16 May ~ We're up to 1995 in our WSC retrospective. In issue 100, Philip Cornwall worried that a footballer's dispute with his former club could have "ramifications for the way transfers were conducted in every European country". He wasn't wrong
Good news and bad news from Belgium. In spite of all the evidence to the contrary, it seems we haven't got the most incompetent bunch of administrators in Europe. The bad news is that the case which may well prove the point has implications as deep for Blackburn and Burnley as for Anderlecht and Antwerp. Or, for that matter, RFC Liège.
The Bosman story is another one which illustrates the dangers of allowing football cases to come to court. That football is not just another business is a truism among supporters; generally we express that view when businessmen treat a club's relationship to its fans as though it was a supermarket and we the customers. In this case, it's to do with the relationship between clubs and their employees, the players.
Jean-Marc Bosman's contract with Liège came to an end. In England, if the club offered him less than his current wage he would be entitled to a free transfer; instead, he was offered one quarter of his salary while his transfer fee was set at four times the one for which he'd joined Liège. All above aboard in Belgium.
His subsequent attempts to join a French club were blocked by Liège. So now he's going to the European Court of Justice to try and overturn the club's right to treat him differently from any other worker in the EC, which means that he, and all players, may have complete freedom of movement at the end of their contracts, with no transfer fee payable.
The Belgian FA and even UEFA are also defendants. At the same time his lawyers may also shoot to pieces the rules relating to maximum numbers of foreign players competing in national leagues and European competitions.
Jean-Marc Bosman is not a great player; the high point of his career is captaining the Belgian youth team, and Dunkerque, the French club who tried to sign him, are in the second division, playing in front of a few thousand. Yet the irony is, if he wins then it will be the major players, however you define them, who will be the real winners.
While the large clubs may suddenly have to face up to the fact that their best assets, for whom they've paid fortunes, now have no value beyond the end of their contracts, that is a one-off problem. In future, they'll just pay less for players. The stars themselves will command higher wages, as clubs try to hang on to them. But small clubs, who've previously relied on cultivating and selling on youngsters, will suddenly lose the income which keeps them in business, at least as professional clubs.
Complete freedom of contract does apply in France, but there are fewer than half the number of professional sides there as in England. Our lower division clubs are in enough financial trouble as it is; such a move would surely force many to become semi-pro, and drive some out of business.
A similar effect would take hold at international level. Players would migrate from the poorer/smaller European countries to the larger ones, depriving national games of funds, reducing the number of professional clubs and leagues, and thereby reducing the importance of football itself.
This happens already to some extent, but it could be greatly exaggerated if the barriers come down. In the short term, the richer clubs would benefit from cheaper imports, but in the long term they could kill the supply.
Football clubs have a case for being treated differently than, say, car manufacturers; but that case relies on the game treating people fairly. The failure of the Belgian authorities to make Bosman a fair offer and extricate him from his contractual problem suggests that they are either willing to risk turning the whole game upside down or else are too stupid to consider the implications of defeat. And, given the successful case which allows cricketers with EC passports to get around the limits on overseas players, the possibility of defeat is a good one.
Even if this case is resolved out of court, the likes of Rangers and Manchester United may try to overturn the limit on non-nationals, perhaps by bankrolling another individual plaintiff so as to avoid coming into direct conflict with UEFA.
To successfully argue that football needs to be exempted from the relevant clauses of the Treaty of Rome, the game will have to show that it deserves such treatment. The way Jean-Marc Bosman has been driven to court suggests otherwise.