The Rise of Brexit Ball

In late 2019, the United Kingdom finally actualized the results of the 2016 “Brexit” referendum and left the European Union. The victorious “Leave” campaign ran on nationalist rhetoric, citing the need to bring back British identity and restore the nation’s sovereignty, especially in regard to immigration and trade.

Yet the idea of Brexit and the preservation of British identity has now entered the realm of football (i.e. soccer), and the term “Brexit Ball” is now a commonly-used phrase to describe the tactics of teams like Sheffield United and Burnley. Just as the free-flowing, creative “Samba-style” is synonymous with Brazilian football, so too is Brexit Ball becoming a national trope for how some English teams are playing.

Tactically, Brexit Ball is incredibly dull. It is essentially a low-block, where teams often set up in a 4-4-2 configuration and absorb pressure right from kickoff. There is no high-pressing, no creative flair and most scoring comes from set pieces or the occasional counterattack. 

Like the political process of Brexit, matches featuring Brexit Ball feel unnecessarily drawn out. The opponent controls upwards of 65 percent possession but struggles to create chances due to the number of defensive players in the box. The aim of Brexit Ball is that after ninety grueling minutes, your side will ideally come away with either a 0-0 draw or even a scrappy 1-0 victory.

Brexit Ball owes its name to three things. First, the teams who exemplify it rarely field players born outside of Great Britain. Take Burnley, for example, who started nine English players in a recent match versus Leicester. Or see Sheffield United, who started ten players from Great Britain in their match also against Leicester, including at least one player from Scotland, Wales, England and Northern Ireland, respectively.

Second, the teams that deploy Brexit Ball strategy are also found in cities that supported the “Leave” campaign in the 2016 referendum. Burnley supported “Leave” by a massive 67-33 margin, while in Sheffield, “Leave” received a narrower but still decisive 51-49 majority.

Lastly, there is a cultural element among the teams’ leadership as well. Burnley manager Sean Dyche fits the bill for the “typical” Brexit supporter; Dyche was born in Kettering (which voted 61 percent in favor of “Leave”), and his father worked for British Steel, often seen by Brexit supporters as one of the casualties of European integration. While Dyche embodies the economic side of Brexit, Sheffield’s recently-sacked Chris Wilder is its social side. Wilder has a reputation as a gruff man, who has complained in interviews about “do-gooders and lefties” trying to regulate what he can say. This frustration about an increasingly socially-progressive left, especially on issues of immigration, was behind the decision for many to support leaving the E.U.

Juxtapose these two Brexit Ball clubs with the upper echelons of English football and you have a microcosm of Brexit itself. Teams like Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester City all have European managers with elite pedigrees and a roster full of star foreign players. These teams play a fast-paced, cosmopolitan style of football. The clubs are also all located in cities that voted “Remain” by at least ten-point margins. 

Brexit rules on foreign workers would hamper these clubs’ ability to sign players, which is perhaps why Liverpool manager Jurgen Klopp has bemoaned that Brexit “makes no sense at all.” These metropolitan teams have thrived in the globalized economy of an open and integrated Europe, while their counterparts in deindustrialized regional cities have been largely left behind. 

The fundamental elements of Brexit Ball are nothing new — there have always been clubs from mid-sized cities with mostly English squads who set up in low-blocks. Yet the geographical and cultural similarities between the dynamics of Brexit and those of the Premier League make applying the moniker to the style irresistible.

The rise of Brexit Ball also notably comes at a time where English football is seemingly on the cusp of a thriving “golden generation.” This summer at the Euros, exciting young talents like Jadon Sancho, Mason Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Marcus Rashford and Trent Alexander-Arnold will combine to play a style that is anything but Brexit Ball. 

In other words, the sport, like Britain itself, is becoming increasingly polarized. Slick, attacking football for those at the top, and grinding, ugly Brexit Ball for those at the bottom. Fans of top teams scrutinize clubs who deploy the Brexit Ball tactics, calling them regressive and stubborn. Supporters of the Brexit Ball clubs, meanwhile, see their tactics as their only chance for survival in a sport where the rich keep getting richer. Insults lofted from the ivory towers of Manchester City and Chelsea mean nothing to them. 

After four long years of endless Brexit deliberations and political analysis, this all sounds a bit too familiar.