For some reason, Jean-Marc Bosman is a man who pops into my head a lot these days when I think about football. For one thing, it’s one of the few points where my career (law) and one of my main interests (football) cross over in a major way.
Bosman’s is some story (I’m surprised no-one’s made a film about it). He was once your average journeyman pro. In 1990, his contract with RFC Liege came to an end; FC Dunkerque in France wanted to pick him up, but the fee RFC demanded was out of their price range. Thus Bosman was therefore stuck in Liege. After his move to Dunkerque broke down, RFC decided, Bosman being surplus to requirements, that his wages should be slashed (by 60%). He sued the Belgian Football Association and the club, and won. The FA and RFC appealed; Bosman won the appeal. The FA and RFC appealed again, this time being granted a reference to the European Court of Justice (“ECJ”).
The ECJ finally gave their ruling on 15 December 1995, more than five years after Bosman had initially tried to leave RFC Liege. The ECJ ruled that, because people should be allowed to move freely among the countries of the EU to work (and that no special dispensations should apply for football), that Bosman was free to leave RFC Liege at the end of his contract, and sign for FC Dunkerque. Furthermore, this ruling was to extend to all footballers making their living at football teams in the EU; once they reached the end of their contracts, they could leave. If their club wanted to keep them, they would have to negotiate a new deal.
Of course, by 1995, Bosman had long since stopped playing football. His life had been consumed by hearing after hearing, making his case to the great and good of the European legal system. His marriage broke down, and by the time he finally won his case, he was famously sleeping in his parents’ garage. By that time, his career was over, but he had completely changed football forever.
The first big Bosman transfer I can remember (though no doubt there were other more important ones) was John Collins’ big move to Monaco from Celtic in 1996. I also vaguely recall Fergus McCann trying to argue that as Monaco wasn’t in the EU, the transfer couldn’t go ahead under Bosman. He was wrong, and the floodgates opened thereafter, and have continued to do so apace.
Bosman has served to completely alter the fabric of the transfer market, and the balance of power between club and player. The major effect of this has been two-fold. Firstly, wages in particular have become vastly inflated as clubs either seek to keep their best players from going for nothing. See Wayne Rooney’s recent exercise in brinkmanship for a more modern example of this, but there are plenty of them throughout the last few years. It has served to fundamentally shift the balance of power from the clubs to the players, and to a lesser extent the shadowy football agent.
Secondly, and more markedly from the point of view of a lower league club fan, but less so for probably most other people, the fact that one is likely to see a whole new team arrive and depart in every pre-season. Following a club at East Fife level can make for interesting viewing, trying to keep up with who’s arrived, who’s gone and who’s had the decency to sign on to the Methil dream for another year. There have certainly been a couple of seasons in the recent past where I’ve seen East Fife lose 10-11 players and sign up a similar number. Johnathan Smart, indeed, was at East Fife for 6 years, and was thus seen as something of a stalwart.
And what of Jean-Marc Bosman himself? Last accounts (in the Sun and on Wikipedia) put him as a lonely, depressed, penniless alcoholic, stuck in a rut because he had the courage of his convictions and he knew something was wrong with the system. Bosman suffered horrendously during the case, as I mention above. That he still, 16 years on, finds himself in such a state is quite a sad indictment on modern football. That the man who helped Keane, Rooney, Tevez et al earn millions is in that position is frankly tragic.
My mission would be this: that FIFPro (the world players’ union) organises is so that the top 10 paid players at each of the Champions League clubs donates £100 per week or their salary to Bosman. It should happen – the man has suffered so others may gain – but it never will, and that is why football is in the state it currently finds itself.