Britain's football authorities were clinging last night to what is almost certainly a forlorn hope that it can escape the major ramifications of yesterday's decision in the Jean-Marc Bosman case. The transfer system that has existed for 100 years disintegrated into confusion at the hands of the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg.
As expected, the court endorsed a recommendation made in September from one of its legal advisers, which backed the Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman's fight to stop clubs having the right to buy and sell out-of-contract players.
Even as Rick Parry, the chief executive of the Premier League, seized on the fact that the judges had not included transfers between clubs of the same country in the ruling, however, the escape clause was becoming narrower.
"The ruling should not be a cause for panic or over-reaction," he said, "particularly since, as we forecast, the judgement may only apply to transfers which involve a player moving between countries within the European Union." Other opinion suggested he was wrong.
"The animal [the European transfer system] is injured but the animal will die, believe me," one of Bosman's lawyers, Luc Misson, said. "As far as limits on foreign players are concerned, the animal is dead."
"I hope that in a few years players will remember what I did for them," added Bosman, whose five-year legal fight led to the ruling.
Most pertinently, the Association believes clubs can easily avoid transfer fees by the simple expedient of finding a foreign club prepared to sign a player on a short-term basis.
"There is nothing to stop a player joining Calais FC for a day, for example, and becoming a free agent," Steve Double, an FA spokesman, said. "We believe the playing field will soon be levelled out."
So did the FA's chief executive, Graham Kelly, who appealed for calm. "The message from us is 'Don't panic, let's get round the table and talk'," he said, appealing for all parties to discuss the implications of a verdict which outlaws the market system that has operated for more than a century in England.
"The worst-case scenario is that the transfer system across Europe will be unable to be maintained," he said. "Hopefully that may not be the case. I hope there will be a period of calm reflection with Uefa and players' unions across Europe, so the wider interests of the game as a whole can be protected.
"There is a worry that smaller clubs might suffer, but we hope a system that has worked in England successfully for many years can betranslated into a European system, so that all countries can benefit."
The Professional ers' Association and League Managers' Association believe the transfer system in France could be a prototype to follow. Players are signed as schoolboys on long-term contracts until they are 24 years old. A fee is payable if they are transferred in the interim, but when they reach the end of their contracts they are free to move on, unless they have secured longer-term deals. No fee is involved.
Gordon Taylor, PFA chief executive, said he had made a similar proposal to the FA: "We need to have an adapted transfer system. Clubs need to continue developing their young players. We feel they should be able to retain those youngsters until their mid to late twenties. That is usually the time when players progress and clubs must be compensated should their players be transferred during that time."
There were less optimistic noises from the League. whose spokesman, Chris Hull, reiterated that three-quarters of professional players could lose their jobs. "Last season League clubs received pounds 9m from transfer market revenue, which is the lifeblood to all but a handful of sides. Some of that will be retained because transfers within contracts will still continue, but there will inevitably be a shortfall.
"If the European Court's ruling is implemented in its current state, it will have immense ramifications for football in this country....As many as 75 per cent of professional footballers could lose their full- time status in this country and the ruling will also have serious consequences for lower division clubs."
A group likely to gain from the Bosman case are agents, who will be able to demand higher salaries for their players in exchange for longer contracts. Eric Hall, a high-profile member of the breed, said it was the best news he had heard in his two decades in the game.
"I now believe in Father Christmas," he said. "I really do. I owe him [Bosman] a monster Christmas present. I'm going to get his name and address and send him presents.
"It's total rubbish to say the small clubs will go to the wall. They will also have to get into the real world, back their judgement more and give younger players longer contracts. If those players are going to be successful, they get sold on anyway. Otherwise, the likes of David Platt, Ian Rush, John Barnes etc would still be with small-type clubs.
"Andy Cole would still have gone for the same money [pounds 7m] because Manchester United wanted him then. They didn't want to wait two years until his contract was over. Players will still be bought and sold, and money will still be there."
There is no appeal against yesterday's verdicts and the Uefa president, Lennart Johansson, feared the worst. Describing the judgements as an attack on the sport, he said that football had been "left in a mess".
A brief history of the Bosman case
1982: Jean-Marc Bosman, then 17, signs as a professional for Belgian First Division club, Standard Liege.
1988: Moves to FC Liege, another Belgian First Division club, for pounds 66,000.
June 1990: Wants to move to French Second Division side, Dunkirk, after FC Liege cut his wages by 60 per cent in a new contract, which they were able to do under Belgian rules. FC Liege demand pounds 533,000, which Dunkirk refused. Liege subsequently deny Bosman a free transfer before suspending him.
August 1990: Bosman takes his club and Belgian football union to court in Liege to seek damages.
November 1990: Court allows Bosman to play for French Third Division team Saint Quentin. Bosman says he was forced to seek a new club abroad as he was boycotted in Belgium.
May 1991: Liege appeals court confirm verdict of lower court that Bosman can move freely to new club. Appeals court later asks Court of Justice how to interpret EU rules on workers' free movement.
May 1991: Playing days at St Quentin are over, but Bosman still receives unemployment benefit in France.
January 1992: Joins team at St Denis on the island of Reunion.
September 1992: Returns to Belgium, but cannot find a new club and is not entitled to unemployment benefit.
May 1993: Joins Belgian Third Division team Olympic Charleroi.
May 1994: Moves to Fourth Division Vise, where he still plays aged 31.
March 1995: Belgium's highest court reject new appeal by European football's governing body, Uefa, Belgian football union and FC Liege.
June 1995: Court of Justice hearings in Luxembourg. Bosman asks for about pounds 666,000 in damages from Uefa, Belgian football union and FC Liege.
September 20, 1995: Advocate-general advises the Court to rule that football's system of transfers and its limits on foreign players are illegal.
November 3, 1995: Uefa issues open letter, signed by the 49 presidents of European national associations, saying that the game will be split in two if the Court follows Lenz's advice.
November 24, 1995: World governing body, Fifa, back Uefa and express concern that ruling in favour of Bosman will leave EU countries out of step with the rest of the world.
December 15, 1995: Court rule in favour of Bosman. No appeal is possible.Reuse content