Opportunity Knocks: Major GBE Changes For Women’s Teams in England

Andy Watson explores some massive changes in how the women’s game can secure GBE permits for players

The FA released new GBE criteria for the women’s game on 16th June. This came with much less fanfare than the men’s changes, which we dissected in the Brexitball series (ESC changes here and banding changes here), but there are fundamental changes to the 2023/24 legislation that require highlighting.

The basics of the GBE legislation for the women’s game is the same as for the men. An in-depth dissection of the 2021/22 documentation is available in the Brexitball series, but in essence, to recruit players from outside of the UK, the players either have to attain an autopass or amass 24 or more points in the GBE calculations.

The calculations are based across broadly the same characteristics as the men’s game:

  • International appearances
  • Domestic league minutes 
  • Continental minutes
  • League Position of Last Club
  • Continental Progress of Last Club
  • League Quality of Current Club

The Evolution of League Banding

The banding of leagues has been quite an evolutionary process for the women’s game since Brexit. The initial guidelines saw only seven overseas leagues in the top band.

The April 2022 Brexitball article pointed out that there were a number of leagues that WSL clubs had shopped in regularly that were excluded from Band 1 in the original documents, Norway and Denmark being two examples, and they were included into Band 1 in June 2022 for that coming season.

However, the big news for 2023/24 is that the two tier banding system has gone completely. A three tier system is in, and it is very interesting how the tiers are composed.

The competitions included in Band 1 are ones from which an English club would be pretty confident of securing a player. The big hitters in the women’s game are all here, but it also includes the Netherlands’ Vrouwen Eredivisie. This is surprising because this division wasn’t in Band 1 in the 2022/23 legislation.

A middle tier has been created for the first time. This has been made up from some previous Band 1 leagues, effectively a relegation for those leagues, and the identification of other leagues that the FA/Home Office have decided that they would be happy to encourage English clubs to shop in. 

The inclusion of Brazil, Mexico, and Japan certainly gives the impression that the FA are keen to encourage a global market. However, no rationale is ever given for how and why some leagues are chosen over others, which makes it difficult to infer reasoning for the choices.

How does the new points system work for the different bands?

It does make a huge difference which band the leagues are in. Twenty-four points are required for a player to be eligible for a GBE. There is no women’s game equivalent of ESC in the legislation yet, so it is fairly cut and dried, with one exception which will be discussed later.

With the significant changes in banding, it is worth going through the points given to the three bands, and some examples of how they will work for some players if they were targeted for a move to England.

Firstly, and crucially, there are no changes to the international minutes criteria. The qualification period for the international minutes and the ranking of the national teams varies slightly by age: for youth players (21 and under) it is twelve months; for players that are 22 or older it is 24-months. The updated list of aggregated rankings is available on the FA website.

Using the most recent updated (March 2023) 24-month list we can see which countries should be of most interest to WSL and Championship sides.

It is interesting that regulars for countries such as Vietnam, Chinese Taipei, and Romania could qualify for a GBE.

It is with the domestic minutes criteria that we begin to see the difference in Band 1 and Band 2. A Band 1 player will earn two points more than a Band 2 player for the same number of minutes. Any Band 3 player will earn five points fewer than a Band 2, and they only receive points at all at 50% of minutes played.

The definition of the continental competition banding hasn’t changed. The UEFA Women’s Champions League and the Copa Libertadores Femenina are the only competitions classed in Band 1.

This makes Australia’s relegation to Band 2 in the recent guidelines especially tough, as they don’t have a continental competition to get more points from. Melbourne Victory won the inaugural AFC Women’s Club Championship, but no Australian team has participated in that competition post-COVID.

There has been a reduction in the number of points given out for the percentage of minutes that players play in their clubs’ continental matches.

In the 2022/23 criteria a maximum of 10 points were given for players who played 90% or more of their clubs’ Band 1 minutes. This is now down to seven points; the numbers for Band 2 remain the same.

Similarly, the number of points given for continental progression have been nudged down. The finalists in the Champions League and the Libertadores will now only receive eight points instead of the old 10. The points are two lower all the way down to the group stage. Points for Band 2 remain the same.

From the terms used in the table though it can be difficult to determine how many points to attribute to some players.

The UEFA Champions League format means that the official group stage has only 16 teams in it: does this qualify as the round of 16? What about the 58 teams that compete in the initial ‘mini-tournament’ or the 24 that qualify for ‘Round 2’?

It is slightly more straightforward at the moment in South America. Only 16 teams participate in the main stages, though they do so in groups, which brings back the same problem of how many points should be attributed.

There is, however, a clause in the legislation that states that the player will be granted the higher number of the points in the table that they are eligible for. Therefore, one would presume that this would be 5 points in both Champions League and Copa Libertadores 16-team group stages.

It would perhaps be more appropriate to be more specific to women’s competitions at this stage of the documentation.

There are more convolutions when looking at the number of points to attribute to league position. However, again, there is a clause which states that the players should be awarded the higher of the options that they are entitled to in the table below.

The number of points in the criteria remain the same, but there is no mention of anything for Band 3, which, again, makes signing players from those leagues very difficult.

Finally, we have the points that players will automatically get for just being registered to a club in any particular league. Band 1 leagues receive nine points, Band 2 seven points, and Band 3 five.

How has the recruitment landscape changed over time in the WSL?

So now that we have analysed the points and the changes, how will that materially affect the decisions that English clubs will take in the transfer market?

Firstly, it is interesting to observe the trends over the last few years in the WSL. Initially, Analytics FC reported that Brexit, and probably COVID, had a negative effect on the percentage of non-domestic transfers as the rate dropped to below 30% in 2021/22.

However, in 2022/23, the foreign market exploded. Almost half of the transfers conducted in the WSL required a GBE application. If one includes transfers of GBE-exempt players coming back from abroad, over half of the transfers were conducted between a WSL club and a foreign club.

The total number of transfers increased by 25% as well, showing that the market is getting more akin to the men’s game. The total of 125 transfers means that WSL clubs averaged over 10 transfers per club in 2022/23.

We can, therefore, surmise from this that clubs are actively looking in non-domestic territories to sign players that they think will improve their squad. Indeed, we can investigate which leagues have seen the highest number of imports into the WSL since 2018/19.

In this chart, the red sectors represent the new Band 1 leagues, green represents Band 2, and grey is Band 3.

Perhaps understandably, 66% of all non-domestic transfers since 2018/19 have come from leagues that are now Band 1. However, Norway and Australia have also been big contributors of imports. In terms of other Band 2 competitions, there has never been an import from Mexico, and only one each from Japan and Brazil. It will be interesting to see if there is a change in the forthcoming seasons.

Band 1 leagues will surely be fairly unaffected. There are certain parts of the points structure that have been lessened in the new regulations, but there are still plenty of points available, even without continental competition.

What do these changes mean in practice?

To illustrate this, we can use the example of Bethany Balcer. The Reign forward is their top scorer so far in the 2023 NWSL season, and may well be a target for clubs in the WSL.

Balcer only has one cap for the US, earned in 2021. However, because she plays regularly in a Band 1 league, for a successful team, she does not need points from any extra sources to get the 24 points required. 

However, it is not a foregone conclusion in Band 1. If the player targeted plays for a mid-table or worse club, or plays fewer than half of the minutes available, then it will be tight to get to 24 points.

What about Band 2? Let us use the example of Norway Toppserien’s current top scorer, Anna Aahjem.

As a 23-year-old top scorer in a competitive division, Aahjem will surely have been looked at by many English clubs. 

However, the current regulations mean that despite her success, Aahjem doesn’t pass the GBE criteria. The relegation to Band 2 means that the Toppserien gets fewer points for its banding and even Aahjem’s ever-present record is rewarded with fewer points than previously. Lyn’s mid-table finishes also don’t help.

These changes have clearly had a substantial impact. If the 2022/23 regulations were still applied this season then Aahjem would scrape the 24pts required because of the Band 1 status that Norway enjoyed last season.

There are few clubs in Band 2 that will gain success in Band 1 Continental Competition, which would really help any Band 2 players to get the points required.

Brazil’s inclusion in Band 2 is interesting because they will have multiple representation in the Copa Libertadores Femenile, which should make a lot of their players available for English clubs.

One of the problems may well be access to data. Finding out how many points Brazilian, Mexican, or Japanese players should get isn’t an easy task, although TransferLab does contain a GBE calculating function. It will be interesting to see which clubs may stretch themselves into these territories that have been promoted into a more accessible banding.

What other changes should we be aware of for 2023/24?

Some aspects of the men’s legislation have been added to the women’s.

For example, the unavailability criteria has been expanded from just injuries and bans to include rehabilitation from an injury, for example being eased back into the team post-injury.

Probably the most important alteration concerns the addition of the clause that has been in the men’s legislation for some time, until, ironically, the 2023/24 update. 

This is that a Youth Player, defined as a player born on or after 1 January 2002 for these purposes, who can be shown to “have significant potential and be of elite quality to enhance the development of the game in England”, has been added to the exceptions panel section.

This means that if a club in the WSL, or Championship, wants to sign a player 21 or younger, even if they don’t meet the 24 point criteria, they can still go to an exceptions panel to plead their case.

Successful examples of this in the men’s game are Sunderland’s successful signings of Jewison Bennette from Costa Rica and Abdoullah Ba from the French 2nd tier.

With this addition to the documentation, it is difficult to foresee a situation by which a top, young talent coming through anywhere in the world would be off-limits to the English game. Indeed, the FA would always encourage, at least in public, the top foreign talent to play in England.

Header image credit IMAGO / USA TODAY Network / John Froschauer

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