Aidan Smith: Football world 20 years after Bosman

Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman, flanked by two of his lawyers, smiles after winning his case at the European Court of Justice in 1995. Picture: STF/AFP/Getty
Belgian footballer Jean-Marc Bosman, flanked by two of his lawyers, smiles after winning his case at the European Court of Justice in 1995. Picture: STF/AFP/Getty
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ONCE upon a so-called golden era, football clubs were run by self-made men with Brylcreemed hair and Bentleys parked at the door who made 50,000 people cram into crumbling death-trap arenas with no roofs and terrible toilets.

These were the chairmen, guilty of fan exploitation, but managers were just as culpable when it came to player exploitation.

The Sunday name for them was disciplinarian but terms which better suited around a quarter to five on a Saturday afternoon included psycho, bully, teacup-thrower, wall-puncher, door-smasher, and impersonator of Ian Hendry’s sadistic military prison sergeant in 1965 film The Hill.

Let’s all give grateful thanks that those bad old days will never return.

And contrast then with now, if you will, with footballers free from slavery. No more are they kept at clubs against their will or sold without a say. And how exactly do they behave in this supposedly gilded age for the beautiful game? By being as deranged with power as chairmen and managers used to be – shopping and tattooing and whoring and car-crashing like there’s no tomorrow. Demanding birthday cakes and renegotiation of the contract on a whim. Booting loyalty over the high stand and with it humility and gratitude for all that nurturing. By being the diamond-studded exemplars of the greedy, self-obsessed, fame-driven, gaudy-taste entitlement culture which has turned the country bad.

How on earth can we get rid of THEM?

OK, I exaggerate, but maybe not by much. These are extreme snapshots of football from before and after Bosman. We’ve reached the 20th anniversary of the landmark ruling, the most important piece of legislation in football’s great and grotty history. This requires us to think about how far the game has come, also what it’s lost. The case is so momentous it probably qualifies for more than one commemoration. For instance, although judgment would be reached in his favour a few months later, it was 20 years ago today that a previously obscure Belgian midfielder stood up in the European Court of Justice and declared football’s transfer system to be illegal. Since we’re talking birthday cakes – and Yaya Toure is typical of the kind of player who’s got that much more fabulously wealthy as a consequence of the ruling – Jean-Marc Bosman surely deserves one.

It goes without saying that the judgment went too far, turning the player into the boss. Not really equipped with the right faculties to determine whether a fourth neck tattoo is really essential, he wields fearsome clout at a club either by demanding vastly-improved terms to stay or running down his deal and leaving for nothing – and if it’s the latter then the huge signing-on fee and salary he expects for there being no transfer fee involved will make him pretty influential at his new club as well.

Football was ill-prepared for the Bosman ruling, just as it’s been caught with its shorts down about many things, including the safety or otherwise of its grounds. Unchecked, the football agent emerged, wide of collar and attitude, and comparisons with sharks are almost unavoidable: if these guys don’t keep their clients moving or at the very least renegotiating, they die.

So players – given freedoms but also liberated from accountability – have done very well. Agents have done very well and the big clubs have simply maintained their position. As World Soccer magazine put it not long ago: “The Bosman ruling’s legacy was to create an oligarchy among football’s top clubs and plunge everyone else into relative poverty.” Turnbull Hutton, the Raith Rovers chairman, died this year, but before leaving us he declared that the ruling – with clubs like his no longer able to unearth a Jim Baxter safe in the knowledge they’d get a transfer fee for him – had “killed” Scottish football.

A by-product of Bosman has been the easy flow of foreign imports. Great stars have come and we’ve been privileged to see them. Arsenal and Chelsea have fielded teams without a single Englishman, but the squeeze on home players has been to the detriment of the England team, all the more since the top clubs have preferred to recruit foreign proteges as well. In Scotland, foreign players of dramatically more modest ability have rubbed their eyes and gazed upon Motherwell and Dundee. Being as magnanimous and European as possible, we’ve got to hope they enjoyed their stays, but it’s been a difficult watch.

Sir Alex Ferguson, if he’d stayed manager of St Mirren, would surely have been the Bosman ruling’s most damning critic. But at Manchester United, having had to stand down Peter Schmeichel for Gary Walsh to comply with the old restriction on foreigners and seen his team thrashed by Barcelona, he wouldn’t have won the 1999 Champions League without the overhaul of the law.

The other night in Amsterdam you would have offered a euro for the thoughts of Ajax and Celtic on Bosman. Both lifted that giant pot before the ruling and never will again. Celtic cheerfully abided by their own limit on foreigners – only one player, Bobby Lennox, from outside the Glasgow environs – to triumph in 1967. Ajax won for the fourth time in 1995 but were then powerless to stop the Bosman-provoked obliteration of their brilliant academy, with Frank and Ronald de Boer even able to go on strike to force through moves.

Finally, you wonder what Jean-Marc Bosman himself makes of the revolution which bears his name. With a five-year legal battle followed by depression, alcoholism, suicidal impulses and zero sales of a T-shirt which he hoped would prove popular with the thousands of footballers who’d benefited hugely from his courage and determination, his story has made unhappy reading for a while. When he’s contacted for the anniversary pieces you hope it’s better. Meanwhile, the players carry on getting richer, or indeed poorer.


MY FAVOURITE prog-rock band King Crimson’s previous visit to Scotland before last week was 1976, the year I gave up playing rugby.

The Broughton High School FP Juniors team was a misnomer as we encountered too many seniors intent on battering pale, scrawny lads like my pals and me, who promptly went back to listening to records in silent, head-nodding reverence in each other’s bedrooms.

Finally KC came back just as a Rugby World Cup began. Before the show I had a couple of pints in a pub where I’ve watched heroic Scotland failures and the odd triumph.

My rugby credentials are pretty decent. My sister teaches at the school where the game began and I live opposite the site of the first-ever international, where a new stand is promised, although I suspect we might end up with a Tesco.

But while I love prog’s big symphonies, I’m less keen on rugby’s big hits. The gig was fantastic and this World Cup needs to be.

My advice for Scotland is to copy the band: go with a three-drummers formation.