The Summer That Football Needed

In 1995, a footballer called Jean-Marc Bosman appeared in The European Court of Justice in a case against Union Royale Belge des Sociétés de Football Association ASBL.  Bosman was seeking a decision concerning freedom of movement for workers, freedom of association, and direct effect of article 39 (now article 45 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union) of the TEC.

Bosman was a professional footballer for  RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division.  His contract with the club had expired in 1990 and he wanted to move to Dunkerque in France. Dunkerque, however, refused to meet Liège’s valuation for the player, so he had to stay with his Belgian club on a reduced salary as he was now no longer a first team player.

Despite not having a contract, prior to the ruling clubs in some European countries were able to prevent players from joining clubs in other countries.  It’s severely overstating it to say that this is tantamount to slavery, but it is certainly restrictive.

The Bosman ruling meant that players could move to a new club at the end of their contract without their old club receiving a fee.  It also meant that players could sign pre-contracts with clubs 6 months prior to their current contract expiring.  Another large impact from the ruling was that governing bodies could no longer impose quotas of EU players outside of the club’s national association appearing in squads.

It was a staggeringly significant ruling.  Edgar Davids became the first high profile to move clubs “on a Bosman” when he moved from Ajax to Milan.  In 1999, Steve McManaman left Liverpool for Real Madrid under the Bosman Ruling and became the world’s highest paid English player at the time, as Real chose to divert would-be transfer fee in to player wages.

With players approaching the end of their contracts, transfer fees were initially reduced with clubs offering way below market value for players in a “take this now or get nothing in 6 months” offer.

The ruling brought the professional footballer’s contract much closer to that in every other walk of life. Clubs are still able to trade when a player is under contract assuming that all parties are happy.

This summer transfer window, though, has showed the other side of the Bosman Ruling.  Where players have the right to move freely when not under contract, some of the summer’s biggest transfer sagas have showed that clubs are not prepared to force players to honour their contracts.

Albeit with 10 days of the transfer window still to run, Liverpool have been involved in three potentially big money deals that have failed because of clubs not wanting to sell players that want to leave.  The summer started with an offer for Southampton defender Virgil Van Dijk.  Van Dijk asked his club to let him leave, but they refused, instead making him train away from the first team squad.

Liverpool then pursued Naby Kieta of Liepzig, having three offers rebuffed as the German club’s owners decided that Keita was worth more to them than the transfer fee.  Keita was involved in several training ground scuffles as his actions irked teammates, but he has so far remained in Germany (at least until next season when a release clause in his contract comes in to play).

More recently, Barcelona have put Liverpool on the receiving end with three offers for Brazilian midfielder Philippe Coutinho.  Liverpool’s owners, FSG, refused to sanction the transfer of a player who had only signed a new long term contract with the club in January.  Coutinho submitted a transfer request, which has been ignored, and is allegedly refusing to play for the club again.

It has so far been a summer of club’s wrestling back some of the power from the players.  Another transfer saga from the summer is Alexis Sanchez agitating for a move from Arsenal.  When discussing this with the media, Arsene Wenger said:

I am amazed that you are amazed.  I just think it looks unusual to the media sometimes that clubs want the contracts to be respected. For me, it looks logical. It looks normal that if I sign a contract I respect it.

That’s exactly what it is.  Bosman was stuck in a position where his ability to work was being restricted.  A solution was needed and was provided and I don’t think that many will disagree with the decision.  The decision didn’t devalue contracts but made certain that when one wasn’t there, players could do as they wish.  The flip side of that is that when a player has given his word to a club that he will play for them in return for oodles of money, the clubs have a right to ask them do that.

With transfer fees going through the roof due to the money in the game from TV rights and rich owners, players could be forced to negotiate contracts with release clauses.  Some inventiveness could be used to reduce salaries over time in return for sliding scale transfer valuations through the life of the contract.  The money that could be saved on overly inflated transfer fees could be used to enhance the fan experience with reduced ticket prices.

It could be a summer that football needed.

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