Jean-Marc Bosman is one of those rare footballers whose name will continue to live on in the world of football. However, unlike most such footballers it was his contribution to football off the pitch that makes him stand out and ensures that generations of footballers and fans alike will knowingly or unknowingly pay tribute to the Belgian.
Few changes have made more impact on club football as much as the Bosman Ruling, no mean feat considering how football has evolved since its inception.
Jean-Marc Bosman was a Belgian midfielder who started his career at Standard Liege. After making 86 appearances, he moved to R.F.C. Liege where he stayed till 1990. After his contract expired that year, French side Dunkerque seemed to be his next stop but the clubs couldn’t agree a deal for his transfer. This seemingly innocuous transfer negotiation resulted in a chain of events whose culmination would ultimately change the face of club football forever. Bosman decided to take matters into his own hands and took his case to the European Court of Justice. On 15th December, 1995 the court ruled in favour of Bosman.
Clubs who could previously demand a transfer fee for players even though their contract had expired now had no say in their new destinations. A player whose contract had expired was considered a free agent and could now join any interested club of his choice. Players could also agree pre-contracts with other clubs 6 months before the expiry of the present contract. Another aspect of the ruling which would have far reaching consequences was that the cap on “foreign players” in domestic and European competitions was restricted to non EU players.
Overnight the momentum shift in club football was there for all to see. Clubs previously held all the cards. Players who demanded new inflated contracts could be politely shown the door with the club in a position to recuperate their investment in the form of a transfer fee, or price the player out of a move and force him to stay with them. Can you imagine that in the present day where a binding contract has somehow metamorphosed into “slavery”?
At the time of the Bosman ruling, there is definitely an argument to be made for the club having too much power. In hindsight, there was a need to restore the balance between club and player. Change was needed and it was Jean-Marc Bosman who donned the role of Messiah.
Fast forward almost 20 years, and we’re facing the same problems in club football only this time the roles have been dramatically and unequivocally reversed. The Bosman Ruling was supposed to restore order in the battle for power between the club and player. Ironically, the very ruling that was supposed to restore balance has tilted the scales in the direction of the players. This irony never fails to bring a wry smile to my face when players close to the end of their contracts use the Bosman ruling to engineer a new contract with a hefty raise in wages or manoeuvre moves at a slashed price to ply their increasingly expensive trade in newer, greener and more often than not richer pastures. What exactly am I on about, you ask?
Imagine a high profile player is in the last year of his contract. Opposition clubs ever keen to bolster their squads in the search for glory are sure to be circling around like sharks. The player’s club has 3 options in front of them. The first, reward the player with a new contract. This is where the agent comes in. Probably a much maligned one owing mainly to the fact that he is excruciatingly good at his job. His job? Simply to make sure his client (and himself of course) gets the best deal possible by any means. By any means being the operative words. In the cloak and dagger world of football transfers, agents have plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Leaking stories to the media linking the player in question to any club, shamelessly flirting with other clubs and even using the player to say the age old and not very subtle sentence of “As of now I am a <insert club name> player. I am happy there but you never know in football” are all tried and tested methods. After all what better way to raise the stakes in a negotiation than to simulate a bidding war for the services of, what at the end of the day, is a prized asset. Player signs a new bumper contract, job done. Conversely the player joins a new club with a nice signing on fee and significant pay rise, job done. The old gambling cliche is that the House always wins. In football, the agent always wins. The second, cash in on the player and sell him to the richest suitor. When the player wants out and there seems to be no chance of a new contract, this is the path taken more often than not. Selling the player (mostly at a cut price) recuperates some of the money that the club has spent on him over the years. This money can be spent to find a replacement or in today’s financial climate, more likely to service a debt. The third and final option is to simply ignore all this and inform the player politely that he’s signed a contract so he bloody well adhere to it. The club then is guaranteed another year from the player but are destined to lose the player on a “Bosman” a year later.
From the point of a view of the club, there is obviously no formula from which the best solution can be derived. There are simply too many variables to factor in ranging from the financial clout of the club in question to the willingness of the player. Having said this I don’t see option 3 being exercised by the clubs, especially the bigger ones, often enough for my liking. On the face of it, letting a player go on a free seems to be a foolhardy move as the club has to let go of one of their prized possessions for free and then replace him a year later. But there’s a strong counter argument that the club is better served holding on to the player especially when the player plays a big role in the success of the club. The amount of revenue generated through progression to the latter stages of the Champions League for example is sizable to say the least. Thus, if a player could be the difference between progression or elimination from the group stages then surely it’s a gamble worth taking. And the actual loss, if any, wouldn’t make that big a debt for any of the big clubs. Figures such as 30-40 million pounds barely raise an eyebrow in today’s transfer window, so a temporary loss of a few million shouldn’t really make a large dent in the club’s coffers.
And this is the exact approach that Borussia Dortmund and Jurgen Klopp have adopted regarding the Lewandowski transfer saga. Having already lost Mario Gotze to Bayern Munich, Dortmund could have sold Lewandowski to the same club. But they had other ideas. Klopp told Welt am Sonntag, “I think it is a known fact that Robert is going to play for Bayern after the upcoming season. Now the only question is how to shape the time until then. That is our concern and it is our commitment to our fans and members to ensure that we will have a more competitive team in the upcoming season.” As a Manchester United fan, I can see parallels between this and the Nani situation. While Nani is certainly not as important to the team as Lewandowski, he is on his day easily the most talented winger at United. With figures as low as 10 million pounds being quoted in the media, I for one would rather see Nani stay at United the next season rather than watch him leave at that sort of price.
Player power is all the rage in present day football. Maybe it’s time for some of the clubs to take a leaf out of Dortmund’s book and play hardball with the players and their super-agents.