Quick Reads

How the Bosman Ruling Changed Football Forever

To start with let’s look at a few questions. Have you ever heard of players receiving a signing on fee when they sign for a new club? Of course. Have you ever heard of that fee becoming hugely inflated when that player moves on a free transfer? Sure you have. What about football agents, are you familiar with them? Who isn’t!? Well, you can thank Jean-Marc Bosman for playing an enormous role in all of the above.

Who is Jean-Marc Bosman?

As a footballer, Bosman was a steady, if not spectacular player who operated in an attacking midfield role. He made a handful of appearances for Belgium at youth level and the best known side he played for on the domestic front was Standard Liege.

In the late eighties, Bosman left Standard and joined Royal FC Liege, who at the time were a strong outfit in his native country, but Bosman’s career hit the skids and, fast forward two years, and the two parties in question were wrapped in a legal standoff that would change the face of football – forever.

The Legal Battle

It was 1990 and Bosman’s contract at RFC Liege had reached its end, which is something that happens every summer to dozens of players nowadays but back then even if the player had suitors who wanted them it wasn’t a straight forward transaction.

It sounds somewhat bonkers today but, despite being out of contract, a transfer fee still had to be agreed and the club could hold out for as much as they wanted with no such things as tribunals to settle differences. Of course, free transfers still existed but only if the ‘parent club’ authorised such a release.

In Bosman’s case, Dunkirk – a second division side in France – wanted to sign him but RFC Liege priced them out of a deal and no fee was agreed. Bosman was offered a new deal at RFC but the club held all the power and, with Bosman over a barrel, the terms on offer were greatly reduced. Needless to say, Bosman was not a happy man and refused to sign the deal in a move that saw him ostracised by the Belgian footballing authorities.

Bosman took his case, which was against RFC Liege, the Belgian FA and UEFA, to the European Court of Justice with his legal representatives Luc Misson and Jean-Louis Dupont citing a failure to allow Bosman, an EU citizen, freedom of movement. Five years on and Bosman’s career had frittered away to nothing but on 15th December 1995 the court finally found in his favour and the Bosman ruling was born.

The Impact

When the ruling was made all those years ago Bosman couldn’t have imagined the impact it would have on today’s game as seldom does a transfer window pass without numerous utterances of the word ‘Bosman’.

The key change to the footballing rule book was that players could move on at the end of their contract without a fight but, with such ability, the power shifted away from clubs and ‘player power’ became a thing. Now when a player is available on a free transfer a lot of the ‘saving’ i.e. what would have been the transfer fee, is wound into the players contract in the form of a signing on fee and mammoth wages. It isn’t just when on the move that the Bosman law drives wages up though as the parent club knows they can lose a player for nothing and they may consider offering an inflated wage to retain the services of that player.

Of course, where money-spinning contracts are concerned there will always be people sniffing around and agents quickly became a mainstream part of football and now you’ll be hard pressed to find a player in the professional game who doesn’t have one and their ‘cut’ of a deal can sometimes mirror that of the player thus driving the costs up even higher.

It’s perhaps tough to feel too bad for football clubs having to shell out for big contracts and agent fees when they’re swimming in cash but the truth is the Bosman ruling inadvertently created – or certainly supported – the financial divide that the game we love now has. The teams with the biggest bank balances can offer the biggest wages and talented players can run their contracts down and jump ship with virtual no risk.

The other significant impact the Bosman ruling had was on squad limitations in European competitions. Prior to the Bosman case teams were only allowed to field three ‘foreigners’ with a further two allowed if they’d come through the ranks at a club but after the ruling there was no limit on the number of EU players.

Where is Bosman Now?

You might expect the man behind such a revolutionary movement to be involved with a governing body in the sport but you’d be wildly off the mark. Bosman, who was only 25 at the time, saw his career fall off a cliff after challenging Liege and whilst he received a £300k settlement – peanuts in today’s game – depression and alcohol reportedly took over leaving Bosman with next to nothing.

Without the legal challenge very few would know who Bosman was. The question is, would he rather it that way?

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Mike Pedley

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