15 December 1995: the “Bosman ruling” transforms the economics of football

The finances of football were changed forever on this day in 1995 when Jean-Marc Bosman won his case, and out-of-contract footballers were allowed to move freely between clubs.

Footballers' salaries are the stuff of legend. The average player in the Premier League, for example, scrapes by on just £240,000 a month – plenty of cash for naff houses, vulgar cars, and, lately, dodgy investment schemes. The reason they are all so fabulously wealthy is down to one man – Belgian journeyman midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman and his fight for justice.

Bosman plied his trade with clubs Standard Liege and RFC Liege in the 1980s, winning 20 youth caps for Belgium in the process. In 1990, he wanted to leave RFC Liege and move to French club Dunkerque. But Liege wanted a fee, and Dunkerque didn't want to pay it. So Bosman stayed at Liege, who were relegated. His earnings subsequently dropped.

The cheesed-off Bosman wasn't happy, and sued for restraint of trade. It took five years and a fair few appeals before the matter was ultimately decided, but on this day in 1995, the “Bosman Ruling” or Union Royale Belge de Football Association ASBL v Jean-Marc Bosman was handed down by the European Court of Justice. It gave footballers freedom of movement on a par with any other trade. From now on, out-of-contract players could leave their clubs and go anywhere in the European Union without their new club paying a transfer fee.

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It was a significant factor in making football the money-spinning business it is today. Because clubs no longer had to pay a fee to a player's old club, players demanded bigger salaries and signing-on fees. The ruling also banned European domestic football leagues, as well as UEFA, from limiting the number of foreign EU players a side could field. This had a huge effect in European club competitions.

Before the ruling, UEFA rules said sides could only have three foreign players (plus a further two if they had come up through the youth system). This caused English teams in particular big problems, as Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish players counted as “foreign”. That meant some clubs – notably Manchester United – couldn't play their strongest side in European competitions, and were at a disadvantage.

As a consequence, the post-Bosman Manchester United side that won the Champions League in 1999 contained just five English players. Post-Brexit, of course, this could all change.