Asked to rule about footballers’ freedom to transfer, the EU went further and removed restrictions on EU players in national clubs. England haven’t won a tournament since…
In 1995 the European Court of Justice (ECJ) made a ruling with far-reaching consequences for football. Brexit is an opportunity to change that, at least in part.
The ECJ ruled in favour of a hitherto unknown Belgian footballer, Jean-Marc Bosman. Bosman’s contract had ended in 1990, but he had been denied a transfer from Belgium’s RFC Liège to French side Dunkerque because the clubs could not agree on the transfer fee – such fees were common practice at the time. (English clubs had introduced tribunals to resolve such disputes, which rarely caused big problems.)
Bosman argued that being denied a transfer contravened freedom of movement of workers under the EU Treaty. The ECJ agreed, ruling that any player could now move freely between clubs within EU Associations at the end of their contract, with no transfer fee. The ECJ went further, removing the rule then in force limiting the number of non-national players whereby European clubs were allowed only three such players in their match-day squad.
And so the Bosman ruling was created, and football’s wild west was born. The power had previously rested with clubs, but the balance had now shifted to the players. Their agents, previously middle-men, assumed ever greater importance, much to the chagrin of Alex Ferguson, Arsene Wenger and other managers.
The current impasse between Arsenal and its superstar German midfielder, Mesut Özil, derives from the Bosman ruling. Özil has less than two years to run on his contract and is handsomely rewarded. The club wants to keep him but must pay more or see him walk away in 18 months.
But Arsenal will know that over the years it benefited from the most acrimonious Bosman transfer. Notably, in 2001 Sol Campbell joined the Gunners from Tottenham, infuriating Spurs fans, for £100,000 a week, an incredible sum at the time. Just seven years earlier Chris Sutton had become Britain's first £10,000 a week player when he joined Blackburn.
Bosman and the influx of new money caused chaos. With the potential of no transfer fee to pay (or receive), clubs began to outspend each other to attract and keep the best talent. Stars at mid-level teams knew they could run down their contract and negotiate a bumper deal elsewhere and pocket the unspent transfer fee.
In trying to keep up, many clubs spent more than they had, stoking the influx of overseas takeovers. Portsmouth FC won the FA Cup in 2008, but it now plays in the fourth tier of the English leagues after a succession of owners and financial crises. The club is currently owned by a supporters trust and debt free. Other clubs have been through similar events, although less dramatically in most cases.
Where’s the money gone?
Sky and others have poured billions into British football, paid for by subscribers, of course. Most has ended up in the hands of a handful of players and agents. “Super agents” like Mino Raiola (whose clients, Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Paul Pogba, joined Manchester United this summer) and Jorge Mendes (who represents Cristiano Ronaldo and Jose Mourinho) would not exist without Bosman.
‘Clubs are stifling the progress of young British players.’
The freedom to move clubs under Bosman is now enshrined in FIFA’s own rules and won’t change with Brexit. But Bosman also removed any restriction on the number of EU players clubs could field. That has had a greater effect in the English and Scottish leagues than elsewhere in the EU. Once we are outside the EU, UK work permit regulations, currently enforced against non-EU players, could come into play for all non-British players.
English top flight football is forever altered by the influx of foreign players, billionaire owners from all corners, worshipping at the altar of satellite television. But greater control over player eligibility would be a step in the right direction.
The last all-English XI lined up for Aston Villa in February 1999. The first ever all-foreign starting XI in English football lined up for Chelsea on Boxing Day 1999. Only 31 per cent of players who started matches in last season’s Premier League were eligible to play for England.
The Premier League sees itself as a global brand based in England; it has no interest in regulating the make-up of its competing clubs. Nothing will change while subscription money rolls in. And clubs do not invest that bounty. Instead, they stifle the progress of young British players in favour of those from the EU – seen as cheaper and disposable.
The England team has not made the semi-finals of a major football championship since 1996. That’s no surprise since so few English players now play Premier League football. And arguably the Scottish league and national team have been affected to an even greater extent than England.
Will the FA, the English Football Association, take the opportunity offered by Brexit to improve the England team? The FA is resistant to change, beholden as it is to the Premier League and Sky.
The national team was sold down the river in 1992 with the creation of the Premier League under the false pretence that new money would enhance the Three Lions’ chances at international tournaments. Given how badly that has worked out, the chance to arrest the decline and develop a real plan for the future success of England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland should be seized with both hands.