The Sad Saga of the Man Who Made Soccer Stars Rich

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Jose Manuel Ribeiro / Reuters

Former Belgian soccer player Jean-Marc Bosman training at Lisbon's SL Benfica training center in 1996

Jean-Marc Bosman cuts a forlorn figure as he stands in his kitchen. Once a lithe and vigorous soccer star who captained Belgium's under-21 team in the 1980s, Bosman, 46, is now pudgy and balding. His twitching, nervous eyes betray the pain of his long, lonely legal ordeal. "I must be Belgium's most famous football player, but no one knows who I am," he says.

Indeed, the man who has perhaps done more than anyone else to unleash soccer's riches has been cast out by the game. Fifteen years ago, Bosman's landmark legal action ended an archaic regime that allowed clubs to trade players like livestock. Before his case, a club that was selling a player could charge a transfer fee to the buyer even if the player's contract had expired. After the Bosman ruling, players became free agents once their contracts ran out.

Now Bosman is part of the sporting lexicon: after the European Court of Justice's 1995 ruling in his favor, "doing a Bosman" became shorthand for seeing out a contract so that a subsequent move would avoid transfer fees. By doing a Bosman and therefore saving clubs money on transfer fees, players in recent years have earned powers to demand higher salaries and bonuses. But Bosman was denied any credit for his courageous campaign and was branded a pariah. Now he scrapes by on state benefits.

By contrast, soccer has never been bigger business. On Feb. 10, an annual review of global soccer finance by accounting giant Deloitte showed that the world's top-earning club, Real Madrid, generated a whopping $593 million in the year ending June 30, 2010, with its Spanish rival Barcelona in second place at $540 million. The combined income generated by the top 20 clubs was up 8% on the previous year, Deloitte said, with 44% of their revenue coming from broadcast rights.

Crucially, players are partly responsible for this flood of money, as transfer fees have soared along with wages. In 2009, Real Madrid paid Manchester United a record $132 million for Portuguese virtuoso Cristiano Ronaldo, who now earns a $15 million salary, while his contract reportedly contains a $1.4 billion buyout clause.

Other factors in soccer's growing riches — from the proliferation of broadcasting platforms to the transformation of clubs and players into lucrative merchandising brands — reflect long-term trends in the evolution of the sport. Bosman, however, represents a defining moment in which sport, business and politics coalesced.

His story began in 1990, when he fell out of favor with his club, RFC Liège, and sought a move across the border into France to play for Dunkirk. When RFC Liège refused Bosman's transfer request, the rules dictated by European football authority UEFA meant he could not sign elsewhere. Bosman challenged the contract regime all the way to the E.U.'s highest court, which eventually ruled in December 1995 that the rules infringed E.U. law on the free cross-border movement of labor. UEFA and world soccer body FIFA both attempted to argue that the game somehow transcended E.U. law, but they were rebuffed. Soccer, the E.U. concluded, was a business like any other.

The result is that players are now free to leave as soon as their contracts expire. One recent beneficiary was Wayne Rooney, who last year threatened to do a Bosman if his club, Manchester United, failed to renew his two-year contract with a hefty rise. Facing millions in potential losses if its best player walked away, United caved in, and Rooney eventually signed a five-year deal with the club thought to be worth around $67 million, or $255,000 per week.

Another effect of the Bosman ruling was a lifting of the cap on the number of non-E.U. players that an E.U. club could hire. This instantly opened up the market for ambitious club owners seeking to buy success: top teams saw an influx of foreign players, making European soccer the multicultural mix that it is today. While in 1992, only 5% of non-British players were in the starting lineups for the 22 top English clubs, that number is now almost 70%. Last year, Italian club Inter Milan won the final of the Champions League — Europe's top club trophy — with a starting lineup that didn't include a single Italian.

But Bosman missed the party. He was 31 when the trial ended and had barely played during the five-year legal battle. By then, his marriage had collapsed. He moved back in with his parents, and lived in their garage for two years while he trained for his comeback — which never happened. He did, however, end up wearing down his hip and now has a titanium prosthetic. He plunged into depression and is a recovering alcoholic.

Thanks to the Bosman ruling, players today can demand salaries commensurate to their worth in the open market, creating a cadre of soccer millionaires. But Bosman himself receives around $1,000 a month in benefits, and only on the condition that his girlfriend, who just gave birth to their second son, does not live with him. "I did something no other player dared do. I ended a system of slavery," he says. "But it ruined my life."