It was in December of 1995 that a Belgium man, of limited footballing ability became one of the most (in)famous players on the planet. Jean-Marc Bosman helped to change the way the game is run by contesting the right of his club (RFC Liege ) to retain him after the expiration of his contract. In doing so he took footballing power away from the clubs and handed it directly to the players.
All this came at a time when football was leaving behind its hooligan past and being embraced once more by the mainstream. Coupled with the explosion of the transfer fee: the record in 1990 (when Bosman’s contract with Liege expired) was £8million; twelve months after the case was settled Alan Shearer moved to Newcastle for £15million, players had never been more in-demand.
Clubs simply couldn’t miss out on fees of this magnitude, a fact that gave the player (and his agent) all the chips at the negotiating table. Players could demand higher wages, better merchandising deals and other such perks simply by threatening that they would ‘leave on a free’.
Liverpool found this out to their cost in the late 90s with Steve McManaman. The player had entered the final year of his contract and was stalling on a new deal. Afraid of missing out on a transfer fee Liverpool made efforts to sell him and accepted a bid by Barcelona. McManaman, however, turned down the move and later agreed to join Real Madrid once his contract at Anfield expired. Madrid was prepared to pay higher wages for McManaman as they hadn’t had to pay a transfer fee (the earlier bid by Barcelona was believed to be around £12million). This set a precedent as it allowed any highly-rated player to demand increased wages or they would leave for nothing, costing their current club the income generated by the transfer fee.
The pressure to keep star players saw clubs prepared to pay higher and higher wages. In 2001 Sol Campbell became the first British player to secure a £100,000 a week when he joined Arsenal (after moving on a Bosman). By 2011 both Rooney and Tevez are earning over £200,000 a week.
These increases started in the top flight, but have filtered down to the lower leagues. Deloitte claims in the 2009-2010 season, wages accounted for a massive 68% of all Premier League clubs turnover. That represented an increase of £64million in the collective wage bill in just 12 months, figures which are sure to be replicated when the figures for last season are released. Even more staggering are figures from the Championship where player wages account for 88% of all turnover!
Of course, the increase in the Sky TV money has allowed clubs to pay more. And men like Rooney, Gerrard and Torres generate millions in merchandising for the coffers of their clubs. But when a single player like Wayne Rooney can hold a club of the stature of Manchester United to ransom for an improved contract then something must surely be out of control with the current system.
Perhaps the only solution might be the introduction of a salary cap. This was brought into rugby league in the 1990s because clubs were paying too much of their income on wages.
Critics have argued that a salary cap would mean Manchester United could only pay the same wages as Wolves and thus be punished for their success. However, in rugby league the cap still rewards the more successful clubs. The amount any club can pay on wages is based against their revenue meaning Manchester United could still pay more than Wolves. It just means that they can’t pay more than they can afford (Manchester City , before the deal for their stadium naming rights was struck, were paying 110% of their revenue on wages).
Despite all the money gravitating around the football world, the monster that is debt is stronger and more gargantuan than ever. The authorities are attempting to implement ‘fair-play’ rules to subdue the beast. Whatever the success of these schemes and the results that arise from them, I believe we can trace a large part of the problem back to one limited Belgium footballer.
Written by Alan Bradburne from This is Futbol