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Football player Jean-Marc Bosman received a letter in his postbox in 1990 saying his pay would be cut under amended terms of his contract with Liege. After he rejected the changes, his employer blocked his move to French team Dunkerque and the Belgian federation suspended him from playing. Bosman fought back, triggering a five-year legal battle that ended with him winning the right for players to become free agents at the end of their contracts.

December 15, 2015 is the 20th anniversary of the ruling. FIFPro, the international football players’ union, which provided support to Bosman during his case, marked the occasion by interviewing him at its offices outside Amsterdam. In the photograph, FIFPro Secretary General Theo van Seggelen is pictured with Bosman (on the right of the picture).

How did the legal process start?

I started the case because Liege, my club in Belgium, wanted to reduce my pay by 75 per cent and withhold or heavily cut my bonuses. I received a letter showing the terms they were offering me. I had the chance to move to Dunkerque in France but the clubs couldn’t come to an agreement. The other problem I had was if a player doesn’t agree to the terms of a club he is suspended by the federation and can’t play. I went with someone I knew from my neighbourhood to the law firm. He suggested that we go. Luc Misson was the head of the law office and Jean-Louis Dupont was an intern. Liege had 15 days to respond, and they did not answer. We contacted the Belgian federation and they did not respond, and so the court case started.

What were the five years of the legal battle like?

It was difficult for one man to carry all of that on his shoulders even if did have support from FIFPro. That’s a bit how it is in football. The players are scared of talking because they are worried about having problems with their clubs.

Why were you different?

I don’t know. I can’t explain it. At the start I did not understand the case well myself but as time went on to understand that the system of UEFA and FIFA was archaic and that motivated me to carry on until the end. It was a hard period but in the end it went quite quickly. The last two years we were nearly sure we were going to win the case. UEFA and FIFA didn’t back down to settle the case; they thought that I would never win and that with political pressure there would never be a verdict in the Bosman case. FIFPro helped me at the end and on December 15 (1995) the judge said: an end to the limit on foreign players and footballers are free to leave at the end of their contracts. What it means is that players in the 21st Century have the right to circulate like other workers and are not treated like horses, chickens or cows.

Did you carry on your career during the court case?

I  carried on playing in a lower league in France after the judge lifted my ban temporarily. When I was not training, I spent a lot of time in law offices and in court.

There seems to be a common perception that all footballers are well off.

In many countries players live well but in others they aren’t paid and their contracts aren’t respected. In the Netherlands for example everyone is paid and their contracts are respected but in other countries that’s not the case. So it’s FIFPro’s job to make sure the rights of players are followed correctly, and that everything is done by the law and within the rules.

Did the lawsuit affect your career?

The moment you attack FIFA and UEFA it’s clear that your career is damaged, it’s over. There is another player called (Andy) Webster who (partly) won his case seeking the right to move outside the so-called protected period of his contract but like me his career was affected. It’s a long and energetic job because there is a lot of money at play and today football is political.

Are you proud of what you achieved?

I am very satisfied, I did something that was good. You have to be proud of that. They say the Bosman case was the legal case of the century in sport. It was important even if I didn’t get a lot of recognition. No players have contacted me to say thank you. It is difficult to explain to young footballers what the case means. I hope that with the 20th anniversary of the case the media will explain to people what it meant and it will have a positive effect.

Do you have any regrets about going to court?

I started the case at 26, which is at the prime of a footballer’s career. As I always say, I would have preferred it if another guy had done it in my place! It was a sacrifice I made.

Does football need a new Bosman case to protect the rights of players who are under contract?

It’s important that the battle continues and that what FIFPro is doing to look after the rights of players (with its recent complaint to the European Commission about the transfer system). We’ve won a battle but we haven’t won the war.

 

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