Every year at about this time, the sports media, led by a hysterically over-excited Sky Sports, loses its mind. This weird state of mania culminates in the spectacle, repeated up and down England, of journalists standing outside football stadia, accompanied by small groups of eccentric football fans, most of whom are no better or worse informed about what’s going on than the journalists they spend this strange day with.
All are waiting for the news that a contract has been faxed (a quaint anachrnoism) on time, or possibly (and this would be a moment of high drama) not faxed on time. This is the transfer window, perhaps the ultimate embodiment of the vacuous, much-ado-about-nothing nature of modern football hype. For those who get angry about such things, Sky Sports may be the obvious pantomime villain, but in fact it is all the fault of the European Court of Justice.
Jean-Marc Bosman was a journeyman pro, playing with RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division. In 1990, his contract expired, he wanted to join Dunkerque in the French league (in today’s parlance, he “had agreed personal terms”). However Dunkerque refused to meet Liège’s transfer fee demand, so Liège refused to let him go, despite his having been out of contract. Not only that, but they reduced his wages as he was no longer a first-team player.
In the big-money world of modern football, there are occasional cases of players earning huge salaries to do nothing, and happy enough to stay that way. But in the early 90’s Belgian League, Bosman’s circumstances were different. He needed to work, and was not being allowed to do so. In fact, if one compares his situation (and that of all players out of contract) to any normal contract of employment, it seems monstrous. Imagine not being allowed to leave your job unless your new employer paid a transfer fee to your old one.
Bosman took his case to the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg and won. One of the fundamental freedoms guaranteed by the European Union is the right to free movement of workers, and the Court held that that this applied to footballers as well as any other worker. A “free transfer”, once granted to players only as a reward for long service, became the norm for any player no longer in contract, and is now more commonly known as a “Bosman”.
Not only that, but the Court also held that any system restricting clubs to a limited number of foreign players was equally offensive to the right to free movement of workers. Football authorities now found themselves facing a future where players could come and go far more easily, and where richer clubs could plunder smaller clubs for talent at will (in fact this is pretty much what has ended up happening anyway).
While all of this was going on, some European leagues had already experimented with transfer windows of their own. (Italy’s Serie A, then the greatest league in the world, already had a window which, then as now, culminated with the deals all being done and registered in the ATA Hotel in Milan, a literal “transfer market”. One presumes Sky Italia are grateful for the opportunity to centralise their Deadline Day coverage.)
All through the 90’s, vaguely aware of potential legal trouble, and desperate to avoid a complete transfer free-for-all, UEFA tried to obtain agreement to a standardised window system. This wasn’t achieved until in 2000 the European Commission suggested (correctly) that the whole transfer system as then constituted was illegal, and proposed scrapping it. By the 2002-2003 season, a compromise had reached with the Commission, and the window was in place Europe-wide.
The fact that the window is a compromise is worth noting. Were the law to be strictly applied, the window system is probably illegal. Preventing players from changing club outside the window clearly prevents them from moving freely, as guaranteed by the Treaties. However, the Commission has stated that in certain cases there can be “good sporting reasons” to justify some kinds of economic restrictions. Amongst these good sporting reasons are team stability and regularity of sporting competition. And so, while clubs often moan about the window, this compromise obtained from Brussels is probably a lot better than they’d get from Luxembourg. For that reason alone, they might one day look back on the age of the Deadline Day as (literally) a golden age.