20 years since the Bosman ruling – Part 2

Part 1 of this article discussed the transfer system prevailing in the pre-Bosman era. In this second and final part, the focus turns to the after-effects of the ruling.

The immediate aftermath of the decision in the Bosman case was dominated by strong reactions from within the football industry.


Barry Fry, then manager of Birmingham City argued that the change in the transfer system would diminish the significance of youth in football:

Young players are no longer assets to the club. We could have a world-beater and as soon as he’s 18 he could walk out and there would be nothing we could do about it.

This was a view shared by other officials as well.

Then there was the fear that training might not be seen as a good investment, because other, bigger, clubs would potentially reap the benefits of the effort put in by a smaller club in nurturing a talented footballer.

When a club trains players, it hopes to benefit from its efforts, because the training costs money. From the old club’s perspective, if other clubs can get its player for free, the efforts put in by it in developing the player diminish.

UEFA President Lennart Johansson warned:

The process will create a mess,” while the chief executive of the English FA, Graham Kelly, shared his concerns, “It is potentially a very explosive case. It could sound the death knell of the transfer system.

Another outcome of the ruling was the rapidity with which the scales of power shifted from the clubs to the players. Clever football agents are now able to negotiate lucrative deals for their clients who are nearing the end of their contracts.

Football clubs feel the need to be more intelligent, and cautious, about the manner in which they approach contract negotiations with their players.

Opening contract talks at least a year in advance is now a prevalent trend in the game, particularly when the demand for the player in question is high. This is exemplified by the cases of Raheem Sterling and Steven Gerrard, who recently transferred from Liverpool to Manchester City and LA Galaxy respectively.

Both of them are important players in their own right. While Sterling is arguably England’s most exciting player at the moment, for an MLS franchise to acquire the services of a veteran champion such as Steven Gerrard was a massive coup.

Both of them revealed after leaving Liverpool that if the Merseyside club had opened discussions the previous year, they may well have stayed.

Money, too, has been an important factor in football, particularly after the abolition of the £20 per week wage-limit in 1961, a move championed by then PFA Chairman Jimmy Hill. The Bosman ruling opened the floodgates to an era where clubs would spend unprecedented amounts of money on wages.

In the 1995/96 season, Bundesliga clubs spent close to one-third of their total costs on wages. There are similar patterns in the Italian, the French, and the English first divisions.

In Italy, the salary was significantly higher as 20 clubs spent an average of €12.8 million and a total salary of €256 million. England paid the most to its players with €267 million and an average of €13.35 million.

Player wages rose sharply after the ruling, particularly in the top leagues, thanks in large part to the stronger position of the players, vis-à-vis their clubs. In the 1999/00 season, wages in the English Premier League increased by 319% compared to those in the 1995/96 season.

Between 1990 and 2003 the total revenue of the Italian league increased by 216%, while player wages increased by 453%. A similar trend can be seen in Spain’s La Liga as well – wages went from constituting around 33% of the total expenditure in 1995, to about 45% in 1998. In Germany, 50% of all expenses in 1998 were wages, compared to the one-third (see previous paragraph) in 1995.

Even if these numbers are not a hundred percent accurate, they strongly hint at the growing tendency of clubs to want to preserve their best players by allocating a greater percentage of their budgets on player salaries.

From the players’ point of view, this meant that they earned wages that were unfathomable less than two decades ago. To add further perspective to this analysis, consider Roy Keane, who in 2000, became the first player in the world to earn £50,000 per week with a contract at Manchester United. Today, that’s an amount earned by many average footballers in the Premier League.

It is particularly interesting to trace the evolution of the transfer system. As mentioned in Part 1, the Bosman ruling dismantled the existing regime.

The new transfer rules introduced immediately after the case were designed to limit the influence of transfer fees in order to give players more freedom. But, since the EU was unhappy with the results of that change, it began working towards developing a new system with football’s governing bodies at the European and international levels – UEFA and FIFA, and the football players’ union.


An agreement was reached, but it only became effective in 2003. The new system included features like payment of a compensation fee in the event that players under the age of 23 left their clubs for free at the end of their contracts; the creation of what is today so popularly known as the ‘transfer window’.

This window restricted the clubs’ transfer activities to two fixed periods of the year; and the ban on international transfers involving players under the age of 18, among others.

The first of two major changes that stood out under the new rules was that for every free transfer of a player under the age of 23, the club(s) responsible for developing and training the player would have to be compensated.

This fee was to be shared among the teams for which he played between the ages of 13 and 23. The object of this change was to ensure monetary protection of clubs that invested heavily in training and developing the player.

Small clubs profited from this rule, as a lot of the best players today (Luis Suarez, for example) have roots in clubs that are nowhere near (financially or otherwise) the top clubs.

The other big change was the ban on international transfers involving players under the age of 18. The exception to this rule is if the player’s family moves purely for reasons not linked to football.

This change aimed at securing the education and well-being of young players, and to prevent their exploitation. In 2014, Catalan giants FC Barcelona were slapped with a transfer ban for flouting this rule with their aggressive policy of recruiting teenage players.

When this system was introduced in 2003, there was a general understanding among relevant parties that it must continually evolve in order to ensure better protection of the players’ rights.

Thus, even today, new developments and amendments to the transfer rules are so frequent that they’re becoming increasingly difficult to keep track of; but no one’s complaining.

The unfortunate irony of this entire episode is that Bosman, the man responsible for revolutionising the landscape of football business forever, was the only player whose career took a turn for the worse during and after the ECJ’s ruling.

He was 31 when the trial ended and, apart from a couple of short stints in the French second division and with a club on Réunion, a tiny island in the Indian Ocean, he had barely played since he filed his lawsuit in 1990.


He never made it back to professional football, partly because no one was prepared to sign the guy who had dared to take on the entire system. “I did something no other player dared do. I ended a system of slavery,” he said, “but it ruined my life.”

Eventually, he came by a sum of approximately $1.5 million in compensation from UEFA and various donations from FIFPro (the international players’ union). Bosman claimed that the money was not liable to be taxed because it was a gift. The Belgian tax service, however, considered it income and taxed him heavily.

As he began slipping out of the limelight, Bosman found himself slipping into a deep depression; he began drinking heavily for the next decade while doing little else.

He then went into recovery and became sober, but the psychological damage had already taken its toll on him. A few years later, he was placed under arrest for assaulting his girlfriend; he had begun drinking again.

He was awarded a one year prison sentence with probation, which he violated. This time he avoided prison time by once again going into rehab and later, finding a job.

This case led to the induction of the word “Bosman” into football’s lexicon. Thus, the phrase “a Bosman transfer” is now synonymous with what we commonly refer to as a “free transfer”.

Due to the Bosman ruling, today’s footballers are influential enough to command salaries that are more reflective of their abilities – a substantial improvement from the days when they were traded like slaves.

Yet, the man who has sacrificed so much for the sake of football has been, whether unfairly or unintentionally, cast out by the game. Bosman said in an interview a couple of years ago:

I just want to be recognised. People know there is a ‘Bosman ruling’, but they don’t realise there is a guy who has given everything…who became an alcoholic.

The Author

Arjun Krishnan

Arjun is a Law student with a particular interest in the history and politics of football. He has previously written for various publications, including Firstpost, Huffington Post, and Sportskeeda.

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