The seismic Bosman judgment celebrates its 25th anniversary
Last 15 December, the Bosman ruling is exactly 25 years old. It is said to be one of the most impactful cases regarding the European football world: what are its effects and how did it come into being? In an interview with Sporza, sports economist at Erasmus School of Economics Thomas Peeters sheds a light on these questions.
The beginning of a new era
In Belgium, a football player named Jean-Marc Bosman was working on his career in the late eighties. When his contract at Club Liège ended in 1990, he had to make an important decision: what was to be his next step? Negotiations with his employer did not work out, but he saw another opportunity: a French club called Dunkerque wanted to recruit him. Contrary to the present, Bosman wasn’t considered an ‘employee’ of Club Liège, which effectively meant that he had to get authorisation before he could make his very much desired transfer. This was the fatal occurrence to his aspirations of a continuation of his professional career: Club Liège demanded a transfer fee equivalent to €250.000,-. Dunkerque wasn’t able to collect the money in time, so the transfer didn’t succeed and Bosman couldn’t reach an agreement with his current employee, making him unemployable.
Bosman filed suit against European football association UEFA and Belgian football association KBVB. His suit was based upon the argument that there is free movement of labour in the European Union, making the power of football clubs and football associations unlawful. Even though no one deemed Bosman to stand a chance, he finally won after a five-year process.
The judgment made a huge impact on European football. Before the ruling, football clubs were only allowed to have a maximum of three foreign players: this is a stark contrast with the current situation, where there’s often more foreign than domestic players. In addition to this, football players were recognized as employees and thereby given the freedom to play anywhere in the European Union and at any club. This was one of the most important changes: Peeters points out that before the ruling, a player’s license was owned by his football club. This meant that Bosman wasn’t able to exercise his profession, couldn’t find another job and didn’t get paid.
In the long run however, another ambiguous effect occurred according to Peeters. Since there is no longer any limitation to the amount of foreign players, an impulse was given to the already strong football countries. Leagues such as the Premier League and La Liga attracted the best players against high salaries. Tiny countries and leagues aren’t able to keep up and compete with these salaries, implying a growing quality gap between strong and weak football countries. This is a vicious circle: since better players make a league more attractive, tv revenues increase, giving football clubs a higher purchasing power to contract even more sound football players. On a club and league level, this means that smaller clubs and leagues lose the battle to giants such as Juventus, Chelsea and FC Barcelona. On the other hand, national teams have been given a quality boost: since a country’s best players have the opportunity to play football in other countries and within and against all-star teams, these players are incentivized to reach their full potential and seek their limits. In this way, national teams are built with the best players that are constantly challenged by others.
Possible alterations to the system
Football clubs have been able to modify the rules in such a way that transfer sums still are viable. Peeters: ‘imagine that your contract still has a duration of six months with a salary of 500.000 euros. For such a player, it is still natural that amounts of 10 million euros are paid; the judgment didn’t change that at all. The system has been recycled, but has entered again via a back door’. The conclusion has to be the following: these transfer sums are not at all proportional to some players’ actual worth.
Another change that has to be made, regards the age of some players that are transferred to another country. Many young players with an age of fifteen or sixteen years leave with their parents for a foreign country to then fail. That’s not a good evolution: these families have sacrificed a lot for a career in a lower league: in these situations, the sacrifices are not worth the benefits.