The Bosman Ruling

jean-marc bosman

All of us, at least occasionally, are guilty of judging footballers in a reductive fashion. We limit them to a set of skills, valuing them only because of the enjoyment they bring us when they play the beautiful game. When they hang up their boots, they often cease to be of any worth or interest to us.

Even when they make the headlines, the story is almost always recast in such a way which brings it back to their abilities on the pitch. “Look what Gazza’s done now,” we cry. “Ronaldinho’s got himself in trouble again, what a shame for a player who was once so great.” There are few in football who have a legacy based on anything other than what they could do with a ball at their feet.

But one player defies the norm. Jean-Marc Bosman was, in the grand scheme of things, an unremarkable footballer. He made a little over a century of appearances over the course of a 12-year career. You could count the number of goals he scored on one hand. But it’s no exaggeration to say that his impact on the professional game is unprecedented.

Jean-Marc Bosman: the player

Bosman, a Belgian midfielder who captained his national team at Under-21 level, began his career in 1983 with his hometown club, Standard Liege. He played 86 times for the First Division side, a number which would turn out to account for the vast majority of his time on a football pitch. In 1988, Bosman made a switch to RFC Liege. It was a move that would alter the course of global football history.

In terms of his on-pitch activities, Bosman’s time at RFC was uneventful. He played just three times in his two years with the club before entering into a legal battle which reverberated around the world of professional sport.

While the case was ongoing, Bosman continued to play football. He spent time with Saint-Quentin in France’s Ligue 2 and for CS Saint-Dennis on Reunion Island. He made just a handful of appearances for both before moving back to Belgium with Olympic Charleroi, an amateur side based in the Hainaut region in the East of the country.

The Ruling

When Jean-Marc’s contract with RFC Liege expired in 1990, he pursued a move to French side Dunkerque. But Bosman, ostensibly in his prime age 25, was valued at £500,000 by RFC, a sum which a lower league club like Dunkerque simply could not afford. No longer a fixture in the first team as he had been in the past, Bosman was relegated to RFC’s reserve side, and his salary was reduced by a whopping 75%.

Brutal, but the norm at a time when player power was almost non-existent for non-superstar footballers like Jean-Marc Bosman. If a player was no longer required on the pitch and a club had to spend barely anything to keep them, it made financial, if not moral sense, for a club to keep them on the books as a potentially lucrative asset.

Driven by both a sense of injustice and bills to pay, Bosman decided to engage in legal proceedings with RFC Liege. This snowballed into a broader case against the Belgian Football Association and, finally, UEFA. The Bosman ruling, as it has since become known, is the consolidation of the results of all three of these cases.

The case went all the way to the European Court of Justice, the supreme legal authority in the European Union, and was concluded in 1995. Far from having significance in football only, the Bosman ruling had far-reaching ramifications in expanding the freedom of movement of workers in the EU.

The court in Luxembourg ruled that in the previous system footballers were essentially the property of their employers, even after their contracts had expired. That meant that players like Bosman, whose deal had run its course but was still essentially trapped by his club, would need to command a transfer fee in order for a transfer to be arranged.

After the landmark case, players in Bosman’s situation were free to negotiate with whatever club they pleased upon the expiration of their contract, and indeed up to six months before that event. It meant that players could sign ‘pre-contract’ – a phrase which has more than 25 years later, become instilled in football’s collective lexicon – agreements with any given club.

Over the years, we’ve seen countless players switch clubs on these pre-emptive deals. In the same legal case, it was also ruled that quotas on foreign players (i.e. a rule which decrees that you can only have a certain number of foreign players in a matchday squad) were partially outlawed. 

Prior to the 1995 ruling, UEFA’s European Competitions – the Champions League, UEFA Cup and Cup Winners’ Cup – prevented participants from including more than three foreign players in the squad for any particular game. Following the outcome of the Bosman case, however, UEFA was forced to modify the rule. It was now the case that a matchday squad could only include three non-EU players, a rule which has remained largely unaltered ever since.

Before and After Bosman

The global game is almost unrecognisable from 1995 when the Bosman case was settled. The money that has flooded into every area of the game has been staggering. However, it is certainly the case that the vast majority of investment and profit has found its way to only the upper echelons of football.

The Bosman ruling was positive in that it meant footballers were able to engineer better and fairer deals for themselves. However, the outcomes were not all rainbows, sunflowers and butterflies. Since 1995 players wages have exploded. While this is not inherently a bad thing, player power has arguably gone too far. While footballers, especially non-superstar ones like Bosman, had relatively little room for bargaining pre-1995, in the modern game the polar opposite is the case.

With players now able to move clubs without commanding a transfer fee, the only way a club has of enticing a player to stay with them is to offer exorbitant wages. If they don’t, players whose contracts are coming to an end often refuse to play for their current clubs; taking the money from the club but not doing the job they are being paid for. While cases like this are still relatively rare, they are not unheard of.

Increased player wages and more wiggle room in terms of finances, has led to more and more middle-men appearing in football. Nowadays, some agents are as much household names as the players themselves – Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola, for example. As well as shelling out for huge transfer fees and wages, clubs now need to consider the fees which are afforded to a player’s agent too.

With money mattering more and more in terms of attracting the best players, smaller clubs have struggled to keep up with the elite on the pitch and in league tables. If we look around Europe’s so-called ‘Big Five’ leagues today, we see the likes of Juventus, Paris Saint-Germain, Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and to a lesser extent Barcelona, enjoying periods of dominance the likes of which were almost unheard in previous eras.

While it took a while for the money in football to rise all the way to the top, now that it has done it looks as though it is there to stay. One only needs to look at the Champions League to see this. Every year we see the same eight or so teams in the latter stages. While there is a very occasional upset, they are rare. The reason why Ajax’s run to the semi-finals in 2018-19 was considered such a major event was because, while a hugely successful club with a rich history and following, they are not part of the financial elite.

Who would have thought that an RFC Liege midfielder’s legal challenge would create such a tangled web? 

The Best Bosman Transfers

Depending on which way you look at it, the Bosman ruling has led to some truly fantastic deals for certain clubs. Some of the world’s best players have been snapped up on free transfers – terrible if you’re a fan of the team they are leaving, but brilliant for the new club.

Two years after the ruling, Serie A side Bologna managed to pick up none other than Roberto Baggio for free. The forward had been playing for AC Milan until 1995 when his contract expired, and then-manager Marcello Lippi told him that he didn’t have a place in his team, a decision the experienced coach would later regret. Baggio was approached by relegation-threatened Bologna and spent an incredibly fruitful season with the club, scoring 22 times in just 30 league appearances. In doing so, he earned himself a place in Italy’s 1998 World Cup squad and not only saved Bologna from the drop but lifted them to an eighth-place finish.

Two years later, Real Madrid took advantage of the Bosman ruling to bring in Steve McManaman from Liverpool. McManaman was given a fair bit of grief from English fans for his decision to sign a pre-contract agreement with the Spanish giants but, in terms of his own career and bank balance, the move was highly successful. He won the Champions League in his first season with the club, La Liga in his second and the Champions League again in his third. Not bad at all for a free transfer.

While with Bosman transfers it is often the case that a big club will poach talent from a minnow, it isn’t always this way. In 2002, Sam Allardyce – then in charge of Bolton – brought the esteemed Jay-Jay Okocha from the salubrious setting of Paris to Lancashire in a deal which would be remembered with huge affection by Wanderers fans. In four years with the club, Okocha would make over 100 appearances, take the captain’s armband and lead Bolton to a League Cup final.

There have been plenty of brilliant Bosmans in recent years too. After a decade with the club, AC Milan decided that Andrea Pirlo was no longer needed at the San Siro. This was much to the delight of Italian rivals Juventus who arranged a deal to bring the regista to the club in 2011. Pirlo would go on to be mesmeric while in the black and white of the Old Lady, playing 164 times in four years and scoring 19 times in the process. With him dictating play, Juve won four successive Scudettos and reached the final of the Champions League in 2015.

Juve have a remarkable talent for picking up players for nothing. Dani Alves, Sami Khedira, Paul Pogba, Emre Can, Aaron Ramsey, Fabio Cannavaro, Adrien Rabiot, Kingsley Coman, Lucio and Fernando Llorente have all joined the club over on free transfers over the past decade.

Aside from Juve’s series of successes, Bayern Munich’s capture of Robert Lewandowski in 2014 is probably the best Bosman signing in the modern era. The Pole has scored a staggering 230 goals for the Bavarians since he arrived from Borussia Dortmund, winning five Bundesliga titles in that time.

Will Brexit Affect Bosman Transfers? 

You will remember that the Bosman ruling was given by the European Court of Justice, the highest legal authority in the European Union. As the United Kingdom officially left the European Union on the 31st January 2020, it is unclear whether football clubs in the country will continue to follow the European Union’s decision regarding free transfers or, as would be their right, to implement their own rules and regulations regarding transfer/tribunal fees for out of contract players.

As it stands, it is overwhelmingly likely that the United Kingdom will adopt the same regulations as the European Union on these kinds of matters. While the decision to leave the EU will undoubtedly affect certain aspects of football in the UK, such as the need for foreign players to have a work permit and alterations to the number of home-grown players in a matchday squad, they will almost certainly retain the core of the EU’s law in the case of Bosman transfers.