Earlier this summer, Maxi Pereira traversed Portugal to move from Lisbon’s Benfica to FC Porto. The Uruguayan is a feisty right-back, who, when given space, tends to venture forward. He reportedly also had offers from Stoke City in England and Galatasaray in Turkey, but chose to stick with the Primeira Liga to be able to play in the UEFA Champions League.
Pereira was a free agent. His move neither resembled the protracted saga of infinite rumors and negotiations surrounding Belgian midfielder Kevin De Bruyne’s transfer to Manchester City, nor the somewhat comical two-minute clusterfuck over Spanish goalkeeper David De Gea between Manchester United and Real Madrid. What it did highlight was the lasting importance of the Bosman ruling, rendered by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg in December 1995.
In the 1980s, Jean-Marc Bosman, a talented midfielder, was the captain of Belgium’s U21 team, but his career stalled at Royal Football Club de Liège. At the end of his contract in 1990, Bosman wanted to force a transfer to French club Dunkirk. Liège offered him modest terms to renew his contract, so Bosman decided to sign for Dunkirk. The Belgian club (which was entitled to a transfer fee, according to the prevailing regulations at the time) pushed the asking price until Dunkirk rescinded its offer.
The verdict introduced American-style free agency, and also struck down UEFA’s limitation of the number of foreigners at a club.
Bosman was cornered. He sued Liège and won, but appeals and interventions by his club, the Belgian FA KBVB, and UEFA took the case to the European Court of Justice. If Article 48 of the Treaty of Rome of March 25, 1957 enabled the freedom of movement of workers, Bosman argued that soccer clubs should be prohibited from requiring and receiving payment of a sum of money upon the engagement of one of its players who has come to the end of his contract by a new employing club.
The court responded affirmatively and thus sided with Bosman. His legal odyssey had come to an end, and with it, two longstanding tenets of European soccer changed profoundly. The verdict introduced American-style free agency, and also struck down UEFA’s limitation of the number of foreigners at a club. The lack of free agency and the restrictions on foreign players were not compatible with European workers’ constitutional freedom of employment.
The Bosman ruling accelerated the globalization and migration of players in soccer. In 1994, just six percent of the players in Europe’s leading leagues came from outside the old continent; by 1998, that share had climbed to 28 percent, according to a 2014 analysis by Chrysovalantis Vasilakis, an economist at the Catholic University of Leuven in Belgium.
Since December 1995, after the Bosman ruling was passed, there have been 68 Latino players on champion teams of the Champions League.
“The Bosman ruling, in connection to the TV rights bubble in Europe, opened new alternatives for Latin American players, in particular those from Argentina and Uruguay with European citizenship,” said Ariel Reck, a sports lawyer from Argentina.
“Transfers abroad became a more regular instance. Average players went to new markets in Eastern Europe: Romania, Bulgaria, Greece, and also Chipre. The Latin American players in the traditional markets of Spain, Italy, and Portugal started to go to second division clubs due to market liberalization provoked by Bosman.”
This transition is reflected in the Champions League, the most important competition in Europe.
Before the Bosman ruling, only 17 Latin American players were continental champions in Europe. With the exception of one year, there were no Latinos on teams winning the league title from 1969 to 1996. Only once in the 1986-87 season did the Portuguese team Porto win with four Brazilians on its squad. The top of the league was largely a desert for Latin Americans.
That all changed dramatically, however, after the Bosman ruling. Since December 1995, after the rule was passed, there have been 68 Latino players on champion teams of the Champions League.
In 2005, Latin America had its own “Bosman” ruling – the Bueno-Rodríguez case. The contract of the two Peñarol players, Carlos Bueno and Cristian Rodríguez, expired at the end of 2004, but the Uruguayan club intended to extend the contract through the contractual use of an unilateral extension option without reciprocal benefits for the players. Unilateral extension options became a general practice in Latin America in response to the Bosman ruling to prevent players from leaving freely at the end of their contract, and as a defense mechanism against richer European clubs.
As a matter of fact, in 2005, Latin America had its own “Bosman” ruling – the Bueno-Rodríguez case.
Bueno and Rodríguez were stuck. However, the Court of Arbitration for Sport CAS pointed to the unlawfulness of such clauses in light of FIFA regulations and international principles of law. They were free to sign a contract with Paris Saint-Germain.
“The Bueno-Rodríguez case changed Latin American soccer a lot,” said Reck. “Players used to sign contracts for one year plus a two-year option. This put the players in a difficult bargaining position. The payment structure was about 70 percent signing-on fee and 30 percent salary. So, the option had no signing-on fee, just salary. Therefore players subject to the option saw an income reduction of about 70 percent. Bueno-Rodríguez clubs were forced to sign long-term contracts with higher remuneration.”
Former Colombia international Giovanni Hernández and Mauro Cejas from Liga MX club Monarcas Morelia both benefited from CAS’s ruling, but the Bueno-Rodríguez case, like the Bosman ruling, mostly helped commonplace players.
At 50, Bosman, the grandson of Slovenian mineworkers who survived Nazi work camps, has mostly lived on welfare benefits.
Bosman himself was just that: an unexceptional player, who played for obscure French second division clubs, made a detour to a club in Réunion (an island in the Indian Ocean), but failed to resurrect his career. He became bitter and depressed, started drinking, and was convicted for domestic violence. At 50, Bosman, the grandson of Slovenian mineworkers who survived Nazi work camps, has mostly lived on welfare benefits.
His legacy remains very important though. Maxi Pereira and other players who are playing UEFA Champions League – Arsenal’s Joel Campbell, Sevilla’s Éver Banega and Juventus’ Martin Cáceres will all be “Bosman eligible” at the end of this season – would do well to remember him, as he won free-agency and changed world soccer.