This case and its impact on professional football in the European Union changed the nature of player movement and fundamentally altered the relationship between players and clubs in Europe, specifically the transfer market, free agency and league restrictions on international players.
Before this case, the Union Royale Belge des Societes de Football Asociation (URBSFA) and other soccer federations from other countries in Europe considered themselves immune from the effects of European Union (EU) free market regulation.
This landmark judgement completely changed the way footballers are employed, allowing professional players in the European Union (except for Malta where the illegal parameter system at the end of the contract is still legal) to move freely to another club at the end of their contract with their present team.
Like current society, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer.
The Bosman case has widened the gap between the rich and poor clubs. Where in the seventies, prior to the Bosman ruling, a club such as Nottingham Forest could win two Champions League titles in a row, small clubs like Nottingham no longer have the ability to compete on the European stage. After Bosman, players from the European Union could freely move from a team to another inside the EU. In 1996-97, Real Madrid, with Fabio Capello as a coach, won the league with a team with players such as Illgner (Germany), Panucci (Italian), Secretario (Portugal), Roberto Carlos and Zé Roberto (Brasil), Seedorf (Netherlands), Mijatovic (Montenegro) and Suker (Croatia) plus Petkovic (Serbia) who remained from the season before. In the 95-96 season, Real Madrid only had Freddy Rincón (Colombia), Laudrup (Denmark) and Zamorano (Chile). Esnáider and Redondo, both Argentinian, were there for both seasons but they had Spanish passport so they did not count as foreigners1.
Another example is the 1998.1999 Deportivo de la Coruña with 19 foreigners on the team, on a roster of 25 players2.
This is a direct result of another big change since Bosman: the limitation of the number of players having the nationality of the other Member States who may be fielded in a match. From a “three plus two” rule where only three foreigners could be on the field plus another two on the bench, to an unlimited number of players in the field or bench and in the roster.
5 years of litigation modified a system that was showing flaws since 1960.
The Court decision was made on December 15th of 1995, after five years of litigation between all the parties involved. The Bosman case involved several issues, but this blog will only mention the transfer and nationality rules.
In the early 1900s, a player had to request a transfer if he wanted to move to a different club. But, if the club refused to let him go, the player had no recourse. In essence, the club “owned” their players. Today, in the English Premier League (EPL) some players still write a “transfer request” but it is just a letter of intention; it has no effect, apart from publicly announcing that the player is trying to leave the club.
Around 1960, we have the first change of the rules: a player named George Eastham took this rule in front of the High Court, who ruled the transfer system in place was an unreasonable restraint on trade. That decision changed the transfer system and, from then on, a player could leave for free if his contract had expired unless the team offered him a new contract, in which case a fee would have to be paid to the club. This is important for this case because the High Court did not specify how much has to be the offer to the player in order to keep his rights. The freedom given with this ruling was still very limited because a team could offer a player a very low salary in order to get a transfer fee for him or retain him at the club. After the Eastham case, these were some of the transfer rules in European soccer prior to Bosman:
- All professional players’ contracts run to 30 June. Before the expiry of the contract, and by 26 April at the latest, the club must offer the player a new contract, failing which he is considered to be an amateur for transfer purposes and thereby falls under a different section of the rules. The player is free to accept or refuse that offer.
- If no transfer takes place, the player’s club of affiliation must offer him a new contract for one season on the same terms as that offered prior to 26 April. If the player refuses, the club has a period until 1 August in which it may suspend him, failing which he is reclassified as an amateur. A player who persistently refuses to sign the contracts offered by his club may obtain a transfer as an amateur, without his club’s agreement, after not playing for two seasons.
A latter-day version of the slave trade was removed
Janssen Van Raay was a Dutch Europarliamentarian who pushed a report to the European Parliament in 1989 that described the transfer system of professional football as:
“a latter-day version of the slave trade, a violation of the freedom of contract and of the freedom of movement guaranteed by the Treaties”3.
The post-Bosman era is completely different. Now, the power has shifted almost completely from the clubs to the players. Salaries and opportunities have increased for the average professional player, but the top players, in particular, have seen the greatest benefit. Right now, a player can legally start a negotiation of a contract with a club other than his current one 6 months before the contract expires. Most contracts expire on June 30th, due to the length of European seasons that normally end by the beginning of June. Therefore, on January 1st, any player in the final year of his contract can take advantage of the Bosman rule and put himself on the market, which can put pressure on teams to either renew them for a higher salary or sell him for a low transfer fee.
In terms of limitations on foreigners in the roster, thanks to the Bosman rule, the UEFA rule contains no nationality conditions whatsoever because, after the decision, within the EU such conditions are illegal. The European Commission stated that the UEFA rule was legal in a statement on May 2008 and that a review would take place in 2012. UEFA unveiled its proposals in February 2005 and they received the support of the national associations at the governing body’s Congress in Tallinn two months later4.
1. Bdfutbol.com. (2016). Plantilla del Real Madrid 1996-97. [online] Available at: http://www.bdfutbol.com/es/t/t1996-972.html [Accessed 18 Nov. 2016].
2. Bdfutbol.com. (2016). Plantilla del Deportivo de La Coruña 1998-99. [online] Available at: http://www.bdfutbol.com/es/t/t1998-9913.html [Accessed 18 Nov. 2016].
3. latimes. (1989). European Government Seeking to Give Soccer Players More Freedom. [online] Available at: http://articles.latimes.com/1989-04-23/sports/sp-2028_1_transfer-fees-european-parliament-body-of-europe an-soccer [Accessed 19 Nov. 2016].
4. UEFA.com. (2016). Member associations – News – UEFA.com. [online] Available at: http://www.uefa.com/memberassociations/news/newsid=296381.html [Accessed 18 Nov. 2016].
By Jose Campos