Bosman case

The Bosman case (Union Royale Belge v Bosman, Case C-415/93) resulted in a landmark ruling by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) applying the right of free movement to professional footballers – and by implication other sportsmen – by allowing them to transfer without undue hindrance to another club at the end of their existing contract. In 1990, Jean-Marc Bosman, a Belgian footballer, declined to renew his contract with RC Liège and was placed on the club’s list of players available for transfer. However, under rules applied at the time between clubs and agreed by foot­ball’s governing bodies at both national and European (UEFA) levels, Liège pro­posed to levy a substantial transfer fee upon any club which sought to engage him. Together with rules imposing limits on the number of foreign players which clubs were able to field, this stipulation made it virtually impossible for Bosman to find alternative employment, either in Belgium or abroad (he wished to play in France).

The case was eventually referred to the ECJ, which ruled in December 1995 that transfer fees were incompatible with the right of free movement of persons guaranteed under Article 48 EC (now Article 45 TFEU) and that restrictions on foreign players could not be applied in a way that constituted discrimination on grounds of nationality between citizens of EU member states. Free transfer at the end of contracts was thus established and quotas on foreigners could only apply to non-EU citizens. A parallel case relating to the application of competition policy to football was withdrawn by the plaintiff at the last minute, following apparent pressure from the industry.

The long-term effects of the Bosman case were significant. Most obviously, it helped create a single market in football, a self-regulating sector where previously many assumed that European law did not apply, and promoted the emergence of football clubs which drew heavily on foreign players, underpinned by high salaries in an increasingly competitive international arena. More widely, it confirmed that non-public bodies with the power to regulate entire sectors, as in sport, fell within the remit of the Treaties. For Bosman personally, however, the outcome was less happy. After a brief period of fame, he was largely shunned by the football establishment and was unable to take advantage of the new freedom he had helped establish for other players.

September 2012

Copyright: Anthony Teasdale, 2012

Citation: The Penguin Companion to European Union (2012), additional website entry

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