With the end of yet another season of football approaching, fans of all clubs (with copious amounts of flame-fanning from the media) are speculating what players their clubs should buy, sell or loan before the start of next season. Football pundits across broadcasters talk about how clubs like Arsenal need to spend more in the transfer market. Even in the age of Leicester City’s motley crew assembled for Premier League pocket-change prices being chased by Tottenham Hotspurs’ healthy mix of local youth players and reinvestment from the sale of the world’s biggest football transfer yet, the importance of transfer spending has never been higher.
The Bosman ruling in 1995 is considered seminal to how European football transformed to the untamed commercial beast that it has become. Jean-Marc Bosman was a Belgian professional footballer whose contract with RFC Liege expired in 1990 and French club USL Dunkerque were interested in signing him. The catch was that Liege demanded a transfer fee for their out-of-contract employee Bosman and this was challenged by Bosman in the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg. The ruling from the ECJ upheld Article 39(1) of the Treaty of Rome, which led to the formation of the European Economic Committee in 1958. Article 39(1) allowed for free movement of labour within the European Union territories and in effect, the ruling established that players are free to move to any club in EU territory at the end of their contracts. Thus, if a player chose to see out his contract with the club and signed a contract with another club, the club would not stand to make any profits from the sale of the player. The Bosman ruling also established that creating quotas for foreign players in the club squad amounted to discrimination against nationals of EU, and this led to increasingly cosmopolitan football clubs peaking with Arsene Wenger’s famous Arsenal starting eleven that failed to include even a single Englishman in the English Premier League.
The Bosman ruling opened the floodgates with clubs trying to tie top players down with long-term contracts that pay upwards of six-figures a week and becoming more eager to sell players they helped develop before they were out of contact and left on free transfers. Thus, players with long-term contracts became expensive and financially powerful clubs at that point in time could flex their monetary muscle and attract talent from the financially-strapped clubs by paying the parent club in the middle of the player’s contract. Prior to the Bosman ruling, the parent club could always block the free transfer at the end of the contract leaving the player with no option but to continue even if he wanted to leave. Over the last two decades, spanning billions of Euros and hundreds of clubs, the actual effects of the Bosman ruling go far beyond improved labour conditions for players. The rise of the football agent, epitomized by Jorge “superagent” Mendes, who brokers deals to move players at large prices from clubs that badly needed their services to clubs which already have enough players in those positions is just one of the many complex spillovers.
Before the Bosman ruling, the transfer record was £13 million for Italian left-winger Gianluigi Lentini’s move from Torino to AC Milan in 1992. Diego Maradona, who was considered nothing short of a God, had previously set the record in 1984 when he moved to Napoli from Barcelona at £5 million. The phenomenal Ronaldo soon broke the record in 1996 with his transfer from PSV Eindhoven to Barcelona for £13.2 million and Alan Shearer’s move to Newcastle from title-winning Blackburn Rovers in the same year swiftly broke the record at £15 million. Argentine sharpshooter Hernan Crespo became the first footballer to breach the £30 million mark when he moved from Parma to Lazio at the break of the new millennium, more than doubling the transfer record just five years after the Bosman ruling. Since then, Real Madrid have breached the world record four times in their never-ending quest for assembling a team of Galacticos with Luis Figo, Zinedine Zidane, Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale, in that order. Teams vying for Champions League positions in Europe’s top 5 leagues have routinely made signings breaching the £30 million mark every year in recent seasons, especially post-2004 after Roman Abramovich has proved to the world it was possible to sustain a winning club by spending big instead of being limited by waiting for half-baked youth academy products to step up and meet most of the starting eleven requirements.
The Premier League’s new TV deal which redistributes revenue equitably to all 20 participating teams is also a turning point that is reflected in how competitive the league has become with any team, barring the exception of an out-of-sorts Aston Villa, capable of beating any other team. This would go a long way in explaining how Chelsea’s post-Mourinho run of 15 games unbeaten is the longest unbeaten run by any team in the league this season and yet they languish at 10th place. Teams like Stoke City and West Ham have broken their club transfer records to bring in players like Xherdan Shaqiri from Inter Milan and Dmitri Payet from Marseille and have been rewarded with top 10 finishes in a topsy-turvy season. Other teams have chosen to unearth obscure players that compliment the existing squad and the traditional domination of a handful of clubs in the Premier League looks like it has finally come to an end.
However, all this could change once the summer transfer window opens. Teams like Chelsea and Manchester City have appointed new, proven world-class managers in a bid for a fresh start to overcome the blindsiding they faced in 2015-16. With advertising revenues and established fan bases, these teams still hold the advantage in attracting the top players from around the world. Teams like West Ham and Leicester will need to prove that it was no fluke that they managed to take the league by storm this year. Will they need to make marquee signings to create similar impressions next season? Or do they need to buy bargain players that could neatly fit in to the current squad? Do they need to buy at all? A quick look at the fate of last season’s champions, a squad with players at their peak or fast approaching their peak, suggests that huge transfers might be required to keep top players on their toes more than anything else. But then again, you never know what you’re paying for till the season starts and the pressure is on.