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Dec 15, 2011

The Bosman effect

On December 15, 1995, the football world was forced to embrace a concept that would forever change the way that business in the game was conducted. Little-known Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman had won a landmark case at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg that would allow him to move clubs without any transfer fee being paid following the expiration of his contract. The ruling, which found its roots in EU legislation designed not to restrict the 'free movement' of workers, paved the way for others to be signed 'on a Bosman' and ensured that some of the power that was wielded by the clubs was given back to the players.

As football became more of a commercial enterprise in 1970s, it was not long before the European Community (now the European Union) took more of an interest in how it was run. Alongside every other aspect of European life, football was not exempt from reforms in law on the continent, and the EC Treaty of Rome in 1957 contained an article that would ultimately have a massive impact on the sport.

The movement of footballers between European teams had been based on the provision of a transfer fee, with the buying club coming to an agreement with the seller. The power was in the hands of the employer as this rule applied regardless of whether a player's contract had expired or not. Any out-of-contract player was forced to plead for a free transfer, or await the payment of a fee that would allow them to continue their career elsewhere.

UEFA's system at the time also contained within it 'quotas' that were designed to limit the number of foreign players who could play for a club. In principle it was lauded by some as vital for the protection of the domestic game, but it still flew in the face of European law and in particular the necessity for "freedom of movement" that was found within Article 48 of the Treaty of Rome (now Art. 39 of the EU Treaty).

David McArdle, in his book From Boot Money to Bosman: Football, Society and the Law, reveals: "UEFA had traditionally regarded itself as immune from external legal regulation and entitled to run its fiefdom in whatever way it saw. At various times, UEFA has been accused of acting in restraint of trade, placing unlawful restrictions on individuals' freedoms of movement, engaging in racial discrimination and encouraging concerted practices. But the two practices that caused the most concern within the Community were the use of 'quotas' to control the numbers of foreign players at each club and the transfer fee system."

Discussions over reform had moved at an incredibly slow pace after a meeting in 1978 between the EC and UEFA, in which the organising body agreed that it would abolish the quota system and amend its policy over transfers. Four years later, no progress had been made and the EC threatened legal action if 'free movement' was not introduced ahead of the 1986-87 season. Yet, with UEFA continuing to drag its heels over reform, a gentleman's agreement was not put in place until 1991.

The acceptance of an agreement was a big step, but one with a fatal flaw. It allowed the domestic leagues to set their own upper limits on foreigners and was subject to a UEFA-imposed minimum limit of three non-nationals and two assimilated players (who had been in the country for five years). Ultimately, as they were given the choice, the national leagues simply used the minimum quota as their maximum and little changed.

But the winds of change were brewing in Belgium. In 1989, author Stephen Weatherhill had warned in his book Discrimination on the Ground of Nationality in Sport that ''the organisation of football appears to be on a collision course with more than one area of the EC Treaty'' and so it proved.

A year earlier, the journey had begun as low-profile Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman joined SA Royal Club Liegois from Standard Liege on a salary of 120,000 Belgian francs per month. Bosman had signed a two-year contract and, after struggling to impress, was offered another as it expired in the spring of 1990 on reduced terms. In fact, the salary offer was cut to 30,000 francs (the lowest allowed by the Belgian FA) and, unsurprisingly, it was rejected and Bosman was placed on the transfer list.

The complex transfer rules in Belgium saw his fee set at 12 million francs ($348,000) - a figure that would see little interest in his services. However, in May, Bosman was able to negotiate a one-year deal with French Second Division side Dunkerque for a tenth of that price. Dunkerque would be able to sign him permanently for 4.8 million francs in August and all seemed amiable until RC Liegois began to have doubts that the fee would actually be paid and delayed their application for the paperwork required. As a result, the deal collapsed and Bosman was suspended.

Taking the club to court, Bosman sued in three separate cases over the next three years. First, against RC Liegois, who were not paying him a wage while he looked for a new club; second, against the legality of the Belgian FA's transfer system; while the third, against UEFA for breaching the 1957 Treaty - citing the 'freedom of movement' argument among others - was taken to the European Court of Justice (ECJ).

As he attempted to continue his career with short spells at lower division clubs in France and Belgium, Bosman's case dragged on, but he was beginning to make headway against some weighty opposition from UEFA and FIFA. By 1995, it was clear that something would have to change. In March, Belgium's highest court rejected an appeal against the proceedings by UEFA and, in September, the Advocate-General Carl Otto Lenz advised the ECJ to rule in Bosman's favour.

Amid headlines of 'Bosman ruling signals chaos' and 'Game under threat', the case had begun to gain more recognition in the self-interested British media. With Dennis Bergkamp's £7.5 million move to Arsenal in June (which would see him double the wage packet of Ruud Gullit when he had joined Chelsea) and the British transfer record broken for a second time in a month with Stan Collymore's £8.5 million transfer from Nottingham Forest to Liverpool, money was a hot topic.

The fear, according to The Guardian's John Duncan, was that "a change in the system could lead to the assets of clubs like Manchester United and Blackburn Rovers wiped out by a football version of the Wall Street Crash" and that it would only ''make the rich clubs richer and hit smaller clubs who stay in business by developing and selling their players." Indeed, FA chief executive Graham Kelly revealed his concerns, saying: "It is potentially a very explosive case. If the judge finds in his [Bosman's] favour then it could sound a death knell of the transfer system."

Even FIFA and all the power that it wields was helpless. The organisation had thrown its considerable weight behind the European-based opposition to Bosman, stating: ''It is clear that a small group of countries cannot be granted an exemption from sports regulations which are effective in all parts of the world and which operate successfully and efficiently and for the benefit of football at all levels." UEFA president Lennart Johansson simply warned: ''The process will create a mess."

Then, on December 15, the final decision was announced. The ECJ ruled that it was illegal for clubs to stop players from moving on a free transfer once their contracts had expired, and banned the restrictions on the number of EU players. A delighted Bosman emerged from the courtroom to say: ''The law of the jungle has been abolished.''

Opinions remained divided over how beneficial the ruling was to the game. The first team to be hit hard were the reigning Champions League holders, Ajax, who saw their young team picked apart with the loss of Clarence Seedorf, Kanu, Patrick Kluivert and Edgar Davids - the latter becoming the first major star to move on a free when he joined AC Milan. However, the players relished their new-found freedom and those who stayed used the power to negotiate themselves better contracts.

After years of fighting, Bosman's role in changing the face of game was complete and ITV's Encyclopaedia of Football described the ruling thus: ''It will go down in football history as the day the sky fell on more than a century of financial and contractual tradition... Until then, players had been little more than personified banknotes in the game's financial structure."

What happened next? Bosman's case was one of the most far-reaching pieces of legal action in football history. In giving players the power that had once been held by their clubs, the game was radically changed and, for the first time, more was spent on foreign stars than homegrown players - £182 million compared to £158.2 million - in England in 1999. (The season also saw arguably Britain's most high-profile free transfer as Steve McManaman left Liverpool for Real Madrid.)

Bosman, himself, felt the weight of the ruling more than anyone and succumbed to depression after slipping out of the limelight. Becoming an alcoholic, his marriage broke up and he lost his entire savings. After a stint on the French Indian Ocean island of Reunion, and at Belgian side Charleroi, he quit the game but was forced to go back through the Belgian courts to hear various appeals and was eventually given 16 million Belgian francs (around $464,000) as compensation in 1998. "Even if this is not a huge amount, it is very important because it allows him to stop being the Bosman affair and to return to being Jean-Marc Bosman," his lawyer revealed.

Ultimately the man who changed the face of football business did not come to reap the benefits of his struggle. "I don't want everything I did in my life to be for nothing. I'm happy for footballers earning a lot of money. I'm not jealous. I gave my career so European players wouldn't work like slaves," he told The Sun in 2011. "I just want to be recognised. People know there's a 'Bosman ruling' but they don't realise there's a guy who has given everything, who became an alcoholic."

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