The Bosman Ruling Changed Soccer, But Left Its Namesake Broke

He's battled against depression and alcoholism but, 20 years on from his landmark legal case, Jean-Marc Bosman is still fighting to change football's transfer system.
December 15, 2015, 3:40pm
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This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

For a man who insists he holds no grudges, Jean-Marc Bosman seems somewhat bitter about the way football has left him behind. Exactly 20 years have passed since the former Belgian midfielder pushed through the ruling that changed the sport forever, but beyond the moniker of his case – since dubbed the Bosman ruling – the man himself has been left an irrelevance. And broke.

"There are some players who earn €200,000 to €300,000 a week and that is thanks to me," he says, reflecting on how the court case he spent five years fighting impacted the sport as we know it today. "I freed football. In the UK it is "football is beautiful, thanks Bosman." Everywhere in the world it is "thanks Bosman" but Bosman doesn't earn €300,000 per week. Until now, Bosman earns zero Euros per month. That's the difference."

Indeed, Bosman was left penniless, depressed and an alcoholic by his fight against football's biggest and most powerful governing bodies. The case – taken to the European Court of Justice in 1995 – should have given the former Belgian national youth team captain the freedom needed to finally fulfil what was once a promising career. Instead, it sparked a personal and professional spiral that even resulted in him spending time in prison for assault.

So while the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Wayne Rooney collect monthly pay packets counted in the millions, Bosman – the man who, more than anyone else, helped create the market that allows such renumeration – is scrapping for a living. The Porsche Carrera and second home bought with his £720,000 settlement (or what he had left over after the payment of legal fees) were sold long ago, with Bosman getting by on benefits for the past few years. It'd be understandable were he to hold some form of umbrage.

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But the 20th anniversary of the ruling that changed football forever is about more than just lining up Bosman alongside 1990s children's TV stars in a 'where are they now?' listicle. The date – 15 December – prompts discussion over the modern-day suitability of the transfer market, and whether it serves a purpose to either clubs or players. Is this really what Bosman had in mind when he first took his case to the European courts all those years ago?

"No, the Bosman ruling was positive and proposed that the richest clubs should help the poorest in Europe or anywhere else," the man himself explains. "The way the transfer system started then, it was about free movement. But there's something wrong. I can't understand, because in the USA the poorest club can pick up some players before the richest. Here, it is the richest that pick the players. There are 25 clubs in Europe and they are all doing business between themselves. In the Bosman ruling there was potential for asset redistribution, but unfortunately because of UEFA and FIFA the rich will have as much food as they want and the poor will starve. But it is not the Bosman ruling's fault, it is because of UEFA and FIFA."

And so FIFPro – the world players' union that was drafted in Bosman – has its sights set on yet another radical overhaul of football's transfer system. They agree with the former midfielder's assessment that something is fundamentally wrong and now plan to act. As they see it, football doesn't need a transfer market – or at least the current model.

Bosman and his lawyer, Jean-Claude Dupont, on 15 December 1995 | PA Images

FIFPro believes the current system breaches basic European Union competition law and has taken its complaint to the European Commission in Brussels. Following the breakdown of talks with FIFA and UEFA, the organisation now wants the abolition of transfer fees, restrictions on squad sizes, the loan market, and to a certain extent the payment of transfer-related commission to agents.

"We can sell chickens, we can sell horses or chocolate, but from my point of view we can't sell men," says Bosman, echoing the general sentiment held by FIFPro. "This is the 21st century, and that's it. We have to let the workers go wherever they want. The corruption issues at FIFA come from the sports' transfer system. We can't have men who rented, sold or profited from them [in charge]."

As a man who has already forced through one drastic shift of the footballing landscape, Bosman speaks with more gravity than most on the subject. Much like in the years preceding the case taken to that Luxembourg courtroom 20 years ago, the sport feels ready for a change. The circumstances might be different, but football – just as it did back then – has become a victim of its own self-consumption and self-serving ways.

Of course, up until 1995 football was a very different place. With teams restricted on the number of foreign players they could field in any one game, and players prevented from simply leaving a club when their contract expired, the sport was in desperate need of modernisation. "It wasn't working," recalls Bosman. Clubs held all the power – too much power.

The Bosman ruling certainly wasn't pleasing to everyone in football, however. With more power than ever afforded to players, the number of transfers and switches skyrocketed and formed the role of the agent as we know it today. As Sir Alex Ferguson once put it, "all hell broke loose" as players were given the freedom of movement afforded to workers in essentially every other industry. Football became much more fluid, which was the scourge of clubs and their managers.

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Andrea Pirlo, Steve McManaman, Robert Lewandowski, Sol Campbell, Henrik Larsson and Michael Ballack are among some of the most high-profile players to have used the Bosman ruling to their advantage, switching clubs as a free agent. But while out-of-contract players and Europe's biggest clubs reaped the rewards of the ruling, clubs of a smaller stature have been left with no way to keep hold of their best players. Modern football, as we know it now, has its roots in the Bosman ruling.

The likes of Jorge Mendes and Mino Raiola have plenty to thank Bosman for; whether football in general should express such gratitude is still open to interpretation. But it could be the case that in the context of history, the ruling he pushed through 20 years ago was only the initial rumbling of a much bigger footballing revolution. Bosman might be, in some way, credited with the nature of the current transfer market, but he's now playing his role in bringing it down.

For Bosman, however, his personal outlook remain somewhat bleak. His professional playing career effectively ended with the ruling that freed so many others, last turning out for a team on the tiny French island of Reunion in the Indian Ocean. His fight against FIFA and UEFA was followed by a fight against depression and alcoholism, and a custody battle for his children. Speaking to him, it becomes clear that all this has taken its toll.

"I hope working with FIFPro gets me a job and means I can earn money as everybody does to raise my children," he says. "I am 51 years old and I hope to live this life as long as possible. The most important thing, for me, is for people to remember that I fought for the right to freedom."