Leander Schaerlaeckens: Thanks to Jean-Marc Bosman, players are now in control

In 1995, one Belgian completely changed the way players dealt with their employers. Today, rather than the clubs, it's the players who hold all the power.
I tracked him down in a modest house outside Liège, Belgium in late 2008. Jean-Marc Bosman was in a bad way. It had been 13 years since the European Court of Justice delivered the ruling that would make him famous in 1995. His long struggle finally granted soccer players free agency upon expiration of their contracts and did away with caps on foreigners in European leagues.

He’d just overcome a drinking habit that wasn’t very long from killing him. For the last dozen years, he’d barely left the house and did little else with his life but sit around his kitchen table drinking. He’d been terribly depressed. He’d blown through the damages he’d won and the million or so dollars raised on his behalf after he took RFC Liège to court over its refusal to let him leave for Dunkerque when his contract ran out in 1990. The case led to him being ostracized from pro soccer.

He and his girlfriend had a baby on the way. He was a 44-year-old mineworker’s son with no high school degree and no marketable skills who had sunk his last euros into a t-shirt line. ‘Go the player circulate for your way’, it read below a weird logo centering around a B with wings on it. He’d not bothered to check if this direct translation from French actually made any sense in English.

In our interview, which ran in World Soccer magazine, he pretty much demanded that all of today’s soccer players who were getting rich off the ruling that “ruined” him owed it to him to buy one of his t-shirts, selling for 50 euros apiece. He thought that was the least the players could do, that he’d been short-changed with the settlement and donations he got. Never mind that as a solid but unspectacular midfielder in the Belgian league he probably would have made a lot less over the remainder of his would-be career.

He had two t-shirts made up on his first run. He sold one to the lawyer who had seen him through the court case and gave me the other one – worn. He never moved another unit and a few weeks later the website he commissioned had a note on it from its builder that it would be shut down because of unpaid bills. Today, he lives off unemployment benefits and can’t afford to move in with his girlfriend, as it would cut their benefits in half.

Bosman worried at the time that FIFA’s proposed 6+5 rule – which would require clubs to field at least six players eligible for the national team of the country they played in at the start of every game – would destroy his ruling. The idea was struck down by the European Union in 2010 as it violated the Bosman ruling and the very labor laws on which it was built.

So his ruling survived. And today, that is more in evidence than ever. Because the Bosman ruling did more than free players from their clubs after their contracts ran out, or enable clubs to sign and play as many foreigners as they liked. It shifted power from the club to the player. This has never been more obvious than in the ongoing European transfer window, which closes Friday.

Robin van Persie wanted out. Arsenal wanted to keep him. Today he plays for Manchester United. Luka Modric has wanted to leave Tottenham Hotspur for over a year. In spite of the Spurs’ best efforts, he now dons Real Madrid’s white. Clint Dempsey is fed up with Fulham’s non-Champions Leagueness. So he’s on strike until he gets sold, probably to Liverpool. Nobody doubts he’ll get his way. And if he doesn’t, he can always just return to Fulham without so much as a slap on the wrist.

Until 1995, players were completely at the mercy of their clubs and shuddered at the thought that their employer might no longer see any use for them when their contracts were up but would refuse to sell them to a competitor, as happened to Bosman. Clubs could jerk even their best players around as they chose. What could they do? Retire. Their indentured servitude robbed all but the very biggest of stars of any leverage in contract negotiations or disputes.

Gradually, players wrested power from their former overlords. First, by walking out after their contracts expired. Then by threatening to walk out when their contracts expired. And today, by threatening not to renew contracts that will expire a year or two down the line.

There is little clubs can do but to accede to their stars’ every wish and pray that they stay.

That, ultimately, is Bosman’s legacy. For better or worse.