Unhappy birthday

On the first anniversary of the Bosman judgement, Tim Springett wonders whether English football is fully aware of what effects the case may still have

It is a year since Jean-Marc Bosman obtained judgment at the European Court of Justice to the effect that transfer fees for footballers signing for clubs in other European Union states at the end of their contracts were in contravention of European Union law. At the time there were many who predicted disaster; it was seen as a further seismic shift in the balance of power in favour of the richest clubs, placing the very survival of smaller outfits in jeopardy.

One might therefore have expected the intervening twelve months to have seen some urgent measures to protect the small clubs from the loss of future transfer income, or perhaps an inquiry into alternative ways of financing the development of young hopefuls. As usual, however, the game has shown all the foresight of an ostrich.

This is not to say that the ruling has had no impact yet. Most notably, in the Netherlands, the domestic transfer system was abolished last Summer, enabling out-of-contract players to move on free transfers to the clubs of their choice at home as well as abroad. For UK players the option of free moves overseas has been taken up by a small number including Phil Gray, Jamie Pollock (since returned) and, most famously, John Collins, whose transfer to Monaco led to a contretemps between Celtic and the justices of Europe. Celtic’s request for transfer compensation was denied; Monegasques are apparently part of the EU for football purposes but very much outside for everything else.

Some clubs have at least woken up to the brave new world by writing off large percentages of their players’ values on their balance sheets, on the basis that these values only exist whilst the players are under contract. There was also the attempt by Birmingham City to enter an arrangement with a club in the Republic of Ireland whereby it would circumvent the domestic transfer fee system. Not a bad piece of initiative, but ultimately unsuccessful.

Leave aside these relatively isolated occurrences, however, and one could be forgiven for thinking that Bosman never happened. How else can the transfer fees of £15 million for Alan Shearer, £7 million for Fabrizio Ravanelli et al be explained? Surely the ruling should have caused a reduction in transfer fees for players still under contract since ‘buying’ clubs are now able to choose between these players and those who are free agents? Considering the seemingly insatiable appetite of top English clubs for foreign talent it is incredible that they persist in shelling out transfer fees of this magnitude.

If the behaviour of many clubs beggars belief, that of the FA is not far behind. In the wake of the ECJ verdict the FA asked the European Commission to ‘clarify’ that the UK’s existing transfer system need not be changed. The view of Commission officials does not equate to an authoritative statement of EU law, which only the courts can provide. It was on Commission advice that the old ‘3+2’ rule, applied to European cup competitions, was devised. The rule was, of course, overturned by the ECJ.

Should the FA have followed the lead of the Dutch and abolished the transfer system? They should certainly consider it sooner rather than later, or the decision will be taken out of their hands. The opinion of the European Commissioner for Competitions, Karel van Miert, was distinctly at odds with that of the mandarins with whom the FA corresponded. According to the powerful Mr van Miert, domestic transfer fees for out-of-contract players contravene Article 85 of the Treaty of Rome (on competition) if not the same Article 48 (on freedom of movement) which gave Bosman his victory. Just one court case could be enough to spell the end for transfer fees. One player in dispute with his club anywhere in the European Economic Area is all it will take.

And it is the players who have most to gain from the Bosman judgment. Or rather the top players. How many of them have visions of colossal transfer fees mutating into signing-on fees and salaries to turn even the bosses of privatised utilities green with envy? And how much thought has been given to where future generations of players will come from if small clubs cannot afford to develop them – or even don’t exist to do so?

Still, at least the FA’s reaction – or lack of it – has been topped by those in charge of newly-professional rugby union. During the Summer reports circulated that they were considering introducing a football-style transfer system for rugby players. Fifty seven old what, did Will Carling say?

From WSC 120 February 1997. What was happening this month