Twenty years ago, this man transformed the economics of soccer

The legend you don’t hear about.
The legend you don’t hear about.
Image: Reuters/Yves Herman
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Soccer is often characterized by endless rumors and record-breaking deals. It costs millions to buy players; clubs in England, Spain, Germany, France and Italy spent a record $2.4 billion in this year’s transfer period. It seems normal today. But these mega transfers were unheard of before 1995.

Out-of-contract players weren’t allowed to move between clubs without a transfer fee, leaving many players trapped and powerless in unfavorable contracts given by their clubs. It’s been 20 years since Jean-Marc Bosman took on European soccer and his landmark legal victory dramatically changed the landscape of the world’s most popular sport, but few would even recognize the soccer player today.

Bosman, a Belgian whose two-year contract with the financially-troubled RFC Liege was coming to an end in 1990, was offered a new contract at a quarter of his former salary. Bosman rejected it; he was offered a better contract from the French club Dunkerque, but it would have to pay a transfer fee— Liege was demanding four times what they’d paid for Bosman in the first place. Dunkerque refused and Bosman was, as he says, “held captive” by Liege.

“I didn’t accept this procedure, which I considered to be completely illegal,” Bosman recalled to The Guardian. “I was suspended by the Belgian federation because I didn’t want to sign. But if I didn’t re-sign, I still belonged to Liege and I didn’t accept this. I missed an opportunity to earn much more money at another club.”

Bosman decided to sue Liege, the Belgian Football Association, and European soccer body UEFA. It took almost five years, but Bosman won his case at the European Court of Justice on Dec. 15, 1995. His lawyers had argued that the transfer system violated the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which enshrined the freedom of movement within what would become the European Union.

The ruling allowed players at the end of their contract to switch to another team within the EU without paying a transfer fee. It also removed restriction on the number of foreign players in a team. The business of soccer was born with it; the world-record transfer fee would be broken eight times in the first six seasons of the landmark ruling.

While Bosman’s victory transformed the economics of soccer—dozens of players and agents have since been able to secure more lucrative deals because of it—the Belgian midfielder isn’t doing so well now. Bosman’s career pretty much ended by the time he had won his case; no one really wanted to hire him after he challenged the status quo. He’s now broke and has been struggling with depression and alcoholism.

“Everyone benefited from the Bosman ruling except me!” he told the BBC.