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The <i>Other</i> Football: Soccer being used in fight to keep U.K. in European Union

A distraught Southampton fan holds her head. Soccer fans in England are being told that a departure from the European Union will lower the quality of play in the Premier League. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)

A distraught Southampton fan holds her head. Soccer fans in England are being told that a departure from the European Union will lower the quality of play in the Premier League. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)  (2005 Getty Images)

It’s called the “Brexit” – a campaign aimed at convincing the electorate of Great Britain in an upcoming referendum to vote to exit the 28-nation political and economic “club" known as the European Union.

The polls are very close, with the Brexit team enjoying a slight edge. That’s likely why the side that wants to stay in Europe is attempting to use soccer as a tool to gain support for its cause.

The argument goes that leaving the E.U. will result in foreign players being denied permits to play for British teams, which would render UK soccer much weaker and poorer.

“The pro-remain campaign have no positive message whatsoever and is resorting purely to trying to frighten British voters," Nile Gardiner, director of the Margaret Thatcher Center for Freedom at the Heritage Foundation in Washington, D.C., told Fox News Latino.

“In reality Brexit is likely to make the Premier League even more of a tour de force and international brand, as current E.U. regulations make it harder for non-European players to play in England,” Gardiner said. “So Brexit will free the Premier League rather than constrain it."

The plan to use soccer as a political weapon in the referendum came to light earlier this year when Karen Brady, a leading pro-Europe campaigner and vice chairman of West Ham United, sent a note to all professional teams in the U.K. arguing that leaving Europe would be catastrophic for the game.

She asked that clubs speak out in favor of staying in the E.U., as it would have “devastating consequences for the economy and the competitiveness of British football,” the Daily Telegraph reported.

Last week, Britain’s government funded media giant, BBC, ran an article on its sports website that said 322 players in the first two tiers of the English and Scottish leagues wouldn’t meet current employment rules to qualify to play. It added that more than 100 premiership players would be out.

Two of the bottom teams of the English Premiership, Aston Villa and Newcastle United, would lose 11 players each, as would Watford, which is in the middle of the standings. Basically all top flight times, they said, would be hit.

All this scare-mongering might convince some soccer fans to vote for staying in Europe, and, given the closeness of the polls, a few thousand extra votes could make the difference.

I would suggest‎ it is alarmist to suddenly see all foreign players have their paperwork rescinded on Day 1 of a Brexit victory.

Somehow I just can't imagine bureaucrats swooping in on a training session and demanding that all players without permits follow them to the airport.

It's just not going to happen.

One aspect not so far discussed in the media is whether Brady’s letter qualifies as government interference of the sort usually sanctioned by FIFA.

Brady was appointed by Prime Minister David Cameron to be his government’s Small Business Ambassador. A year later, she was named a peer in the House of Lords, which is less powerful than the House of Commons but does have the power to delay bills.

In its bylaws, FIFA makes it very clear that governments should not be interfering in the way soccer is run in the country. While this isn’t a classic case of government interference, soccer’s world governing body might, at the very least, make some sort of statement warning against the tactics being used by some in the British government.

The use of soccer as a political tool in this referendum is wrong, but the anti-Brexit side is desperate, and, with the support and backing of the mainstream British media, it’s a tactic that could sadly tip the balance in its favor.

My hope is that common sense will prevail and a backlash will teach the pro-Europe forces to resist meddling with the sport.

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From the wires

UEFA says it has been raided by Swiss police and has handed over evidence of a Champions League television rights contract with an offshore marketing agency implicated in the FIFA bribery scandal.

The contract, reportedly signed by current FIFA President Gianni Infantino in 2006 when he was UEFA legal director, was leaked from the database of Panama-based law firm Mossack Fonseca.

UEFA says it "received a visit from the office of the Swiss Federal Police acting under a warrant and requesting sight of the contracts between UEFA and Cross Trading/Teleamazonas."

European soccer's governing body says it "is providing the Federal Police with all relevant documents in our possession and will cooperate fully."

The contract sold TV rights in Ecuador to the Cross Trading agency owned by two Argentine executives indicted by American federal prosecutors.

The Associated Press contributed to this report.