Football must take up the Bosman challenge

Gordon Taylor, chief executive of the Professional Footballers' Association, believes a Belgian player's court action could change the transfer system throughout Europe
Click to follow
The Independent Online
The European Court of Justice will rule later this month on a case which could change the face of football throughout the continent. The whole system of transfers and transfer fees is put into question by the case, which has been brought by a Belgian player, Jean-Marc Bosman.

Bosman is claiming that the present transfer system denied him the chance to carry out his profession with the employers of his choice.

When he came to the end of his playing contract with RFC Liege, the club offered Bosman a new deal. However, the offer amounted to only 25 per cent of what the player had earned under his previous contract.

A French club, Dunkerque, were keen to sign him but could not afford his transfer fee. The price had been calculated under a formula agreed by Uefa, the European game's governing body, and based on the player's age and his previous year's earnings.

Citing the Treaty of Rome's commitment to the free movement of labour and opposition to restraint of trade in any profession, Bosman is taking his case to the European court later this month. Legal opinion almost everywhere is that he will succeed.

The case could have far-reaching consequences for the game in Europe. There are suggestions that it could even lead to the abolition of all transfer fees. This would clearly be detrimental to the interests of smaller clubs and would turn the finances of the game upside down, with the value of players on club balance sheets plummeting.

There would also be no incentive for clubs to develop youth training schemes, which we have developed successfully in England over the last 12 years. At any one time there is now an average of 1,250 boys aged between 16 and 18 following two-year courses.

Such a system would be in immediate jeopardy as there would be no guarantee that clubs could hang on to their players. They would certainly receive no compensation for the training and development they had put into them.

The case represents a dilemma for the international body of players' associations, FIFPro, of which I am president. While one cannot ignore Bosman's justifiable claims, it is the system in Belgium as opposed to the system in England that has brought about this confrontation.

The English game learned its lesson from the celebrated case of George Eastham in 1963, when the resources of the Professional Footballers' Association were stretched to the limit supporting the case.

Eastham, an international inside forward with Newcastle United, had come to the end of his contract and wanted to join Arsenal. He was prevented from doing so by the transfer system in force at the time, which effectively meant than no player moved anywhere unless his club approved of the terms. It was a system that some 10 years earlier had encouraged the Players' Union Chairman, Jimmy Guthrie, to describe his members as "soccer slaves" at a TUC conference.

In effect, at the end of a contract a club could reduce a player's wages down to the minimum pounds 8 a week, despite the fact that just two years earlier Jimmy Hill and Cliff Lloyd had led a successful campaign to remove the maximum wage.

The court case, brought against Newcastle United, the Football League and the Football Association, resulted in a decisive victory for the player and the PFA. Judge Wilberforce said that the retain and transfer system was ultra vires and the retention system in particular was in restraint of trade.

As a result of the judgment a system was introduced, the principle of which is still in force today. A club can demand a transfer fee for a player at the end of his contract only if it has offered him a new contract which at least equals the terms of the previous deal. If no such offer is made, the player is entitled to move on without any fee.

In 1978 the system was refined to enable players to decline the offer of new terms and immediately join a club of their choice. If the two clubs are unable to agree on a transfer fee, the case is referred to the four- man transfer tribunal, which comprises an independent chairman, Professor Sir John Wood, who is a professor of law, a member of the League concerned, a member of the League Managers' Association and a member of the PFA.

This system has worked well. The tribunal deals with, on average, 30 cases a year and has served well a professional football structure which is unique in the world.

In England we have 92 full-time professional clubs and more than 3,000 full-time professional players and youth trainees. The game attracts attendances of well over 20 million supporters a year, a figure which has increased throughout the recession for the last eight years.

More money than ever is coming into the game following the formation of the Premier League in 1992, particularly from television, and transfer turnover has virtually doubled in the last three years to well over pounds 100m. This provides vital funds for clubs outside the Premier League who provide a full-time breeding ground for the stars of the future.

This whole structure could be changed fundamentally by the Bosman case, although there are signs that changes may be negotiated rather than imposed.

Uefa has begun discussions with FIFPro on a more equitable transfer system. It is acknowledged that the system must give the player the right to move at the end of a contract but also include a measure of compensation for the club which has spent time and money developing the player's talents from an early age.

It is also incumbent upon the judge in his summary to the Bosman case to encourage employer and employee organisations to come together to achieve a pragmatic solution to avoid any further appeals of such a nature. This is a requirement under the Treaty of Rome as well.

It is alleged that efforts have been made by the Belgian FA to "buy off" Bosman and settle the case out of court. However, this would simply amount to avoiding the issue until the next Bosman comes along.

Instead, it is vital for football to achieve a satisfactory solution. Otherwise there will be a vast reduction in the number of clubs, who in turn will put players on unrealistic long-term contracts. Such contracts would be inhibitive to the player and could also lead to the bankruptcy of clubs, who would be forced into big financial commitments to long-term contracts.

Bristol City faced receivership when they were caught out in such circumstances when they were relegated from the First Division in the early 1980s. Their case triggered off a crisis of confidence in the whole of the football world, with many other clubs facing similar visits from the receiver and administrator.

If the transfer system is to survive for the general welfare of the game, it is also essential that the game stops the manipulation of that system by agents working in conjunction with the clubs to create artificially high transfer fees. We have seen too many cases in which monies have been creamed off from the transfer fee and circulated among the various parties.

The Bosman case represents a massive challenge to football; it is vital that we are prepared to meet it.

Comments