Football agent Jon Smith is recalling his attempts to convince Serbian footballer Sasa Curcic that he should move from Bolton Wanderers to Aston Villa in 1996. The midfielder was unsettled by work permit problems that were hampering the transfer, so Smith settled on an original way to sell the charms of the Birmingham-based club: he cited Villa’s proximity to the British capital — nearly 120 miles away.
“That produced a smile,” remembers the veteran agent. “It was another easing of potential concern in the transaction . . . In the past I’ve sold Aston Villa as part of London. It’s an hour and a half up the road. It’s ‘North London Plus’.”
Smith’s claims were prompted by a belief that clubs in London have a strong competitive advantage in attracting talent compared with others across the UK and Europe. This might be considered remarkable, as the capital’s clubs are relative underperformers — at least at Europe’s top level. No fewer than five London clubs are competing in the Premier League this season — Arsenal, Chelsea, Crystal Palace, Tottenham Hotspur and West Ham United — but only one London team, Chelsea in 2012, has won the Champions League, the continent’s premier club competition. (There have been several victories in lesser tournaments such as the Uefa Cup, now the Europa League.)
Clubs from smaller cities such as Amsterdam, Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester, Munich, Turin and Milan have lifted Europe’s top trophy on several occasions. Even Nottingham Forest twice won the European Cup, as the Champions League was previously known.
Yet football executives say that foreign players decide whether to move to England based on several factors. These include clubs’ sporting merit and financial rewards but also lifestyle — players and their families often see cosmopolitan London as a more appealing prospect than that of other towns and cities. Smith says this has created a “London discount”, with some footballers willing to play in the capital for less than they might earn with a team in a different city.
“We know London is an attractive place for players and their families to live, and that definitely helps in our conversations,” says Mark Gonnella, communications director at Arsenal. “They love the many attractions the city has to offer. However, they will always focus on the club’s history and reputation, our ambitions and the role they will play in the side. Our manager, Arsène Wenger, is also a key factor in attracting players.”
Aware of their strength in drawing players, London clubs are trying to further exploit their presence in the capital for commercial gain. The Premier League is one of the UK’s best-known exports. England and Wales’s top division is set to benefit from overseas broadcasting rights deals this year worth up to £3bn, though some are still being negotiated.
A few months after signing German forward Lukas Podolski in 2012, Arsenal filmed him taking a sightseeing tour of the capital. The player, who has since moved to Galatasaray in Turkey, can be seen asking his cab driver whether he can pick up German meats at the famous Smithfield market. The video was essentially a propaganda exercise, another attempt to firmly link Arsenal and London in the minds of millions of Premier League viewers around the world, in the hope of luring them to watch Arsenal play when they visit the city. The club also advertises its stadium tours heavily in London’s Underground stations.
Meanwhile, perhaps with an eye on the global market, West Ham this year marked its move to the former Olympic stadium in Stratford, in the east of the city, by redesigning its crest to include the word “London”.
A study by Visit Britain, a tourism body, suggests that such tactics are working. The research showed that 800,000 tourists watched a football match while visiting the UK in 2015, with 48 per cent attending fixtures in London. The joint most visited football venues in the UK were Arsenal’s Emirates Stadium and Manchester United’s Old Trafford. Five of the eight most visited stadiums were in the capital — a list that included second-tier Fulham and its Thames-side Craven Cottage ground in west London.
However, the continued global interest in London’s football clubs — from players and fans alike — faces a threat from a new angle: Brexit. According to sports industry executives, football clubs have been taking advice from consultants and lawyers about the implications of the UK’s vote this June to leave the EU. One fear is that English teams will find it more difficult to sign the world’s best players, damaging them as brands and as a global spectacle.
The immediate concern that clubs must address is the sharp fall in sterling following the EU referendum — the pound fell against the euro in the days after the June vote faster than any time since the financial crisis of 2008. This means that British clubs that attempt to recruit players from the eurozone will have to pay more. One person close to a London club in the Championship — England’s second tier — says an Italian player demanded an increase in wages following the Brexit vote because of the disadvantage of being paid in sterling, causing the transfer deal to collapse.
Stefan Szymanski, author of Money and Football: A Soccernomics Guide and a sports industry academic at the University of Michigan, counters that currency shifts will have little long-term impact on the Premier League’s attractiveness to overseas players. “If sterling continues to be depressed, particularly against the euro, no question at the margin there will be an effect,” he says.
“But even if we have a 20 or 30 per cent depreciation of sterling, the annual revenue of Premier League clubs is more than double that of their nearest continental rivals. In terms of spending power, English clubs will continue to dominate — it’s just a matter of by how much they dominate.”
One area which Brexit might affect most is the recruitment of younger footballers. British clubs may no longer benefit from EU rules that currently allow 16- to 18-year-olds from other EU countries to join youth academies in the UK. Cesc Fabregas, for example, joined Arsenal in 2003 at the age of 16 from Barcelona.
Players from continental Europe might also be subject to the same work permit rules that apply to footballers from outside the EU — such as being internationally established and having played in 30-75 per cent of their country’s international matches in the past two years (depending on the nation’s Fifa ranking).
Jon Smith, the football agent, argues that even after Brexit, London’s attractiveness to players will remain strong, provided it remains a vibrant, diverse and affluent city. “In our football, we’ve had the reputation of being a bit of an island,” he says. “The brand is isolationist. Obviously the success of the Premier League has engendered international respect and affection for our product, but London is considered to be a cosmopolitan, global city that stands on its own.”