top of page
  • Shauna Rush


Updated: Jun 2, 2020

This article was originally published on January 23rd, 2019.

It's January, the transfer window is open. January transfer deals are often a minefield. Built on complicated negotiations and anxious administrative tasks that leave players guessing and clubs sweating.

This season teams and fans are seeing the effects of the free transfer. Players like Aaron Ramsey (@aaronramsey) have already agreed to sign for Juventus in the summer. Leaving current employers Arsenal without any fee.

What Are Free Transfers?

Free transfers are common in all areas of soccer. With teams across all soccer leagues being utilizing the free transfer.

The free transfer means that acquiring clubs do not have to pay any compensation fee for the their new player.

However, some countries do have restrictions that require a small fee paid to academy graduates. In the UK, players under the age of 24, who are out of contract, are only available on a free transfer if released by the club holding the players' license.

Players who choose to leave their current clubs can opt to run down their contracts. Within six months of the end of their contract, players are free to begin negotiations with prospective clubs and sign a pre-contract agreement.

How Aas The Rule Introduced?

The soccer world was changed in 1995, after the consolidation of 3 separate legal cases, all involving the little known Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman.

In 1990, a 25-year-old Bosman was coming to the end of his contract at Belgian side RFC Liège. He was offered an improved contract by French second division side USL Dunkerque, an end of his two-year contract with Liège.

RFC Liège demanded a transfer fee, in excess of what Dunkerque was willing to pay, and the move fell apart. When the deal fell through, the Belgian club then cut Bosman's wages by 75% and refused to sell him.

Moreover, Bosman refused to accept the massive wage cut and was suspended indefinitely by the Royal Belgian Football Association (KBVB), leaving the midfielder stuck.

Unable to move, Bosman decided to challenge the legality of his situation. Starting a five-year fight against the RFC Liège, KBVB, and UEFA. Taking his case to the European Court of Justice, citing the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which guaranteed the freedom of movement for workers anywhere in Europe.

"I went with someone I knew from my neighborhood to the law firm," he explained. "Liege had 15 days to respond and they did not answer. We contacted the Belgian federation and they did not respond. And so the court case started," stated Bosman.

On December 15, 1995, the European Court of Justice ruled, in favor of Bosman and simultaneously creating the Bosman Ruling, in the soccer world.

What The Ruling Has Meant For Players

The ruling significantly changed the landscape of soccer. For some, the ruling meant soccer stopped being a sport and became a business.

The power was taken away from the clubs, and giving it to the players.

In his 2015 book Leading Sir Alex Ferguson stated "Once the European Court of Justice ruled that clubs no longer had to pay transfer fees after the expiration of a player's contract, all hell broke loose. Suddenly it was a free-for-all."

The Bosman ruling allowed players to leave a club on a free transfer as soon as their contract expired. This meant that they had leverage to demand huge signing-on fees and salaries from new clubs to make up for the absent transfer fee.

Players coming to the end of their contract could also demand more money from their current club. With the fear of losing that player on a free if demands were not met.

The years that followed saw the rule facilitate large moves from teams in smaller markets. 1995 European champions Ajax, saw their team decimated. Scottish champions Rangers would also lose the battle to hold on to Brian Laudrup when he moved to Chelsea.

"Everything changed after the Bosman Ruling," explained former Ajax president Michael van Praag. “We lost Patrick Kluivert on a free to AC Milan. But he wasn’t successful, so they sold him (to Barcelona) a year later for €12 million. Yet we had educated Patrick for 12 to 13 years and received nothing.”

A popular example of a player taking advantage of the new rule is Sol Campbell. When the defender moved to Arsenal from north London rivals Tottenham Hotspur.

At Arsenal in 2001, Campbell earned £100,000 ($150,000) per week, plus a signing-on fee worth around £2m ($3m) a year. This came when only a decade earlier no one in British soccer was earning £10,000 ($15,000) per week.

In 1994, Blackburn Rovers had made Chris Sutton (@chris_sutton73) the first £10,000 ($15,000) per week soccer player in Britain. The tenfold increase occurred in the space of just seven years. Few professions, in any industry across the world, have got richer quicker.

"It's a paradox," Bosman later admitted. "The Bosman Ruling was born to redistribute the wealth to everyone, especially the poorest players, but now the gain is in the hands of the few." "I still think that the decision of the Court of Justice was right. It was a positive law but it's now been distorted. Unfortunately, football is not healthy now. Players are earning astronomical sums of money. Contracts are not respected," he continued.

What The Ruling Has Meant For Agents

As players' wages increased, soccer saw the influx of player agents. Suddenly, there was more interest from agents and other middlemen, who would become involved in every aspect of player transfers.

Premier League clubs handed over $287m in agents' fees, in 2017 alone. Manchester City also spent $34m, in the same period. These figures are only ever going to rise, too, with agents becoming more and more prominent and powerful. Super-agent Eric Hall once said, "The terrible thing about my job is that players get 80 percent of my earnings."

Due to the power agents have in the soccer industry, third-party ownership by agents has also become a major problem. Third-party owners purchase a percentage of a player's "economic rights" from the club or even purchase a player's contract. Owning the contract allows the third-party owner to increase profits by "parking a player" at a club temporarily until the player's value appreciates, at which time he is sold to another club and the agent earns a percentage of the transfer fees. A great example of this was Carlos Tevez and Javier Mascherano's moves to West Ham United in 2006.

Foreign Players

Before the Bosman Ruling clubs competing in European competitions could name no more than three foreign players in their squad for games. For British teams, this even included players born in other areas of the UK.

After the ruling clubs became free to play players from all corners of the EU without restriction. In 1999, Chelsea became the first side to field a team entirely made up of foreign players.

What The Ruling Has Meant For Clubs

The ruling finally reinforced the wealth divide between clubs. Clubs with the deepest pockets collected the greatest talents.

Despite the ruling enabling a greater sense of freedom for workers, it has unintentionally morphed soccer into its current status.

Smaller countries began to see their domestic game devastated. Countries such as Scotland, Norway, Croatia, and Greece all seen dynasties as the talent flooded to the top.

However, despite these teams being successful at a domestic level, they could no longer compete at the European level. As again players would demand moves to clubs with more money.

Players are now being poached at a younger age than ever before and then being loaned out to feeder clubs, allowing Europe's elite to monopolize the top talent. Therefore, creating a growing divide in class. Chelsea is one team that has been utilizing this system, having sent 33 players out on loan during the 2017/18 season and 29 during the 2018/19.

Gone are the days when sides such as Ajax, Red Star Belgrade, and Steaua Bucharest could hold onto their best players long enough to win the European Cup.

What The Ruling Has Meant For Owners

"To be perfectly blunt, the introduction of the Bosman Ruling was a disaster for sport, and especially for football,” former Uefa chief executive Gerard Aigner said. The traditional model of club ownership has begun to die out. Local owners can no longer work with the increasing costs of maintaining a first-rate squad. Bringing to the end the age of the millionaires. The vacuum of power created by Jean-Marc Bosman has made soccer a billionaires’ game now.


bottom of page