Coal, Steel, and . . . Football?

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In our second story about the Beautiful Game, we profile a Belgian footballer named Jean-Marc Bosman. While he will not be enshrined among the likes of Pelé, Maradona and Messi, Jean-Marc Bosman forever impacted the game off the field when he challenged football’s transfer rules and player quotas. In 1995, Bosman paved the way for the best players of this generation to become fabulously wealthy.

No Free Agency

Back in the day, even when a professional player’s contract with a specific team had expired, the player was not free to sign with another team. Instead, the new team would have to pay a transfer fee to the former team. Transfer fees developed over the 20th century as a “payment intended as compensation for the training and development of the player, his skill, and the cost of replacing him”.

When Bosman’s player contract expired in 1990, his new team, USL Dunkerque refused to pay the transfer fee demanded by his old team, R.F.C. de Liège. This left Bosman in limbo, as he had nowhere to play. Significantly, it left all free agents like Bosman unable to attract top dollar for their services, since their old teams still maintained a degree of economic control.

The Court Topples Tradition

In Court, Bosman challenged both the transfer fee and quotas to foreign European players established by national football associations around the EU. Taking his challenge all the way to the European Court of Justice, in 1995 Bosman won his case outright and toppled a century of football rules.

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Open The Market

The European Court of Justice held that the transfer rules and quotas prevented a professional player from moving freely from one European Member State to another. A player could only move abroad if the new team was able to pay the transfer fee demanded by the old team, and only if there was a vacancy for a foreign EU national. These restrictions contravened the EC Treaty, which guaranteed freedom of movement for workers within Europe.

As a result of this monumental Court ruling, professional football players at the end of their contracts can now move to a new team in a free transfer.

No compensation must be paid to the old team. With the arrival of free agency, players negotiate top dollar contracts in an open market. This significantly explains the explosion in salaries since 1995.

But what does this have to do with coal and steel?

Today, a decision from the European Court of Justice is routine business in the EU. It is easy to forget in this day of the Eurozone that, even as recently as the mid-1990s, the idea of modern Europe was vastly different. National boundaries in Europe meant a lot more in 1995. The process of removing constraints across the EU was a big deal.

Football associations across Europe honored the Court’s decision. When centuries-old sporting organizations showed respect to a transnational entity such as the European Court of Justice, it lent legitimacy to the idea of a European Union, at a time in history when that legitimacy was being questioned in many corners of the world.

And all of this came about because a few countries formed the European Coal and Steel Community in 1951, which would ultimately lead to the founding of the European Union.

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