Will we see the end of the Bosman rule?


For many of you reading this post, you won’t remember a time when footballers were bound to their club, even when their contract expired.

Prior to December 1995 football was very different to industry it is today.

Back then professional clubs in the UK (and some parts of Europe) were able to prevent players from joining a club the same or another country even if their contracts had expired.

In the United Kingdom, Transfer Tribunals had been in place since 1981 to resolve disputes over fees between clubs when transferring players at the end of their contracts.

The Bosman ruling meant that players could move to a new club at the end of their contract without their old club receiving a fee. Players can now agree a pre-contract with another club for a free transfer if the players’ contract with their existing club has six months or less remaining.

The ruling led to clubs trying to tie down players to 5 year contracts, some clubs attempted to offer longer contracts, but a cap was quickly imposed on the maximum length of a contract.

Before the ruling, it was quite common for a player to be given a one ear contract, particular older players, because the clubs knew they had power over the players.

‘So, why couldn’t a player just sign for another club if his contract had expired?’

In short, the European Freedom of Movement law had only recently come into effect and prior to that the football clubs retained a player’s registration until another club paid for it.

Players could be in limbo for years and more often than not be forced to sign a new contract so they could play football than sit at home. We had players on ‘week to week contracts’ to enable them to play while a transfer was arranged or a new contract signed.

It was not unheard of for a player to retire and attempt a comeback a year or two down later only to find that they had to negotiate with their former club to release the registration.

The nearest situation we can compare it to today is regarding under 23 players who, more or less, are in the same situation. In this situation the club which is losing the player has to receive compensation from the club signing the player because the losing club has developed him. In effect a club owns a player, a person.

Think what happened between Palace and Tottenham regarding John Bostock. Even prior to 1995, transfer tribunals had a reputation of injustice with regard to fees they passed judgement on.

Jean-Marc Bosman’s situation was typical of players everywhere. He was an average player, playing for a mid-table club. But he took a stand… Some would say he took the dugouts and corner flags too!

Bosman played for RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division in Belgium whose contract had expired in 1990. He wanted to change teams and move to Dunkerque, a French team. However, Dunkerque refused to meet his Belgian club’s transfer fee demand, so Liège refused to let him go.

In the meantime, Bosman’s wages were reduced as he was no longer a first-team player. He took his case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and sued for restraint of trade citing FIFA’s rules regarding football, specifically Article 17.

The case was submitted on 6th October 1993 and was officially listed as UEFA v Jean-Marc Bosman and took just over two years to receive a judgement.

On 15 December 1995 the court ruled that the system, as it was constituted, placed a restriction on the free movement of workers and was prohibited by Article 39 of the EC Treaty (now Article 45) of the Treaty on the functioning of the European Union.

Bosman and all other EU football players were given the right to a free transfer at the end of their contracts, with the provision that they were transferring from a club within one EU Association to a club within another EU Association.

Football was never the same again… However, all the doom and gloom merchants who predicted that big money transfers would be a thing of the past because “who’d want to pay £10m for a player who could leave for nothing in 5 years time?” Have been proved to be wrong.

With the £100m transfer of Paul Pogba to Manchester United they could, theoretically, lost all of that money if in 5 years time no new contract has been agreed. He’d be able to leave for nothing at all… Unless we have left the EU by then and the Bosman Rule is no longer valid in the UK in which case, maybe Paul Pogba will never be allowed to leave Manchester United.

So, 21 years on, was the Bosman Rule good for football? It made a lot of top footballers rich. It made a lot of mediocre footballers rich too but the expected crumbling of the transfer system never materialised. It might have stopped it’s progress for a couple of years but look at where we are today.

It has to be a positive thing for footballers to not being bound to a club if they are unhappy there but look at what usually happens. A player forces a move because a club does not want to lose a potential transfer fee. Saido Berahino is a prime example of a player determined to cost his club money.

There is good and bad with both systems. If used in the correct spirit everyone wins. The trouble is that there is always someone out for themselves.

It will be interesting to see what happens when, or indeed if, we ever leave the EU.

Recommended reading:

The Guardian – I think I did something good, I gave players rights
Daily Mail – Jean-Marc Bosman took on football and won 20 years ago
Daily Telegraph – He paid a heavy price for beating the system

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