Bosman’s Sacrifice – How One Player Revolutionised the Transfer Market
It is weird to think of football without the enormous hype that comes with the infamous transfer windows. Neymar’s world-record £198million switch to PSG and the dramatic return of Pogba to Manchester United for £89million in 2016 both reflect the extravagancy of the transfer market in recent memory.
Nevertheless, the fluidity enjoyed by clubs and players was a completely foreign concept before 1995. The freedom for players to switch allegiances and join many clubs throughout their career is something taken for granted in the modern era.
Introducing Jean-Marc Bosman. A Belgium midfielder who in 1983 secured a childhood dream move to the Belgium club Standard Liege. A new chapter filled with optimism however soon fell flat several years later for Bosman.
Reaching the expiration of his contract with the club in 1990 the once harmonious pairing transformed into a bitter stalemate – Standard Liege refused to let Bosman go without receiving a transfer fee despite the player being out of contract and Bosman alternatively was eager to continue his footballing career at rivals RFC Liege.
Whilst both parties envisaged a contest to get their way, neither would have expected five years of legal battles let alone a decision which would globally shake the status quo of player-club relations.
The initial transfer landscape under club transfer rules and UEFA’s ‘3+2’ legislation
The present and rapid transfer landscape is a stark contrast to what it looked like during the 1980s and 1990s. Players faced several limitations if they attempted to transfer clubs, the main two being club transfer rules and then wider nationality clauses such as UEFA’s ‘3+2’ legislation.
Domestically, under the Belgian National Association (URBSFA) and its 1983 federal rules players were by law strongly affiliated to the club they were contracted with. This affiliation was so strong that even if a player’s contract reached the end of its term and the player had reached an agreement to join a new club the original club could still demand a transfer fee to compensate for the ‘training and development’ of said player.
In essence, players whose contracts had expired could be left in limbo by extortionate transfer fee demands which priced out the possibility of a move.
To add further nationality clauses restricted the pool of possible clubs players even had the option to move to. In 1991 UEFA legislated what was coined the ‘3+2’ rule which severely restricted the number of foreign players a team could field and therefore sign.
Under the rule European teams could only field three foreign players plus two who had played in the respective country for an uninterrupted five-year period. The rationale from UEFA was to promote home grown talent nevertheless, the rule thwarted many potential transfers and empowered clubs.
This led to a dynamic where clubs could abuse contractual negotiations as the player’s alternatives were limited by the ‘3+2’ legislation.
What culminated for our protagonist, Jean-Marc Bosman, was a weird state of uncertainty. Under Belgian club transfer rules Standard Liege were demanding an extortionate fee of BF 11,743,000 (Belgium Francs) whilst simultaneously cutting Bosman’s wages by 75 percent.
Bosman under the ‘3+2’ rule could not transfer to a foreign club that could afford this fee and the Belgium side RFC Liege could not either despite agreeing terms with him. Bosman was trapped in football purgatory, opposing a Standard Liege who abused their favourable bargaining position and a system which treated players like cargo.
Bosman’s challenge to the status quo
After seeking legal advice Bosman and his legal team commenced proceedings to sue Standard Liege, the Belgian FA and UEFA. Their argument being that all had played a role in curtailing Bosman’s freedom to move employer which was enshrined under Article 45 of the EU treaty.
It is important to note that at this point EU treaties and legislation was not applicable to the footballing world. Bosman’s case helped reshape this dynamic which can be seen to this day in the recent ECJ Super League decision.
Standard Liege, the Belgian FA and UEFA all opposed the application of Article 45, arguing sport has similarities to culture’s exemption from some EU law under Article 128(1) of the EC Treaty. The viewpoint suggested that as sport is a specific and specialist topic, applying such blanket legislation does not acknowledge its nuanced nature and therefore those in the sector are in the best position to regulate this area.
Nevertheless, the ECJ rejected this argument and championed worker’s freedom of movement must extend to all legislation which is aimed at regulating employment.
Bosman had taken on footballing giants and had remoulded players employment rights in the process. The football world looked on in shock but soon exploded into a frenzy after realising what the ruling meant.
Changing the football world forever
One of the football greats, Sir Alex Ferguson, said the ruling created an absolute ‘free-for-all’ across the footballing world. The Scotsman was absolutely right as the transfer floodgate opened and many stars made international moves.
Ajax was a team particularly hard hit by the newfound freedom. Edgar Davies and Patrick Kluivert both secured moves to AC Milan alongside other Dutch players from the club who moved elsewhere.
More recently, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s dramatic switch to the Premier League with Manchester United in 2016 was founded on the principle. Even football’s best, Lionel Messi, has utilised the freedom created by Bosman in both his moves to PSG and now Inter Miami.
The ruling further empowered players to even be able to negotiate future transfers up to six months before their present contract ends. Player contract negotiations which had previously been club dominated now shifted as players could escape as free agents.
Nevertheless, critics are also keen to highlight the adverse effects of the ruling. Enhanced player power also meant the rise of the football agent. With greater bargaining power now came the need for professional representation who could enforce greater demands such as higher salaries and transfer fees.
With an ever-growing wage bill from players demanding better pay, clubs now sought to increase the overall club revenue to keep up with this. Clubs began commercialising with more brand deals and sponsorship but this also trickled down to increased ticket prices and TV packages for fans.
This is not to say clubs did not suffer either. Clubs who could bank on getting a decent return in a transfer fee for academy products now found these players leaving on free transfers. Equally in an effort to combat this, clubs started issuing long-term player contracts however these soon backfired if said player lost form or motivation whilst still collecting lucrative weekly wages.
Bosman’s effect is now taken as the international norm with the rest of the world outside of Europe now following the principle too. Bosman’s initial aim to free himself from his contractual entrapment has simultaneously redefined the football model’s very structure.
What happened to Bosman after?
Bosman helped countless others to fulfil overseas dreams at some of the largest clubs in the world. However, his own career spiralled into a rut.
Whilst the legal battle can be quickly summarised, in actuality the case dragged on for five years to 1995. During which Bosman football career withered on the sidelines having been suspended by Standard Liege and was blacklisted by football clubs after his momentous win.
You would think whilst losing his football career Bosman would have been compensated heavily from the case outcome. However, due to the length and nature of the proceedings much of this was squandered on legal fees.
Bosman ended up playing semi-pro and amateur football across France and Belgium, but soon fell into bouts of alcoholism, depression and his marriage unravelled leading to divorce.
The extent of his downfall is epitomised by the Belgium now living in his mother’s garage. A sorry state of affairs for arguably one of football’s most influential figures.
A player’s sacrifice has opened a world of empowerment and freedom. Whether we like the effect of Bosman’s resistance, the footballing world is undoubtably enriched by the multi-faceted nature of the talent that now graces the same pitch and makes football the exhilarating game it is.