting systems, more intelligence. We have access to many more markets than before.”
Wilson said he didn’t believe cost should be a barrier to having a “solid infrastructure,” pointing out that clubs of all resources can use third-party platforms such as Wyscout and Scout7 to source players, but the much larger resources those Rangers – and Celtic – can devote themselves to scouting dwarfs that of most of their competitors in the Scottish Premiership.
The future is worrying for those clubs. Burrows has noticed that Scottish teams are “compressed at both ends”. Not only is it more difficult to identify players from abroad who meet the visa criteria, but clubs in England’s lower divisions are increasingly deterred from importing talent.
That has led to “significant inflation in domestic salaries”, he said, pricing Scottish teams out of the markets in the second, third or even fourth tier of English football. “It’s simple supply and demand,” Burrows said. “Players are a kind of commodity, and those players have become infinitely more valuable.”
Worse, this might just be the beginning. As things stand, the waiver system that ultimately allowed Motherwell to sign Ojala this summer will be abolished at the end of the current transfer window. If the appeal mechanism is not enforced or the planned system is not changed, many clubs in Scotland will find it almost impossible to import players.
“I hope in the next four or five months, between windows, we can find a solution that isn’t a 15-point system,” Burrows said. “If that remains the bar, the market will shrink beyond recognition and it will make life very difficult not only for Scottish clubs, but also for teams in England, outside the Premier League.”