Andrew Smith: Players still commodities in post-Bosman era

Jean-Marc Bosman, flanked by two of his lawyers in 1995, after the European Court of Justice ruled that the transfer system was illegal. Picture: AFP/Getty
Jean-Marc Bosman, flanked by two of his lawyers in 1995, after the European Court of Justice ruled that the transfer system was illegal. Picture: AFP/Getty

The reflections prompted by the 20th anniversary of the Bosman ruling overshadowed the fact that this week also marked the 50th anniversary of FIFpro. An organisation created to “defend the rights of footballers everywhere”, the anger within 
FIFpro is that backsliding on Bosman means these rights continue to be impugned.

It is easy to see footballers in the post-Bosman era as overpaid, overhyped and over-protected in the zeal with which they chase astronomical sums of money. Yet, this elite represents the one per cent. FIFpro general secretary Theo van Seggelen made the point to delegates at the body’s conference this week that the 
average player is much more likely to go three months 
without wages than end their time in the game without the need to find another income source.

Moreover, he revealed that 75 per cent of transfers are conducted within five countries. And as the rich have become richer – whether players or clubs operating in these markets that have colonised the entire game – across the rest of the world, the exploitation of players remains acute.

Jean-Marc Bosman struck to the core of the matter when interviewed this week on his profound impact. His words had all the more poignancy because he never seemed to find peace or security through actions that paved the way for professional footballers to obtain the right to move freely between employers when out of contract. What should always have been basic, inalienable rights.

“Back then [in 1995] clubs were selling hens, horses, mules and pigs, but not humans,” he said. “Players should be considered as workers, full stop, that’s it! This is the Bosman ruling, and we ought to get back to it.”
It appears to remain difficult for those with a stake in the game to recognise the issues FIFpro believes remain unresolved by Bosman – and what they see as subsequent attempts to militate against its positive effects. Yet, football continues to see those who play it as commodities. Is there any other part of the entertainment industry where people are essentially bought and sold?

At one stage Scotland international Andy Webster, in extricating himself from Hearts to sign for Wigan five years ago, was being presented as the man who would be responsible for Bosman II. Webster sought to settle a breach of contract by paying up the remaining years on his deal with a Tynecastle club that had frozen him out. Generally, that is how such a dispute would be settled in other businesses.

However, it was feared that players being able, effectively, to buy-out their contracts could destroy a team game reliant on stability for sporting integrity. As a result, new rules were established two years ago which meant compensation did not equate to the cost of a contract, but how much it would cost to replace the departing player. A penalty clause, in essence, that makes it exceedingly difficult for 
players to escape contracts, however maladministered these might be.

Of course, this tightening up of contract conditions 
followed changes to Fifa’s Regulations on the Status and Transfer of Players (RSTP) in 2001 that opened the door for transfer windows – an aberration to FIFpro.

In September of this year they filed a complaint to the European Commission on RSTP, challenging “the global transfer market system governed by Fifa’s regulations as being anti-competitive, unjustified and illegal”.