Jean-Marc Bosman: small-time pro who changed football and its finance forever

Everyone in European football should know his name, yet few of them would know where he lives or recognise him in the street.

Twenty years ago next week, Jean-Marc Bosman, a little-known midfielder from the smaller of two clubs in a small Belgian city, won a landmark legal battle that gave players greater rights to switch teams. It ultimately led to Real Madrid, Barcelona and Manchester United assembling rosters of talent from across the globe with pin-ups such as David Beckham, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi on contracts worth millions.

“My name is Bosman but even if I’m not remembered, the Bosman ruling will be remembered,” says the former player, now 51. “It’s the case of the century.”

The Belgian and his lawyers are as pivotal to the wealth of European football stars as the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch and his accountants. Along with the 1990s explosion in television revenue, the Bosman ruling unleashed a boom that transformed the sport into what it is today, a competition between the super-rich on the field as well as off it.

It all came about after Royal Football Club de Liege, Bosman’s club, refused to allow him to join USL Dunkerque in France without a fee once his contract had expired. Bosman embarked on years of court battles that ended with a ruling at the European Court of Justice that not only gave players across the continent free agency, but also tore up domestic restrictions on the number of foreigners in a team.

Bosman became to European football what Curt Flood is to American baseball after his stand-off led to free agency. Football professionals changing clubs after their contracts were finished were said to be going “on a Bosman” – a free transfer.

There are other similarities: rather than revelling in riches, both also ended up with relative rags.

After burning through the 16 million Belgian francs (about Dh1.7m at the time) compensation he won from the national football association in 1998, Bosman had little to fall back on. There were no fast cars and sponsorship deals that made players household names off the pitch. For the Belgian, it was a legal bill, state handouts and a life that unravelled into a battle with addiction.

“In the world of football, I was no longer welcome,” he says. “I won the right for the free circulation of players. I didn’t get many thank yous.”

The case took more than five years to progress, during which time Bosman was “stymied” from playing during his late 20s, typically the peak of a football player’s career, according to Daniel Geey, a partner at the sports-law firm Sheridans.

“It came as a large shock to national and international governing bodies that EU courts were willing to impose fundamental freedom principles, that a club couldn’t stop a player from moving,” says Mr Geey. “It seems quite straight-forward now but it wasn’t then. He gambled away his career.”

The repercussions went beyond Europe as far away as Brazil, the South American nation that has traded more players around the world than any other, and the ruling led to a “revolution”, according to Marcos Motta, a sports lawyer.

There were other less fortunate consequences of the Bosman ruling. Some great winners from history have been left a shadow of their former selves.

Teams such as Ajax, the Amsterdam club that competed for top honours until the European court upended the sport, have fallen a long way behind the game’s richest. The last of its four European Cups came in 1995, the same year Bosman won his case. What followed was an exodus of top talent as the richest teams stockpiled the best players.

“In the end, it led to instability in football,” says Raffaele Poli, the co-founder and head of the Swiss CIES Football Observatory.

The ruling coincided with a nascent boom in European football, with money from broadcasters helping to transform the sport from the dark days of 1980s hooliganism and crumbling stadiums.

The continent’s most lucrative competition, the English Premier League, will begin a new £5.1 billion (Dh28.43bn) three-year domestic TV contract next season and is home to most of the best-paid football players on the planet. As well as attracting the best players from across Europe, provincial teams such as West Bromwich Albion can call upon Venezuelan strikers, midfielders from Benin and defenders from Costa Rica.

Without Bosman, there would be no US$5bn-a-year transfer market. And it is a far cry from when players from different parts of Britain were considered exotic, according to the former England national team coach Graham Taylor.

“I remember we signed a couple of players from Scotland and it was like a big thing,” Mr Taylor recalls of his own playing career in the 1960s.

“At the end of the day football is a worldwide game.”

Follow The National’s Business section on Twitter

Share This Post