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Thursday, September 07, 2006


In 1990 a run-of-the mill Belgian defender named Jean-Marc Bosman was at the end of his contract with RFC Liege, then in the Belgian 2nd division. He had his heart and bank account set on a big money move to France with Dunkerque (Dunkirk for you Angolophiles), but the frogs didn’t pony up enough cash to satisfy Liege and the move broke down. Now, had Liege kept paying Bosman his established wages, he probably would have taken it on the chin, like every other player in those days. But two things made that impossible: first they cut his wages, and second the European Court of Justice was the 800 pound gorilla in the room with a big crush on European Labor, and the rest is free agent history.

The Bosman Ruling

Citing "restraint of trade", a law that voids portions of any contract that unfairly restrains trade within the European Union, Bosman sued and won a decision against his club, and a decision against all European clubs that has slowly but surely created the transfer bonanza we have today, that makes a third world flea market look like the NASDAQ stock exchange.

The Bosman ruling, as it came to be known, eliminated the right of a club to demand a transfer fee for a player out of contract trying to move to another team within the European Union, and thus, such a transfer becomes a free transfer, today known as a Bosman free. This is not to be confused with a regular free transfer, which has always occurred in the past, but always at the discretion of the club. The Bosman ruling gave the player at the end of his contract the right to a free transfer with or without his club’s permission, and more importantly, at a time when his club might otherwise receive a transfer fee for a valuable player.

The Bosman Playbook #1: Time the Negotiations Just Right

It seems someone wrote a playbook on how to handle the impact of the Bosman ruling that every club, up until this summer, seemed to buy hook, line and sinker. It starts with the "current" club (with the player in question under contract) beginning negotiations for an extension of the current contract of a valuable player long before that contract expires. Any resistance to extending the contract, and they know where a player’s head is – if he doesn't play nice, rather than lose him on a Bosman free, the play books says, sell his arse, right away, to the highest bidder. The trick is to start the negotiations early enough that the guy can't smoke and mirror himself right into playing out the existing contract. The risk with this practice is that if you start renegotiating contracts too early, you may find yourself renegotiating every time a player becomes more marketable (like if he has a nice Euro/World Cup). Most clubs in the "current" club situation haven't budgeted for that, and would create an untenable vicious cycle of renegotiating contracts years before they expire, making financial management of the club impossible.

Buying teams, on the other hand, budget a certain amount for the transfer fee, plus salary, but if there’s no transfer fee, the salary can go much higher, while the overall budget for the player is lower, which is a big plus for the player, and the buyer. For example, if a team budgets 25 million for the transfer fee, and 15 million over a 5 year contract, their overall budget for the player is 40 million. But if you eliminate the transfer fee on a Bosman free, the player can be given a much more lucrative deal (in this case, 30 million on a 5 year contract, doubling his salary) and the buying club still save 10 million on the overall budget for the player.

The only one out on their arses is the "current" team, who pay the remaining salary and get nothing for the player when he leaves. For a player who comes from their academy, there is a significant opportunity cost, but for a player that had been purchased and then leaves on a Bosman free, there is no way to recover any of the transfer fee they paid for the player. That's called a Bosman big problem.

Steve McManaman made Liverpool look like the biggest idiots in Europe when he told them for 18 months that he would negotiate an extension in 1998 – it’s easy to forget that at one point, McManaman was once regarded as the best young English midfielder in the EPL, on par with Ryan Giggs, and the Reds were keen to keep him beyond the end of his contract in 1999. But as soon as they sat down to talk, he insisted on a huge salary that Liverpool would never pay. Liverpool wondered when the hell he became the 6-million dollar man? Enter Real Madrid.

Real saw it as a bargain to offer McManaman $100,000 a week, because they would have paid at least double that much just for his transfer fee (amortized weekly over the course of his contract with them). McManaman was so close to the end of his Liverpool contract when they began to negotiate an extension, it didn't make any sense to accept an early transfer and give Liverpool money that he would otherwise get from Real. Contrast this with the case of Michael Owen, who was 12 months from the end of his Liverpool contract, and would normally have gladly gutted it out to ensure a huge salary increase from Real.

But Liverpool had an ace in the hole - the World Cup was two years away, and Owen didn't want to go to Real in a year on a Bosman free, with the very "Real" prospect of riding pine 12 months before the 2006 World Cup. So Owen was willing to forgoe a Bosman free by transferring before the end of his Liverpool contract, two years before the World Cup, which gave him enough time to leave Spain to find first team football back in England if needed - exactly what happened, in fact. In retrospect, with his broken foot and no first team football for six months, he still made the World Cup squad, so one wonders if it was all worth it, but he did still make good money at Real, likely more money than at Liverpool.

Liverpool did get 8 million for Owen, but can you imagine another Golden Ball winner going for 8 million? On the whole, Real Madrid got a great deal, but Liverpool definitely got the shaft. Frankly, they were lucky to get anything at all for him, and if it weren't for the looming World Cup, they very well may have.

The Bosman Playbook #2: If He Won't Play Ball, Don't Play Him

Now before you cry a river for the "current" team, remember that they do have a recourse, although it comes at a cost. The current team can refuse an early transfer, forgo the transfer fee, and punish the player, as a warning to others who may choose the same path, by never playing him again. That may be hard to imagine, given the mad gold rush at the end of the most recent summer transfer window, where every chairman and his brother seemed to be willing to sell anything at any price, including the physio or the office furniture.

But there are foreboding examples to the contrary.

Mark Bosnich was an Australian goal-keeper who joined Manchester United in 1999, following the departure of the great Peter Schmeichel. United had bought him 11 years earlier, but let him go to Aston Villa, when it was clear that the big Dane was their man. Later, when Schmeichel left Man U for Sporting Lisbon, United returned to the Bosnich option, but after one good year with Man U, he was back on the transfer list. Now, United had in mind to sell Bosnich to Chelski, but having come to United from Villa on a Bosman free himself, Bosnich tried to play out his contract and make the big money move on his own.

The Man U response? Bosnich was banished to 4th choice goal-keeper, forced to train with the youth team, and play in the reserves for 18-months, and as a result he lost his place in the Australian team. Eventually he moved to Chelski, but for a smaller salary than he would have had they gotten him for free (although some of it is made up in the transfer fee percentage he bagged), and by then he was an also ran, who was run out of the West End quicker than Boy George can put on his mascara.

And then there is the tragic case of Winston "Winnie the Pooh" Bogarde. In the past I’ve been critical of Dutch players as being argumentative, over-valued and driven by the dollars, but aside from Johan Cruyff (excluding being over-valued), there’s never been a better example of this than Bogarde.

He began his career with the Ajax wunderkinds who won the European Cup in 1995, and nearly defended it a year later. But like all Dutch players, he took the money and ran, first to AC Milan with his serial rapist compatriot Patrick Kluivert, where he clashed with Don Fabio Capello for...well, being a typical Dutchman. Soon thereafter, the Godfather shipped him to a popular Dutch colony: FC Barcelona, under the soul-stripping tutelage of one Louis van Gaal. There he disgusted the "Cules" with his clumsy, brick-foot style, to the delight of Real Madrid fans, until he was duly transferred to the moneybaggers at Chelski. It was there that he wrote his name in Bosman free (non) transfer history.

At Chelski, Ranieri, probably on the advice of Capello, told Bogarde to take a long walk of a short plank, but Bogarde, sitting on a 5 year, 10-million pound contract was in no mood to actually earn his money, so he stayed, to the dismay of his employers. Bogarde was also made to train with the reserves and the youth players, passing his more illustrious colleagues to and from training every day, but unlike Bosnich, Bogarde being Bogarde, he just took it. He “played” out his contract, and promptly retired from soccer, never to be heard from again until he wrote his Dutch Worst Seller Deze Neger Buigt Voor Niemand, which loosely translated means "This Black Man Bows to Noone". True, Bogarde’s career was destroyed, but Chelski paid him 3 million pounds a year for an unnecessary 3 additional years while he flipped the bird to all potential suitors, so it came at a cost. Under Roman Abramovich that may seem like pennies from heaven, but in the Ken Bates era it was quite a stance to take.

The Black Hand and the 800 Pound Gorilla

I firmly believe there is a modern day transfer saga archetype, and it always involves at least 2 clubs, a player, a Black Hand and an 800 pound gorilla. Bear with me.

The madness of the most recent and unusual player swap, of Ashley "Simpson" Cole and "Slick Willie" Gallas + 5 million quid of Chelski cash, is a good example. This was clearly the most drawn-out transfer, but player assessments aside (both teams have several players in the positions of players they sought) it does make you wonder why all the fuss? They’re both staying in London, and the 5 million premium on Cole is about what most teams pay for English talent, so what’s it all about?

The clubs, Chelski and Arse-nal, had been doing a dance of seduction over Ashley Cole for more than a year, but when Chelski took the other man's wife to dinner without permission, the swinging promptly ended. Then Slick Willie Gallas started grumbling about playing left back and wanting to play overseas for a year as well, and so the dance continued.

Chelski and Arse-nal both had a stake in selling these two-timers before the value of a Bosman free outweighed the value a current transfer - that's the 800 pound gorilla in the room that everyone knows is there, and considers when making any moves. But lurking in the darkness were two black hands: the first is Cole's and Gallas' agents, who stand to gain 10-15% of the players' cut of the transfer fee, and as a result will shop these guys around like a New Jack City pimps even if the transfer makes no sense.

Being an Arsenal academy graduate, likely stuck in a deflated, long-term contract, Cole (and his agents) stand to make way more at Chelski than he did at Arse-nal, and because Gallas is coming with 5 million in cash, so too will he at Arse-nal. It’s a dirty (not-so) little secret that money is the underlying motivator of all these moves, and not this non-sense about Cole feeling “betrayed”, or Gallas wanting to play overseas. That brings us to the other black hand in all of this: the Bosman buying club. We should all know by now that players don't just pull the names of clubs/countries they'd like to play in out of a hat. These oily snakes sidle their way into the picture by well-placed leaks to shabby newspapers, and airport lobby conversations with unsavory agents.

A quiet phone call from Don Galliani to Gazetto Sport, and suddenly Slick Willie wants to learn another language. Unless, by another language, he means North London cockney, he’s either geographically illiterate or a bold-faced liar. My guess is the latter, but one thing you’ll never hear him or any other player say is, “I’m leaving for the money, and I don’t care who knows it!” That's because the black hands really want to unsettle him and see if they can pressure his club into making a rash transfer before the transfer window deadline, the other 800 pound-gorilla.

Wenger had a great point when it came to players like Jose Antonio Reyes and Real Madrid’s Ramon Calderon. Calderon used Reyes as one of many pawns to get himself elected President of the club, prompting Reyes to announce his desire to leave Arse-nal. For a long time he was left holding his (soccer) balls as the titanic struggle resolved itself, hoping like hell he hadn’t turned down the loveable geek, only to be stood up by the homecoming king. But Reyes miscalculated: being so far removed from the end of his contract, Arse-nal were not about to sell him under duress and for less money. They took another road, which brings us back to the Bosman playbook.

Bosman Playbook #3: When In Doubt, Loan 'em Out

Instead Arse-nal called his and Calderon’s bluff, and stuck to their guns, agreeing in the end to a loan deal. Capello had no interest in Reyes, but Calderon had to deliver on at least one of his promises, so he agreed to this ridiculous loan, but I think this doesn’t have a snowball's chance of becoming permanent. Arse-nal wins because they’ll still be able to transfer him for big money when Real doesn’t want him any more, to another Spanish team. But after sharing the expense of his salary, for a year, Arsenal will be able to afford a lower transfer fee for him. Reyes on the other hand may think he’s going to be a hit in Madrid, but I honestly don’t see where he’s going to fit into Capello’s plans. His best hope is that he transfers to another Spanish team in time to be considered for Euro2008, assuming of course, Spain qualify.

In fact loan-deals are all the rage, with Mido going on loan to Tottenham from Roma a year ago, where he became so popular that after going back to Roma this summer, Tottenham were prepared to shell out big bucks before the end of his Roma contract. Roma dumped him out on loan for a year, and split his salary with the Spurs, then got a nice fat transfer check when they got him back just to send him back. With the salary reduction and the transfer, that's certainly going to be a net income for Roma. Mido, meanwhile, on the strength of his season with Spurs, is back in the Egypt team, and Spurs have their hero, so this one is a win-win-win.

Another option is the Man U model with Cristiano Ronaldo – no matter what gets said by a disruptive externality, like, oh, I don't know, say…Real Madrid, stick to your guns and make the player fulfill his contract until you’re ready to sell him. That's easier to do when you have a Mark Bosnich card to play, and it may seem easy to say when you’re a cash machine like Man U, but not so fast – a 30 million pound transfer would go a long way to help them pay down their debt. But allowing a player and the black hands to create the perfect storm of pressure (the end of the transfer window, a few misplaced comments in the papers, and the Bosman ruling) and force your hand, is bad news. Sure, you may get stuck with a smaller transfer than you wanted, but Liverpool and Chelski have shown that a smaller transfer fee is better than no transfer fee, or no principle.

The bottom line is that the Bosman ruling has had some strange effects on European soccer, namely that contracts are all really 2 years shorter than they say they are, because that's about when teams decide to negotiate an extension, and if they don't get the answer they want, they're selling, for fear of losing everything on the Bosman free. Whether the 800 pound gorilla is the end of the transfer window, or an impending World Cup/European Championship, the player, the club and the black hands now all have to figure out when is the right time to pretend they want to explore new challenges, or bring in fresh blood, or whatever. Given the complexity of the Bosman ruling and the new transfer windows, the new Nash equilibrium is anyone's guess.

And for all this chaos we have a player you've probably never heard of until today to thank - one Jean-Marc Bosman.