Bosman: The unintended legacies of the man who changed world soccer

The first inkling that it was to be a profoundly strange afternoon came the moment he showed up. Jean-Marc Bosman had told me to look out for a blue coupe when he said he’d pick me up from the train station in the small Belgian town where he lived. It was December 2008, 13 years after he’d won his lawsuit against the RFC de Liege, the Belgian soccer federation and UEFA. The ruling granted Europe’s soccer players free agency in the so-called Bosman Ruling – and simultaneously abolished leagues’ limitations on foreigners.

World Soccer had asked me to go interview Bosman. It had been a while since anybody had heard from him, and the ultimately doomed “6+5” proposal, UEFA’s latest attempt at curbing the number of foreigners hopping borders within Europe, threatened to undermine his landmark ruling.


Photo: AP Photo.

From my research, I’d concluded that Bosman hardly ever talked to the press anymore, and that when he did, it was usually for a fee. The stories that ensued invariably described a drunk with a plain case of untreated depression. I figured Bosman would have no interest in being portrayed so poorly again and I had no fee to offer. Still, when I tracked him down he agreed to talk, somewhat to my surprise.

Snow flurries began to flutter down as I waited outside the station. No blue coupe ever materialized. A black sports car did, though, with Bosman in it. “How do you like my t-shirt?” he asked me, by way of greeting.

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In a lot of ways, free agency is the worst thing that could have happened to soccer. Certainly, the old system, which shackled players to their clubs forever if they weren’t sold, was unjust to the players, and unlawful, as the European Court of Justice rightly found. They should absolutely be free to be paid whatever the market will bear. But the day the players were set free also marked the last time that European club soccer would ever be truly competitive.

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With players now free to go where they pleased – even before their contracts were up, by threatening to leave for free when their deals ran out – the Bosman Ruling set off an arms race. It ossified the status quo. Crusty NFL fans like to say that soccer is socialism and football is capitalism – a nonsensical koan coined by former (Republican, of course) congressman and quarterback Jack Kemp – but the truth is few markets are as unregulated and unfettered as soccer’s player exchange. Since the Bosman Ruling, that is. Without the constraints of salary caps, maximum player deals, drafts, revenue sharing and other socialist notions from American leagues, money flows freely. And when money flows freely, the players do the same.

If your club was in a position to win things in December 1995, when the Bosman Ruling was pronounced, it probably still is now, provided it was from some of the bigger leagues. With their free agency won, players had wrested all control from their employers and could seek out the highest bidders for their services. So the clubs that were good around that time would win, make money, hoard talent… win more, make more money, hoard more talent, and so on. Their domination on the field translated to swelling revenue, which they parlayed into more dominance.

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The upper crust of soccer clubs from two decades ago is still largely intact today. Only rampant mismanagement or considerable outside investment has altered the membership of that exclusive club. (The latter, by the way, is no longer allowed under UEFA’s Financial Fair Play scheme, further carving the present balance of power in stone.) Unless you had the misfortune of being from a smaller country, the Bosman Ruling cemented your place in the hierarchy.

Let’s put it another way, borrowing Deloitte’s Money League, which ranks Europe’s clubs by revenue. They first compiled the list for the 1997-98 season. Nine of the top-10 from that year were still in the top-15 last season – only Newcastle United had dropped out. More tellingly, that year’s top earner was Manchester United with $134 million in revenue. Last season’s money leader, Real Madrid, took in $665 million.

Many professional soccer clubs aren’t much better off now than they were in the mid-90s. But in 1997-98, the Money League top-10 generated a total of $867 million. By 2012-13, that figure had ballooned to 4.35 billion.

The Bosman Ruling’s legacy was to create an oligarchy among soccer’s top clubs and plunge everybody else into relative poverty.

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The black t-shirt had a big, white B on it, in a winged shield. It said Jean-Marc Bosman above it. Below it: Go The Player Circulate For Your Way. Bosman had designed it himself. The slogan was supposed to be something of a cri de coeur for player freedom. He hadn’t bothered to check his translation from French with someone who actually spoke English. Still, he’d wanted the magazine to buy a few of them for what was almost $100 a pop at the time, in theory to give away to readers or something. If World Soccer would agree, he’d do the interview for free. The magazine said no, and he talked for free anyway.

We sat down at his kitchen table and drank Diet Coke – “My new alcohol,” as he called it. He chain-smoked while we talked. I had to ask him to turn down the radio, blasting French pop songs at ear-splitting levels, just so I could hear him. “I have it on all day,” he explained, “So I’m not so lonely.” He was 44 then, and in better shape than he’d been in a long while. He’d been sober for a few days shy of a year and had lost much of the weight he’d put on.

He’d been a promising midfielder once, the captain of Belgium’s under-21 national team, in fact. Before the 1986-87 season, Standard Liège sold him to Royal Football Club de Liège across town. His four seasons there were a disappointment. When his contract was up in 1990, the club could either sell him or offer him a new contract to retain his rights – according to the prevailing rules then. It offered him a deal for about a quarter of the $3,000 a month he’d been making and dropped him down to the reserve team.

Bosman refused the offer and signed a contract with Dunkirk in France instead, for what Bosman claimed was $8,000 a month. RFC de Liège claimed a transfer fee – rightfully, at the time – and but kept raising its asking price, eventually pushing it to about $500,000, four times what he had cost them in 1986. Dunkirk lost interest. MVV, from the Dutch league, sniffed around, until it discovered Bosman was not in fact a right back.

Jean-Marc BOSMAN

Photo: Marcus Brandt/Bongarts/Getty Images

Bosman was stuck and sued. He won his case against RFC de Liège. The club and the Belgian federation appealed. He won again. Then the club, the Belgian federation and UEFA took the case to the European Court of Justice, now realizing what was at stake. On December 15, 1995, the ECJ sided with Bosman as well, proclaiming the Bosman Ruling and irrevocably changing club soccer. In the process, it also struck down the rule that UEFA clubs could only employ three foreigners. The lack of free agency and the limitations on foreigners impinged the constitutional freedom of employment of the European worker. It rejected the notion that soccer was an exceptional industry, dependent on competition to survive – the same principal that has served American sports leagues so well, protected by U.S. Congress.

After five-and-a-half years on the sidelines, Bosman was finally free, but he had a hard time resurrecting his career. Bosman told me he felt he was being boycotted, that he’d been ostracized in retribution for daring to take on the powers that be. Maybe he was, but a 31-year-old player, whose career had already lost some of its shine by his mid-20s and who had been inactive since then probably wasn’t the most attractive signing.

He played some in the French second division, and then went to a club on Réunion, a tiny island-nation in the Indian Ocean in a type of soccer exile. After a few more brief stints in Belgium’s third and fourth tiers, he retired. At 32, he was out of a job and broke. His wife had left him and he’d moved into his mother’s garage. He’d come from nothing. His Slovenian grandparents and their children had survived Nazi work camps. They’d been mineworkers. Bosman was back to where he started, with no qualifications whatsoever.

He would eventually collect some about $1.5 million in compensation from UEFA and donations from the FifPro international players union and various groups of active players. But a testimonial game was botched by Diego Maradona and Eric Cantona’s half-baked International Association of Professional Footballers, a rival union. (Bosman felt FifPro had screwed him, even though it gave him some $450,000 to cover his lawyer’s fees, various handouts and found him a club when he needed a job.) Bosman declared the money as gifts, whereas the Belgian tax service considered it income. Before long he owed some $150,000 in back taxes and owned nothing but the two modest houses he’d built for himself and his sister.

(FILES) Belgian soccer player Jean-Marc

Photo: STF/AFP/Getty Images.

He was bitter. He began to drink. For 12 years, he did little else, sitting at the little bar separating his kitchen from his living room and drinking by himself, slipping into a deep depression. Until he collapsed one day, hitting his head and going into a series of spontaneous epileptic attacks. He went into recovery and found sobriety and antidepressants. But the psychological damage was done.

We talked for three hours. I started out by complimenting his pool. He panicked and asked me not to write about it. People might conclude that he had money, but he had none; he wanted that to be really clear. As he talked, contradicting himself at every turn – often within the same sentence – and rattling off “facts” that would prove to mostly be wrong when I checked them, it dawned on me that he’d been ruminating on his case and its fallout all this time.

Trapped with nothing but his own uncomprehending mind, he had contrived a vast web of conspiracies, designed to bring him down. But he had persevered. Nay, he had prevailed. It was his destiny to still be alive. He talked about destiny a lot. He insisted that I take home copies of some medical exams taken before he quit drinking. He almost drank himself to death, he claimed. My aunt and uncle are doctors; they took a look at the exams and concluded it hadn’t been nearly that bad. For three hours he ranted and raged, a whirl of ego and paranoia. All the world had done him dirty, but here he was, Jean-Marc Bosman, standing tall and proud. Destiny.

While we talked, his pregnant girlfriend walked in with a big black lab, nursing a hind paw with a limp. It had been that way for weeks, Bosman said, figuring that maybe they ought to take her to the vet one of these days.

Back then, he’d put the last of his money into his t-shirts. He really hoped that all those players benefiting from his case would buy one.

Before I left, he gave me the t-shirt he’d been wearing. It smelled of cologne. “You’ll wear it and tell people about it, right?” he asked.

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The irony, of course, is that the Belgian league, which forced Bosman to take his fight all the way to the European courts, was hit hardest by the ramifications. During the 17-year period from 1976 through 1993, Belgian clubs made it to the final of one of the three European continental competitions (European Cup, UEFA Cup, Cup Winners’ Cup) a dozen times – winning four. Since the Bosman Ruling, no Belgian club has gone deep into a European tournament.

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The same thing happened to every league that didn’t have a well-established brand abroad. But none were struck harder than the Belgian and the Dutch Leagues. The Bosman Ruling, coupled with the rise of satellite TV, remade the business model for elite club soccer. The rich leagues became that much richer and left the lesser leagues behind, regardless of how successful their biggest clubs had been.

Ajax is an apt case study. In 1995, a preposterously young team had scintillated Europe and won the Champions League – the club’s fourth in 25 years. In 1996, it would return to the final and lose to Juventus. And in 1997, it would be felled by Juve in the semis. But by then, Bosman’s ruinous effects had already set in.

Like any other club, Ajax hadn’t bothered to lock up its young stars’ contracts. Why should it, since it owned them in perpetuity anyway? But Edgar Davids was the first to take advantage of his expired contract and leave for AC Milan in 1996. Michael Reiziger and Winston Bogarde joined him. Patrick Kluivert followed them the following year. In January 1999, Frank and Ronald de Boer forced a transfer to Barcelona by going on strike, illustrating the players’ power grab. The following summer, Jari Litmanen left for Barça on a Bosman, and Edwin van der Sar went to Juve for a nominal fee. Over the course of four years, the best young team in decades was totally dismantled.

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With the foreigner limitations lifted, big clubs in bigger leagues could sign more talent, meaning Ajax was less competitive in the transfer market and more liable to lose its own talent. The players it could still get weren’t up to par. The club slipped into a downward spiral, which picked up momentum as Ajax had to settle for worse signings with each passing transfer window. All the while, the club saw the fruits of its famed youth academy leave at ever younger ages. The era of the careerist player and his eager agent – paid a commission every time a player moves clubs – had dawned.

It took longer for the Dutch league to decay than its Belgian counterpart. A Dutch club has won the Champions League six times, but the last time, fittingly, was in 1995. No club has since. Feyenoord won the UEFA Cup in 2002. Ajax last reached the Champions League quarterfinals in 2003. PSV reached the semifinals in 2005 and the quarters in 2006. That was the last time Dutch soccer mattered.

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For weeks on end, he called. Bosman would never greet me when I answered. Instead he would rip right into the latest target of his ample ire – Platini, Blatter, the FifPro, whoever – venting about how the world was out to get him. He often came back to the same gripe: why didn’t the announcers of soccer games ever mention him, seeing as how he was the entire reason all 22 of the players were out on the field? Every day he called – this was before I could afford a phone with caller ID – as often as four times a day. I’m still not sure what he expected me to do with the “quotes” he would dictate, even though I’d explained to him several times that I’d sent in my article weeks ago.

After a while, I stopped answering the phone altogether. It was the only way to make it stop. On one of his last calls, he asked me if I could mention in the article that he was looking for a sponsor for his t-shirts.

Almost three years to the day since I’d gone to see him, Bosman was arrested. He’d been living off welfare by then, meaning he couldn’t live with his girlfriend and their two children or his allowance would be cut down. He’d been drunk and had punched his girlfriend in the face, and possibly her daughter from a previous relationship as well. In an interview a short while earlier, he had insisted he was still sober, even though he’d drunk wine throughout the conversation.

He was handed a one-year suspended sentence and probation. He violated probation but avoided prison time by entering rehab, anger management and finding a job. Last anyone heard, he was working in a Belgian equivalent of the public works department of his local town, maintaining public soccer fields.

Today, I possess of one of the only two Go The Player Circulate For Your Way t-shirts ever printed. Bosman’s lawyer, who parlayed his case into a thriving career, bought the other.