Last week, American soccer striker Juan Agudelo learned that his appeal for a work permit in the United Kingdom—which would pave the way for Agudelo’s January transfer to Stoke City—had been denied and that that transfer deal between Stoke City and Major League Soccer is now dead. Obtaining a work permit for Agudelo was the remaining obstacle to Agudelo joining Stoke City in January after the striker signed a pre-contract with the club in August.
The immediate response from the club and pundits was one of surprise, with Stoke City coach Mark Hughes remarking, “The criteria by which the panel should make work permit application decisions are well established and have been in place for some years and, despite recent discussion in the media, that criteria has not changed. . . . We are therefore left amazed that our application for a work permit for Juan has been rejected when you compare his talent and ability to players who have been granted a work permit on appeal in the past.” Hughes was referring to recent grants of work permits to non-European Union international players, including Americans, over the past several years in roughly similar circumstances. But considering the U.K. visa and immigration regulations and Agudelo’s recent performance on the field, the denial of Agudelo’s appeal is not that surprising.
The oft-discussed “work permit” process for international players looking to ply their trade in the U.K. (be it the Barclays Premier League, lower English divisions, or the Scottish Professional Football League), is regulated by the U.K. government, and the football associations play an influential part in the decision to grant or refuse a work permit.
Under the U.K. visa and immigration regulations, international players who are not nationals of European Union countries and who sign contracts with football clubs must apply for and obtain a work permit form the U.K. Home Office (the “Home Office”) before playing with their respective clubs. Under U.K. law, there are several ways to obtain a work permit, and players typically rely on the “Tier 2 (Sportsperson)” application process. The Tier 2 (Sportsperson) category “is for elite sportspeople and coaches who are internationally established at the highest level, and will make a significant contribution to the development of their sport.” A player applying for a work permit under the Tier 2 (Sportsperson) category must have their application sponsored by their club, and “endorsed by [the] sport’s governing body.”
In Agudelo’s case, the governing body endorsement comes from the Football Association, or the FA. Under the current guidelines, a player is not automatically eligible for a work permit and the FA will not endorse players who have not played in 75% of his senior national team’s competitive games (which excludes friendlies) in the two years preceding his work permit application. Moreover, the player’s national team must be in the top 70 of FIFA’s world rankings. Although the United States men’s national team is currently ranked 14th in the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking, Agudelo has managed to make only 1 appearance for Jürgen Klinsmann’s squad in the last two years, as a substitute in a friendly against Russia last fall. The resulting percentage of relevant senior national team games played in the last two years for Agudelo: 0%.
Agudelo’s initial work permit application did not meet the pertinent requirements. For Stoke City, the next step was to ask an appeals panel to review Agudelo’s skills and experience. The Home Office delegates the appeals review task to an independent panel of FA members and independent experts. The panel examines evidence provided by the club to determine if the player is “of the highest calibre” and whether the player is able to contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in the U.K. The panel reaches a conclusion, which is delivered to the Home Office. The Home Office issues the final ruling.
Unfortunately for Agudelo, the Home Office refused to grant Agudelo a work permit. Hughes, Stoke City and many commentators voiced surprise over the decision. A new reality, however, supports a more pessimistic outlook for Americans seeking to go overseas.
In September of this year, the FA announced that it would begin implementing stricter work permit guidelines in an effort to limit foreign players entering U.K. domestic leagues, in part to focus on developing domestic talent. In that context, Agudelo’s appeal would seem more challenging. Stoke City’s argument that Agudelo was a player of the highest caliber and would contribute significantly to the development of the game at the top level in the U.K. could not have been helped by Agudelo’s inconsistent form and playing time for his club teams in New York Red Bulls and Chivas USA before settling in to better form with the New England Revolution in the latter half of the 2013 season.
Stoke City’s optimism may have been buttressed by previous American players’ successful appeals for work permits. In fact, since 2000, only four Americans (now, five) have had work permits denied: Bobby Convey was denied a work permit to join Tottenham in 2003 (before joining Reading); Josh Wolff was refused a work permit to join Derby County in 2006; Greg Dalby was denied a work permit to join Preston North End in 2007; and even the current Aston Villa stalwart between the posts, Brad Guzan, was initially denied a work permit to join Aston Villa (before successfully receiving a work permit a year later).
Over the past several years, and perhaps in light of the success of players like Tim Howard, Brian McBride, and Clint Dempsey, many American internationals with tough paths to receiving work permits successfully obtained work permits: Alejandro Bedoya (Rangers F.C. in the Scottish Premier League), Geoff Cameron (Stoke City), Robbie Findley (Nottingham Forest), Tim Ream (Bolton Wanderers), Brek Shea (Stoke City), and Robbie Rogers (Leeds United) are some of the more noteworthy names.
If the list of recent successful American appeals applicants seems ominous, it may be because of that group, only Geoff Cameron has established himself as a starting XI mainstay in the Barclays Premier League. Ream has struggled to find consistent playing time with Bolton in the Championship until just recently, and Shea made his first league appearance for Stoke City last weekend. Bedoya was a victim of financial circumstances as much as the physical play in the Scottish league and has moved on to FC Nantes (where he is now flourishing) after a stopover in Scandinavia. Findley and Rogers have both returned to MLS for a variety of reasons, including difficulty finding first team action in the Championship.
The appeals panel that denied Agudelo’s work permit did not expand on the reasons for the denial, but an objective observer may well have predicted Agudelo’s fate. Combine the FA’s new, stricter work permit approach with Agudelo’s unsettled club situations and near non-existence with the U.S. national team, and the likelihood of success of the appeal looked bleak. And while American players like Howard, Cameron, and Guzan are showing well for their teams, it would be reasonable for the appeals panel to consider its past decisions on American players’ appeals and those players’ subsequent performance on the field. The more recent struggles of Bedoya, Findley, Ream, Shea and Rogers in the U.K. may have served as cautionary tales.
This is not the end of the road for Agudelo, who has shown flashes of brilliance in his career and began to show signs of consistency in the latter half of the 2013 season with the Revolution. The circumstances surrounding his recent appeal for a work permit, however, should not have given rise to as much optimism as they did for Stoke City. Given the FA’s new approach to the work permit process, Agudelo’s performance over the last two years, and the struggles of some Americans who have successfully obtained work permits through the appeals process in recent years, it was always going to be an uphill battle.