If you follow football transfers particularly closely you may well have heard the phrase ‘leaving on a Bosman’ but might not have much of a clue of what the saying actually means. It is linked to the transfer of Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian professional footballer who was a midfielder and ended up challenging the rules behind football transfers in 1995, with the decision that was eventually reached changing the face of football.
The case of Bosman had far-reaching consequences for football, with the European Court of Justice deciding that footballers could freely move to another club at the end of their contract. For the man himself, it didn’t offer the sort of grandiose success that one might presume, including the fact that he got divorced during the legal battle and later suffered with depression and alcoholism. This is the story of what happened.
Before the Bosman Ruling
In 1990, Jean-Marc Bosman was a midfielder for the Belgian top-flight side RFC Liege. At the time, players were unable to leave their club at the end of their contract unless the club that owned his contract agreed to allow them to depart or else a fee was agreed with a buying club. In the case of RFC Liege, the fee that they were asking for Bosman was more than any other club was willing to pay.
In addition to being unable to move clubs, Bosman’s wages were also cut by 75%, meaning that he wasn’t earning as much money as he had before and was unable to move to the French club Dunkerque. Bosman was not the first football to suffer such a fate, with many others finding their options limited when they reached the end of their contract and the club that they were registered to refused to allow them to move elsewhere.
That was the way that football worked, with the club owning the player’s contract even after it had expired. The movement of players was, therefore, entirely up to the selling club rather than the players themselves. The club that owned the player could choose to stop them from moving elsewhere unless they received a fee for the move to happen, which therefore limited movement of some players.
Bosman’s Legal Battle
When RFC Liege refused to ask Dunkerque for a sensible fee and dropped Bosman down to their reserves, the Belgian decided that the only solution that was open to him involved taking his club to court. His case was against not just RFC Liege but also the Belgian Football Association and UEFA, all of whom were against players having control of their own destiny when their contracts reached their end.
His argument was that all of the club, the Belgian FA and UEFA were putting a constraint on his ability to work. The case went to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, which considered the various rule and regulations that were already in place. Though both UEFA and FIFA had transfer regulations in place, they mainly encouraged club to come to an agreement rather than outlined what should happen.
Both of the governing bodies of football said that clubs could offer a player a new contract prior to the expiry of their current one, but that the player could turn that contract down. If they did so, however, a club didn’t have to sell them unless a transfer fee was paid. Bosman felt that this limited his options as a player, to say nothing of the fact that RFC Liege only offered him a new contract so that they could demand a transfer fee.
Freedom of Movement
One of the main principles of the European Union, as voters in the Brexit referendum will no doubt remember, is freedom of movement. Workers within the EU should be allowed to move from one place to another without constraints being put on them, as outlined in Article 39 of the Treaty of the European Community, which would later become Article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union.
Bosman claimed that RFC Liege refusing to allow him to move breached his rights to freedom of movement, with the case lasting for about five years. Eventually, the European Court of Justice agreed with him, concluding that professional football constituted an economic activity and was therefore just as subject to EU law as any other form of work. The ECJ made the following statement regarding his freedom of movement:
Since they provide that a professional footballer may not pursue his activity with a new club established in another Member State unless it has paid his former club a transfer fee agreed upon between the two clubs or determined in accordance with the regulations of the sporting associations, the said rules constitute an obstacle to freedom of movement for workers.
The outcome was that the ECJ felt that football associations based in the European Union were obliged to comply with any EU law, including that around the notion of freedom of movement. A club asking for compensation over the expired contract of a player that had played for them breached that principle, meaning that players should be allowed to decide their own fate once their contract had run out.
The Bosman Ruling’s Effect on Football
In the immediate aftermath of the Bosman ruling, the first thing that clubs realised was that they no longer had the power over their players. If a player wished to, they could now run down their contract and move to another club when said contract had expired, without the need to wait for the club that they wanted to move to to agree a transfer fee with the club that had previously held their registration.
Longer Contracts, Higher Pay
As a result, football clubs soon began asking new players to sign longer contracts than they had previously, terrified as they were that they’d lose their players for nothing when their contract ran out. They also looked to add clauses that would allow them to extend the contract of the player whether the player liked it or not. As a result of the longer contracts, players wanted to be paid more money, seeing wage bills increase exponentially.
Another unintended consequence of the Bosman ruling was that clubs started to realise that there was no point in training and developing players, instead being able to simply take a player from another club that had trained and developed them once their contract ran out with the club that had worked with them. Clubs began to contact FIFA and UEFA and ask them to come up with a solution to this problem.
As a result, FIFA worked on a new version of their Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players document, which was eventually settled on after discussion with the European Commission. The new principles were implemented in 2001, with compensation owed for players that sign for a new club under the age of 23 when a transfer fee hasn’t been paid.
Perhaps one of the things that not many people realise was a consequence of the Bosman ruling was the introduction of a transfer window during the off-season and another shorter one mid-season. Players were also allowed to sign contracts that lasted for a minimum of one year and a maximum of five years. The RSTP has been amended a number of times since 2001, but the core principles remain the same.
There was also the fact that teams were only allowed a given number of ‘foreign’ players in their team. When Manchester United lost 4-0 to Barcelona at the Nou Camp in the group stages of the Champions League in 1994, they did so because UEFA had decided that Welsh and Scottish players were ‘foreign’ for English clubs. As a result, Peter Schmeichel was left out of the squad. The ruling also removed this limit and stopped such a thing happening in the future.
What Happened to Bosman Himself?
Before we take a look at some of the players that changed clubs thanks to the Bosman ruling, it is worth spending a moment talking about the man himself. His name will forever be associated with football and transfers, in spite of the fact that the man himself wasn’t actually all that talented on the pitch. The ruling in his favour ended transfer fees being needed for out-of-contract players, as well as a limit to the number of European players in a side, but what did it do for Jean-Marc Bosman?
By the time the European Court of Justice mad its ruling, Bosman was 31. The best years of his footballing career were gone and his marriage had collapsed. He’d had to move back in with his parents and when he tried to play football again no teams wanted to sign him. He didn’t get any compensation from the court case, losing any money he did have on business ventures that didn’t work out.
Soon his circumstances resulted in him falling into a depression, which itself led to him starting to drink heavily and losing friends. In spite of it all, though, he says that he would do it all again, if he had the chance. He said, “Today, when people talk about the Bosman ruling, I know that it means freedom. And for that, I am proud.” It might not have made him happy, but it made him free.
High Profile Bosman Moves
If you want to have a sense of how the Bosman ruling changed the face of football, one of the best things to look at is the number of players that have moved from one club to another as a result of the rule coming into play. There were plenty of players who moved because of the decision in the Bosman case, but not all of them were necessarily high-profile or well-known enough to warrant a mention here.
Edgar Davids began his playing career with Ajax when he made his first-team debut in September of 1991. He went on to help the club win three Eredivisie titles, plus success in the UEFA Cup in 1992. They made the Champions League final in 1996 but he missed one of the penalties after the game had ended in a stalemate, resulting in Juventus winning the trophy that the Dutch side had won the year before.
In the aftermath of the defeat, Davids took advantage of the Bosman ruling to move from the losing team to Italian side AC Milan. One of the best all-round midfielders of his generation, things didn’t work out for Davids in Italy as he’d hoped. He made just 19 league appearances in two years, being sold to Juventus in 1998 for £5.3 million. He enjoyed more success there, but the initial move proved you don’t always get what you want.
Steve McManaman was born into an Evertonian family, which made his move to Liverpool all the more frustrating on the blue side of Merseyside. He established himself as one of the best players at Anfield, but eventually felt that he wasn’t valued enough by the management team and that the contract offer that they made him failed to reflect his importance to the team, causing him to look for another club.
That move came in the form of Real Madrid, who agreed a deal with McManaman to pay him around £14 million over the course of his five year contract. Having scored 66 goals and racked up 39 assists in more than 350 appearances for Liverpool, the Scouser moved to Spain where he made 94 league appearances over four years, scoring eight goals and winning two La Ligas, two Champions Leagues and the Supercopa de España.
Sol Campbell might not be one of the most successful players on this list, but his move from Tottenham Hotspur to Arsenal in 2001 was certainly one of the most controversial. He had been underrated by the youth coaches at West Ham United before he signed up to Spurs’ youth programme, but he soon began to make appearances from the London club’s first team. Even so, he allowed his contract to expire when it reached its end.
That allowed him to follow Steve McManaman’s move in shifting from one massive club to another, but his move took him from Tottenham to their fiercest rivals Arsenal. Labelled a ‘Judas’ by his former club’s supporters, Campbell won’t have minded too much given that he went on to win two Premier League titles and three FA Cups with the Gunners, having only won the League Cup with Spurs.
Michael Ballack’s career began at Chemnitzer FC II before he was promoted to the first team. He then shifted to Kaiserslautem, where he caught the attention of Bayer Leverkusen. As is so often the case with German players that perform well, his 27 goals in 49 appearances for Leverkusen meant that Bayern Munich came calling, who he joined for €12.9 million in 2002, rejecting interest from Real Madrid.
Roman Abramovich’s arrival at Chelsea had changed the face of English football, with money being spent as if it was going out of fashion. This was obviously hugely appealing to certain players, so Ballack decided to run down his contract with Bayern Munich in order to move to the Premier League side in 2006. Though the exact amount paid isn’t known, it is believed that he made about €25 million by moving to West London.
Jürgen Klopp is widely considered to be one of the best managers in the world, with his ability to train players to become better rather than simply spending billions buying new ones when others fail setting him apart from other coaches. Part of that ability can be demonstrated in the success of Robert Lewandowski, who has played for Polish side Lech Poznań before the German took him to Borussia Dortmund in 2010.
As we saw with Ballack, though, it didn’t take long before Bayern Munich wanted to sign him, with the Polish player choosing to run down his contract rather than resign with Dortmund. He signed a pre-contract agreement with Bayern in 2014, moving that summer before going on to become the all-time leading goalscorer in the Bundesliga, winning every trophy there is to win during his playing career.
Whether Lionel Messi technically left Barcelona on a Bosman or not is perhaps a matter of some debate. The reality is that the Spanish giants probably wanted to resign him, but financial difficulties at the Nou Camp meant that it was impossible for them to do so. As a result, Messi ended up joining French side Paris Saint-Germain on a free transfer, with the lack of payment from the Ligue 1 team meaning it was essentially a Bosman.
Regardless, the move meant that Messi could command a huge fee from PSG, with reports suggesting that he was to be paid as much as €35 million per season after tax. The deal signed by Messi was for two years with the option of a third, resulting in him being paid about €2.91 million per month. That is a fee that would almost certainly not have been possible if a transfer fee had been payable on top of the wages.