While Britain is divided following the narrow victory for those who want the country to leave the EU, the biggest challenge now is to work out what Brexit will mean. That is no less the case for such a cosmopolitan club as Chelsea.
It was almost 20 years ago, in November 1996, that Gianfranco Zola signed for the Blues. Hot on the heels of Nottingham Forest’s Andrea Silenzi, who had become the Premier League’s first ever Italian player a year earlier, his arrival was greeted with a mixture of suspicion and excitement. Many expected to see a foreigner seeking a final pay-day, in the dying years of his career. What they got was a revelation that would change the English game forever, with Zola rated as Chelsea’s greatest ever player by the time of his departure seven years later.
Zola opened the floodgates for foreign talent – still lauded, alongside Arsenal’s Dennis Bergkamp and Manchester United’s Eric Cantona, as one of the greatest imports to our national sport. His reaction to Brexit is therefore extremely valid. “It is inevitable it will affect the football world,” he told Goal this weekend. “It will be more difficult to come and play here for a lot of footballers and it could cause problems taking into account that clubs from other countries now may have a slight advantage. “We are talking about something so important it will cause a shock in every world market, not just in England,” he said. He was clear that the true effect would depend on the terms of the exit deal, and that it would be a shame if English fans would be stopped from seeing some of the world’s greatest players. But he also made it clear that he felt the decline in the number of true homegrowns in Premier League first XIs was to be regretted.
And one of those who followed the little Italian has also had plenty to say about the UK’s historic vote. Cesc Fabregas, who as an EU national living in London will have had no say in last week’s ballot, was clear that the result would negatively affect the English game. “It’s a very disappointing decision and I think very negative for many people,” he told Sport. “Personally, I see it as a mistake. I didn’t expect it.
“I think it’s damaging for the Premier League. It’ll be harder to sign players, the salaries will change if the Pound gets close to the Euro. “It’s a decision that will create many complications not just in football, but the daily lives and future of all people.” So, in addition to the barriers potentially placed in the way of freedom of movement, the French midfielder sees problems with the viability of a move to these shores caused by what many see as a likely economic slide. While it may seem odd turning to two footballers for comment at a time of national uncertainty, the fact is there is so little informed comment coming out from the nation’s leaders, the opinions of those with personal experience carries as much value as any other. Uncertainty will lie ahead for the whole of the Premier League, but there will be particular issues for Chelsea. Much of the Stamford Bridge business model involves closer links with Europe than at other clubs: the tie with Dutch side Vitesse Arnhem; the exporting of many other players on continental loans; and a slightly heavier than average reliance on foreign stars.
There may be untold impact in other areas of the club: there is, after all, the small matter of a £500m capital project to rebuild Stamford Bridge. The brick-heavy design is reliant on imports: Britain, once home to the world’s biggest brick fields (staffed in their 1950s and 60s heyday by largely Polish and Italian immigrant workforces), now makes hardly any bricks of its own. And the biggest builders were among those calling for a Remain vote, and an avoidance of restrictions on immigrant labour: so reliant are they on it for major projects such as this.
As with in all walks of British life, the decision taken by the nation last Thursday will have a major and lasting impact. And, at Chelsea, that will surely come into sharp focus very soon.