It is with great interest that I read Borja García García‘s exchange with Simon Usherwood on football and Euroscepticism. One point particularly caught my attention. I fully agree with Simon Usherwood’s statement that “If anything, as much as the EU does figure in supporters’ minds, it is the challenge to national teams posed by Bosman and free movement.” However, I do not see this as a problem. Indeed, I even see the 1995 Bosman ruling as a momentous achievement of the European Union; yet, one which has not been much publicised by European institutions, or not well enough.
Let me list the most obvious reasons, briefly:
1. Bosman has confirmed and (moreover publicised) that the EU has the right to intervene in the field of sport, despite having no legal competencies from the treaties.
2. Bosman has confirmed that EU Labour Law applies to all sectors of economic life, as long as professionals are involved. This undoubtedly means an increase in the protection in the right of workers within the EU. If an exception cannot be claimed for a sector as specific as sport, it is unlikely it could be claimed for other sectors.
3. Bosman has freed many a European football player. I use the verb “free” in the strongest possible meaning. In 1995, there were countries where players were free to join any club once their contract had expired with a club : e.g. France where this right had been won by the Footballers’ trade union (UNFP) a few years before the ECJ ruling. In many other European countries, including those in the British Isles, football players were no more than modern slaves. Arguably, they were extremely well paid modern slaves, but they were slaves nonetheless.
In minimalist terms, slavery can be defined as a situation where human beings, alone or as group (a family for example), own another human being, who has to work for them and can be sold to one or more other human beings. Therefore a slave is not free to change employers without the employers’ consent. Until Bosman, there were many professional football players who, when their contract with club A had expired, were not free to move to club B. Club A retained an ownership on these players that was not the result of a (contractual) negotiation between employers and employees. A player was actually owned by Club A, until sold to club B who therefore became their new owner. Often, the player was actually transferred to a Club C, without the player’s consent, simply because Club C would pay Club A more than Club B, where the player wanted to go. This is modern slavery, well-paid and without physical harm, usually, but a form of modern slavery.
After Bosman, footballers became “free agents”. Here again, the word “free” is of the utmost importance. Thanks to the European Union, footballers are no longer commodities and like any employee should be, are now free to do what they want with their life and career.
As time developed, Bosman even gave football players a seemingly ever-increasing market power. Thanks to the EU, football players are in that rarest of situations. They are employees who can negotiate on a par with employers, or even impose their will on employers. Which worker has never dreamt of being able to dictate his or her terms of employment to their boss?
4. Bosman has put the European Union at the centre of the sports sector worldwide. How often is anything European the main force worldwide?
Indeed, Bosman forced the UEFA, then FIFA to review their transfer rules. For the first time since those two organisations were founded, they were clearly forced to obey by a democratic entity on a large scale. Let’s not forget that until Bosman, FIFA had been very successful in banning its direct or indirect members (confederations, national associations, clubs, players) from suing each other, or indeed from suing FIFA. The football world was by and large a dictatorship where ultimately justice was given by someone who had a very clear conflict of interest: the judges were often part of the conflict… After Bosman, FIFA is still officially enforcing the same ban, but knows that it has to comply with the judicial system of the EU and its now 28 Members States. This has only been possible because like FIFA and UEFA, the EU is supranational and can enforce rules in many countries at once, with clear sanctions being applied if needs be. For once, the EU has been imitated throughout the world. It suffices to say that the famous Pelé Law in Brazil directly copied the Bosman ruling.
5. As my previous research has shown, Bosman has decreased xenophobia (a form of racism) in football. Despite Sepp Blatter repeatedly asserting that football fans need players of their own country in the club they support, or they will stop identifying with clubs, all evidence show the contrary. Football supporters are not hostile to foreign footballers playing in their club; even if this means there is no players from their country in that club for a game or two. I have explained this in another blogpost: and in a book published by Manchester University Press.
Ultimately, and despite issues which are deeply unpopular (the continuing rise in players’ wages for example), Bosman has been for the greatest good of football. Without a doubt, it is one of the great victories of the EU.