By Graham Ruthven
Jean-Marc Bosman was a forgettable soccer player. Had it not been for a court ruling that took on his name only his family would have remembered he had played soccer at all. As it is, Bosman is the man who sparked the biggest change in soccer since the introduction of the back pass rule.
In 1995 Bosman, an obscure Belgian player, went to the European Court of Justice to force through a move to French second division side Dunkerque. The case set a precedent, allowing players the freedom to move in accordance with EU law at the end of their contracts. UEFA's 'three plus two' regulation which restricted the number of overseas players in any one team was erased from the rule book, setting in motion the elite dominance we see today, allowing the biggest teams to buy the best players unchecked.
For Bosman the benefits of the case were difficult to see. By the end of the five-year legal tussle he was living in his parents' garage, divorced and struggling with depression. But for players all over Europe, the ruling gave them control over their own careers.
At the time of the Bosman ruling, the International Federation of Professional Footballers (aka FIFPro) was a little-known body representing the best interests of professional soccer players, like a kind of union. Since then, FIFPro has become a major player in European soccer, making pivotal contributions to the discussion of player welfare at the 2022 Qatar World Cup and workers' rights.
FIFPro's growing influence has them in bullish mood and now they have their sights set on reforming soccer's transfer market. FIFPro plans to mount a legal challenge against the sport's current transfer market, claiming that players are "shackled" to their clubs under the existing system.
The specifics of the proposed reformation are unknown at this point, but a successful challenge would trigger a revolution in the way players are bought and sold between clubs. One potential result could be an increase in the number of free transfers, something that would give players significantly more freedom.
"The transfer system fails 99% of players around the world," said FIFPro president Philippe Piat in a statement. "It fails football as an industry and it fails the world's most beloved game.
"FIFPro will not stand by and watch from the sidelines as football players' around the world are systematically disrespected and the football industry dismantles itself," continued Piat.
At the centre of FIFPro's challenge is the fundamental conviction that the current market is at odds with European Union policy. Do teams really have a right to buy and sell players (essentially workers) in the first place? Of course, the EU recognizes that sport is a special case when it comes to comparisons with other industries but more can certainly be done to safeguard the rights of players.
"Football players are workers and only when they are able to enjoy the rights enshrined in law and enjoyed by all other workers will FIFPro be satisfied," said Piat after his election as president in October.
Piat has made clear that he sees the reformation of the transfer market as his priority because of the many problems soccer faces with the system. In the same way Bosman transformed the sport in towards the end of the 1990s, Piat could have a similar impact. It could be his legacy.
The Bosman ruling was the first step in establishing what has come to known as 'player power,' but this only comes into play at the top of the pyramid. For instance, Wayne Rooney can hold a club as big as Manchester United to ransom as a negotiation technique over a contract extension. Chances are if a lower league player at Scunthorpe United or Accrington Stanley attempted that trick they'd be picked up by the scruff of the neck and unceremoniously hurled out the front door.
Some may view this progression as a bad thing. After all, should players be more powerful than clubs? But this isn't about power. "Thousands of players worldwide are not paid on time, or not at all, while 28% of the transfer market is paid to agents and lost to the game," said FIFPro's European president Bobby Barnes. "Something is not right with this picture."
Indeed, something is awry. The growing influence of agents, the puppet masters behind every soccer superstar have warped the transfer market. Men like Pini Zahavi and Jorge Mendes are among the most powerful figures in the sport, with the warrant to move around players as and when they wish.
Another concern of FIFPro is the increase of third-party ownership in soccer, a practice where by agents or a company owns the rights and contract to a player, not the clubs. It's just another way agents suck an estimated $750 million out of the game every year. This practice is outlawed in English soccer but is still commonplace in continental Europe and South America, where agents prey on the innocence of players desperate to make it to European big leagues. Players' rights are largely swept aside in any agreement of this sort.
Crucially FIFPro believe they have the support of FIFA and UEFA in their challenge, something they will undoubtedly need if real change is to be achieved. But will FIFPro have any sort of effect on the European elite? Insiders are confident that the target of the body's challenge is not their supremacy but instead the inequality and cattle trading nearer the foot of the pyramid.
It's pertinent that FIFPro should make such a statement of intent when more and more cases of match fixing in soccer come to the surface. The theory is that players stuck in poorly paid leagues try to find extra income through crime syndicates, deliberately getting sent off or even conceding a throw-in at a specific point of a game.
The transfer market is the Wild West of soccer, where laws have little jurisdiction. FIFPro fancies itself as the sheriff, an ambition that should be welcomed.
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Graham Ruthven is a soccer writer based in the UK. He has written for the New York Times, ESPN, MSN Sport and Scottish TV, among others. Follow him @grahamruthven.