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From the formation of the Premier League, to the arrival of mega-rich state-sponsored benefactors, elite-level football has changed beyond recognition in the last 30 years.
But perhaps the most influential reform was ratified in the courts in 1995, when it was ruled that out-of-contract footballers could leave clubs without their employers receiving a transfer fee.
The Bosman ruling, inspired by and tirelessly campaigned for by Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman, has redefined the footballing landscape and changed the destiny of thousands of professional players who have succeeded him.
Everyone knows the Bosman rule, but nobody knows the man
- Jean-Marc Bosman
The ‘Bosman’ has seamlessly assimilated into everyday footballing parlance and the legislation is utilised habitually by clubs at every level. Steve McManaman, Paul Lambert, Sol Campbell, Andrea Pirlo, Robert Lewandowski and Edinson Cavani have all benefitted from the regulation.
But who was the invisible man who changed history? The great revolutionaries are usually celebrated for their ingenuity and foresight, but Bosman was discarded and left to fend for himself after sacrificing everything.
Bosman - The Player Who Changed Football is the story of how an unheralded footballer with a steadfast belief left an indelible mark on the sport at a devastating human cost.
The BT Sport Film, which features contributions from Rio Ferdinand, Glenn Hoddle and Eni Aluko, follows David Ginola's trip to Belgium to meet the son of a cleaner and a coal worker who, despite being relatively unknown to modern audiences, changed the face of the beautiful game.
Bosman’s childhood aspirations were familiar. He dreamed of playing professionally for the team whose stadium dominated the view from his bedroom window: Standard Liege.
Nicknamed Bobby Charlton by his peers, who recognised his prodigious talent during his formative years, his dream was realised aged 19.
“Belgian football had faith in a young Jean-Marc Bosman, that this guy could become a genuine star,” recalled The Athletic’s Matt Slater.
The Bosman ruling timeline
- 1983: Jean-Marc Bosman realises childhood dream by joining Standard Liege
1990: High-profile move to rivals RFC Liege falls flat and his contract expires
- French side Dunkerque express an interest in signing Bosman but can’t match RFC’s valuation
- Bosman ostracised at RFC and club cuts his wages by 70%
- His lawyers sue the Belgian FA and UEFA for restraint of trade
1995: Landmark ruling from RU court that out-of-contract players can move on free transfers
But the reality didn’t match the perception for Bosman and after falling out of favour at his boyhood club, he made the switch to local rivals RFC Liege in 1988 in a bid to revive his stuttering career.
He failed to impress his new employers, though, and his contract expired two years later in 1990.
French side Dunkerque expressed an interest in signing him, but they failed to match RFC Liege’s asking price.
Pre-ruling, employers still held enormous agency over players even when their contracts had expired and Bosman was unable to walk away because the club retained his registration documents and his suitors couldn't prize him away.
In essence, before Bosman, a player could not leave unless his club agreed to let him go.
“I was in an era where clubs have the power over players and it was wrong. It needed somebody like Jean-Marc Bosman to say enough is enough,” said beneficiary and current Ipswich Town manager Paul Lambert.
Bosman had no choice but to remain at RFC even though the club placed him in the reserves and slashed his pay by 70%.
The restraint of trade was commonplace, but Bosman’s story is one of subversion.
It wasn’t his intention to start a revolution, but he was unwavering in his values and determined to challenge convention.
His lawyers sued the Belgian FA and UEFA, and the protracted court case (which lasted five years) finally concluded with the landmark ruling that out-of-contract players can move on free transfers.
Limits on the number of foreign players from the EU were lifted and the end of cross-border restrictions paved the way for the contemporary cosmopolitan leagues across Europe.
The ruling was adopted across Europe and Steve McManaman’s move from Liverpool to Real Madrid was arguably the first time that English audiences were exposed to the momentous statute, although it wasn’t without its critics.
Sceptics argued that the law removed pre-existing structures that safeguarded an employee’s livelihood. They would also point to the rise of the agent.
“The lesser player would be let go and find it very difficult to achieve the same sort of salary he was getting at the football club at that time. It actually harmed a lot of players as well,” said former England manager Sam Allardyce.
Amid the wrangling and the fallout, Bosman - the one man army who fought a legion of football lawmakers - was faced with a new battle.
His life unravelled post-ruling and he was left with next to nothing after he retired. As the news agenda moved on, he went through a divorce and was afflicted by alcoholism and depression.
The prolonged court case deprived him of a career he dreamt of and instead of being lauded for his fortitude he was abandoned because his peers were scared to be associated with him.
The extent of his destitution was laid bare in a poignant scene when he showed Ginola where he lived after he lost it all: his mum’s garage.
So how does Bosman think his law has worked in practice?
He argues that although the benefits of the ruling have been diluted by the trend of billionaire benefactors exacerbating the gulf in wealth between the super-wealthy and the rest, it has democratised football to an extent.
He acknowledges the balancing act between unfettered free market capitalism and restrictions, but to restore a semblance of equilibrium he advocates a salary cap system adopted in American sports.
Time has passed and football has moved on, but the Bosman rule remains pervasive and as important today as it was in 1995.
Bosman was the biggest single change of the last 30 years but it’s a debate that hasn’t finished
- Matt Slater, The Athletic
Simon Green, head of BT Sport, said: “This is a powerful yet rarely-told story that pays homage to the eponymous hero and his incredible life story.
“Despite still being relatively unknown to many fans today, his dedication and perseverance has shaped modern football as we know it: we are honoured to be part of his journey and help amplify and raise awareness of his journey.”
Through disarmingly honest accounts and quiet introspection, Bosman tells his story with humility and poise. But, for the man who changed the game, there remains a burning desire to be recognised.
How would he sum up his legacy? “Everyone knows the Bosman rule, but nobody knows the man. I am a man without a face”.
Watch the premiere of Bosman - The Player Who Changed Football exclusively on BT Sport 1 HD from 10.15pm on Wednesday 9 December.