A new twist on football’s Bosman rule

The 'Webster ruling' was big news in 2006. Almost ten years later comes another player power move. Picture: SNS

The 'Webster ruling' was big news in 2006. Almost ten years later comes another player power move. Picture: SNS

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A GERMAN court’s verdict could add a whole new definition to the term player power, says Marco Rinaldi.

Twenty years ago, a relatively unknown footballer, Jean-Marc Bosman, changed football forever. His landmark case allowed free movement of European Union footballers within Europe, lifting the previous “foreigner” restrictions, and also meant that players at the end of contracts could move to another club for free, without their club demanding a transfer fee.

The effect of the decision was profound; without it, the English Premier League would not be full of the international superstars that everyone wants to see, and, most likely, Football Association chairman Greg Dyke would have less to grumble about regarding the lack of English players available for the national team.

It handed power to the players in the negotiations with clubs, which could no longer demand a fee when a contract was coming to an end. Indeed, it seems almost unthinkable now that there was a time when an out-of-contract player could be forced to remain with a club against his will.

The decision was based on EU principles of free movement of workers and freedom of association. Essentially, it held that footballers were no different to other types of employees, and held the same rights as them.

Of course, there are still those few who try to argue that football is, in fact, distinct from other forms of employment, and that limits on foreigners should be re-introduced, but each attempt to challenge the rules set out by Bosman is even more half-hearted than the last. But while the majority of those in the world of football now take the principles of the Bosman ruling for granted, a recent decision in the German courts could shake things up once again, and possibly to an even greater extent.

Heinz Müller is a 36-year-old goalkeeper who played for Mainz in Germany. His contract ran out in June 2014. The club were content to let him go, but Müller had other ideas; he wanted to stay at the club indefinitely.

His argument bears striking similarities to some of the principles in the Bosman ruling. Under German national provisions derived from EU law, any worker who has worked on a fixed-term contract with an employer for two years is entitled to have that contract renewed unless there is a fair reason not to.

The protection is in substance the same in the UK where employees with two years of consecutive service, even as fixed-term employees, enjoy the right not to be unfairly dismissed.

In what sports commentators will no doubt describe as a landmark ruling, but which in reality is nothing of the sort, the German court has held that sportsmen should not be treated any differently to other workers, and therefore after two years have the right to an indefinite contract.

The club owner, Harald Strutz said: “If this is allowed to stand, football will be hit by a huge turning point, similar to the Bosman ruling. Clubs would have to pay wages for decades to players until they reached pension age.”

In an approach that recalled the reaction to Bosman, Mainz’s lawyer said: “Footballers aren’t the same as other workers” because they can’t offer the same work contributions as other workers for as many years given the physical requirements. The judge, he argued, had not taken this into account, and had created a dangerous precedent.

Unsurprisingly, Mainz have confirmed they will be appealing against the decision, and there does seem some force to the argument that a footballer can only actually perform his job for a set period of time due to the physical demands of the game.

But even if that is correct, could there be a decision that for the extent of a footballer’s career (which could span 20 years or more) they are entitled to remain with the same club if they want to?

Such a dramatic change would seem to be unthinkable, and would tip the scales even more toward player power than before.

Only time will tell, but it may be that in 20 years, instead of “Bosman” transfers, we are talking about “Müller” contracts.

• Marco Rinaldi is an Associate with Simpson & Marwick www.simpmar.com

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