There were roars of delight and punches to the air in an unusually noisy Manchester City boardroom in the summer of 2016.
Not for the arrival of Pep Guardiola, but for the confirmation that they had beaten the likes of Barcelona and Bayern Munich to the signing of a Brazilian teenager that few had heard of. Signing Gabriel Jesus, and beating European heavyweights to his signature, was seen as a seminal moment in the club’s plan to become the most successful club in Europe.
That hype has been justified five years on, even if the player now seems different to the sharpshooting forward he appeared. And yet it is worth remembering that City had to wait six months for such a talent to arrive in Manchester.
Despite his breakthrough role for Palmeiras, his lack of international appearances for the most famous team in football threw a work permit into question and while an appeal was possible, it was felt that the best for all concerned was for Jesus to stay where he was for six months, earn his first international caps, and then head over to England.
By the time he was eligible to play, Guardiola had already conceded that the title was beyond his team after suffering the biggest defeat of his career as his statement signing Claudio Bravo forgot how to use his hands in a 4-0 defeat at Goodison Park. The rookie Jesus wouldn’t likely have made much difference in that year, but the caution City acted with reflected how difficult it was to sign non-EU players that weren’t full internationals.
Two years later, Guardiola did not bother to hide the disdain for the system when it denied him the chance to register Douglas Luiz in the City squad despite personal pleas from the City boss and Brazil coach Tite. The weight of two of the leading coaches in the game was not deemed as valuable as strict regulations that were policed first by international appearances and then by the significance of the transfer fee to the buying club; for a blunt analogy, Aston Villa paying £15m for Luiz was seen as far more significant than City paying £10m for him.
“It’s so difficult for me to understand,” blasted an unimpressed Guardiola.
“One guy who doesn’t see the player or any training sessions every day has to judge if Douglas has the ability and quality to play. I accept the rules but I don’t understand because anybody in the world can work wherever he wants.”
The difficulty in signing South American players was in stark contrast to Europeans – or those in Europe – as a result of free movement. Ederson, for example, had not problem in getting a work permit because the Brazilian held a European passport in Portugal.
It hasn’t stopped City trying to snap up the best talent from the continent ahead of their rivals.
Scouting and recruitment have operations have expanded extensively over the last few years, particularly following the City Football Group acquisition of Uruguayan club Atletico Torque in 2017 and the establishment of a new base in the region; Brazilian full-back Yan Couto and Peruvian defender Kluiverth Aguilar are among the emerging talent that have been signed in recent years.
However, it has prevented any players making it into the first team at the Etihad as without work permits they have had to head off to other European clubs on loan to gain senior experience.
Thanks to new regulations established when the United Kingdom left the European Union, City and others no longer have such a problem.
Daniel Geey, a sports lawyer at Sheridans, explains how the new Governing Body Exemption differs from the work permit it has replaced.
“Previously the work permit criteria was if they don’t meet the senior international appearance at senior threshold then basically it was how much the transfer fee was and how much was going to be paid in blunt terms.
“There was also the caveat that if the player had a European passport then they were in because of the free movement rules that the UK no longer live by. “What has transpired subsequently is a new set of regulations that classifies particular nations. If the senior international threshold isn’t met, the secondary criteria now is dependent on the strength of the league and that is worldwide.
“It’s completely a result of Brexit. The new regulations came in which more or less led to a major overhaul in the GBE criteria that they effectively based the decision making points system on.
“Before the new regulations it would have been a lot more difficult [to sign non-EU players]. In certain leagues, depending on the strength of the league, it is now more straightforward for non-EU players in the top leagues to then come into the UK. The issue is is that whereas before European players could automatically come in now in the weaker leagues in Europe it is a lot more difficult.”
City have already used this to their advantage with the signing of young prospect Kayky from Fluminese. In the transfer window that saw them run into a brick wall in their attempt to sign Harry Kane, they found other doors finally unlock for them.
Kayky has shown enough potential to attract City, but he is not viewed at the club like Jesus was, i.e a player that can come straight into contention for the first team. Bought for around a third of the fee, he will train under Guardiola and, if all goes well, could earn some minutes in cup competitions in exactly the same way that Cole Palmer, Romeo Lavia and other talented youngsters at the club are doing.
Yet a work permit was not an issue because of the new regulations that place fresh emphasis on the clubs and leagues where players are being developed.
The very fact that Kayky played for Fluminese granted him eight of the 15 points required to meet the GBE, with the Brazilian championship deemed a Band 3 league. His minutes for them gained him more, with the fact that he had made his debut in the last 12 months adding another four points.
And the fact that he helped his club to reach the quarter-finals of the Copa Libertadores – ranked as a Band 1 competition, in the same bracket as the UEFA Champions League – earned another 13 points (eight for the achievement, five for his participation) to send him soaring over the threshold.
Finding petrol or Christmas supplies, or your football club signing European players, may be more difficult as a result of Brexit but it is now more straightforward to bring the best young talent from around the world to the Premier League.
How much City can benefit from that will depend first on the extent of the potential that Kayky fulfils, but it offers a wide open window for English clubs that was only just ajar before. As clubs adjust to the new regulations, Geey believes that it is now easier for them to target players from leagues that have been categorised as strong.
“Especially with the Copa Libertadores, it makes the Brazilian and Argentinian leagues a lot more accessible to be able to have young players without having to spend huge amounts on transfer fees and wages accordingly,” he said. “I think ultimately what the teams are doing is being more pragmatic. They need to have certainty that the player they’re looking at is going to fulfil the criteria.
“At the same time, the benefit is teams that are looking to bring players in from abroad know the particular leagues that they’re more likely to be able to get players from. They know that if the player has played a significant amount of games in Band 1, 2, or 3 leagues they’re going to have a good chance of it regardless of the transfer fee or the wage band they’re going to be on.
“I think that is a benefit to a degree because of the strength of those leagues.”