If Jean-Marc Bosman had tried to transfer from RFC Liege to another Belgian club in 1990, to Lokeren or Westerlo or St. Truiden, he probably would have had a nice, if anonymous, career as a journeyman midfielder. His marriage might still be intact. He probably wouldn’t be broke and living with his mother. He might be a coach or general manager with a pro club somewhere.
The rest of the world would have never heard of him, either.
Instead, Bosman (above) tried to transfer from RFC Liege to USL Dunkerque, maybe five miles across Belgium’s southwest border into France. That changed everything, including, of course, the face of professional soccer as we know it.
Because the proposed transfer now involved more than one nation, Bosman’s lawsuit against Liege wound up in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. And it was the ECJ’s 1995 decision, applicable to all 49 members of the European Union, that profoundly altered the way pro clubs across the planet acquire and keep players. The 10-year anniversary of the Bosman Ruling, as it came to be known, was last Thursday. Some say the sport still hasn’t recovered.
“Imagine if it was decreed that from tomorrow traffic lights would no longer exist,” European soccer agent Jon Smith told London’s Daily Mail newspaper. “That is what happened to football 10 years ago. It was absolute chaos.”
Bosman was an obscure 25-year-old midfielder with RFC Leige when his contract expired after the 1989-90 season. Cash-strapped Liege offered him a new contract with an alleged 75-percent pay cut; Bosman refused it. Bosman worked a deal that would send him to Dunkerque in France. Liege demanded a reported $900,000 transfer fee, a ridiculous sum for a player of his caliber; Dunkerque refused.
So Bosman sued. The case went through the Belgian courts and then to the EU’s version of the Supreme Court. A few days before the ECJ was set to issue its ruling, Bosman claimed he was offered nearly $1 million by European soccer officials to drop the case.
Despite desperate pleas from FIFA and all 49 European soccer federations, the ECJ found that the old transfer system contravened the Treaty of Rome, the 1957 economic agreement that provided for free movement of laborers within what would become the European Union. That meant once a player’s contract expired, he was free to seek employment anywhere. That meant free agency.
Ten years on, the tectonic shift in power from clubs to players remains a constant source of debate.
Some say it led to bankruptcy of smaller clubs that could no longer rely on transfer fees for homegrown talent, since bigger clubs could merely wait for a player’s contract to expire and snap him up for free. Others say it led to the influx of South American and African players now that Euros didn’t count as foreigners. Others blame it for the recent struggles of national teams from traditional European powers such as England and Germany, reasoning that young players in those countries don’t properly develop because they are bumped out of club lineups by high-priced foreigners.
As for Bosman, he bounced around the Belgian second and third division until retiring in 1996, shortly after the ECJ issued its landmark decision. He waited several years for a settlement from Liege, and the intervening financial difficulties, he has said, led to his divorce.
He is 41 now and lives with his mother in a small house in suburban Liege, surviving on modest donations from players’ associations and what’s left of the legal settlement. He also remains a pariah in his sport, unable to find a job as a coach or general manager. “An outcast,” his attorney says.