The Shadow of Free Agency Hovers Over European Soccer

Belgian player's lawsuit could do what Curt Flood's did

ASK a European soccer fan who Curt Flood was, and you're likely to draw a blank stare.

Flood starred for the St. Louis Cardinals in the 1960s, helping that team to two World Series titles. But he's far more famous for being the father of free agency. His lawsuit, which he lost by a 5-to-3 decision in the United States Supreme Court in 1972, paved the way for the free movement of baseball players and the multimillion-dollar salaries that came with that freedom.

Despite Flood's defeat, the owners sensed that some sort of legislation might be imposed, so they relaxed the restrictions against player movement.

So what's baseball got to do with European soccer? Not much, as far as the game goes. But the Flood precedent could have implications for a case pending in the European Court of Justice.

The Luxembourg-based court is considering a suit filed by an obscure Belgian player, Jean-Marc Bosman, that if upheld could potentially revolutionize European soccer by ushering in a new age of free agency. That's why soccer fans on this side of the Atlantic might find it worthwhile to read up on Flood's case, as well as review baseball's path over the last three decades.

"If he [Bosman] wins, it could be very disruptive for European football [soccer]," says Tony Flood (no relation to Curt), a soccer commentator for the British-based Football Monthly. "It could change the whole face of football - probably for the worse."

Currently, the ability of players to change teams in European soccer is as restrictive as it was in baseball under the reserve clause, which governed the game until the mid-'70s.

Present soccer practice is based on the transfer-fee system. Thus, if a player wishes to switch teams, the new club must pay the former a transfer fee. The transfer price for star players can reach more than $10 million. And the fee must be paid even if the player's contract with his old team has expired. If the two sides can't agree, the player goes nowhere.

That's where Bosman's suit comes in. After a round of cantankerous contract negotiations in 1990, Bosman's Belgian team, FC Liege, prevented him from signing with another club by demanding an excessive transfer price. Instead, FC Liege offered Bosman a minimum-wage contract of about $1,000 per month.

Bosman riposted by filing suit. He seeks about $450,000 in damages. But the money is only a minor aspect of the case. If he wins, the transfer system would be consigned to the trash heap of history, and players would be free to cut their own deals with the team of their choice.

Many small-market teams across Europe specialize in finding and developing young talent, and depend on transfer-fee income to keep their operations running. Any tinkering with the current system, some soccer aficionados argue, could ruin smaller clubs.

"Lots of teams reckon they'd go out of business without their transfer money," Tony Flood says.

Bosman's suit is vigorously opposed by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA). Lawyers for UEFA argued during a June 20 court hearing that eliminating the transfer system would stifle competition, leaving only a few big-money clubs competing for championships. They described transfer fees as the cornerstone of many clubs' financial health.

In addition to ending transfer fees, Bosman's suit seeks to overturn a rule that limits clubs to fielding only three foreign-born players per game. He argues that the restriction violates European Union standards providing for the free movement of labor.

The court decision is expected sometime this autumn. If it goes Bosman's way, many soccer fans expect player salaries to skyrocket, as was the case in American baseball during the late '70s and '80s.

Europe is loaded with George Steinbrenner wannabes. Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees owner, caused baseball salaries to boom in the late '70s by lavishing millions on players in the quest for championships. One such European win-no-matter-the-cost owner is Silvio Berlusconi, the former Italian prime minister who runs AC Milan, perennial powerhouse of the Italian league.

If free agency comes to European soccer, the repercussions likely will be felt far beyond the continent. It could, for example, hinder attempts to resuscitate soccer in the United States. The fledgling US league, Major League Soccer, is slated to begin play next year. It is currently geared toward talent development and hopes to reap the financial benefits of the transfer system. The advent of soccer free agency could upset those plans.

"The market tends to adjust," says Ivan Gazidis, vice president of Major League Soccer. "It's difficult to say at this time whether it would make it more difficult."

Another question: If free agency comes to European soccer, how closely might it mimic baseball's example? Would a players' union and a soccer strike follow?

"The potential is obviously there," says British commentator Flood. "But players are indoctrinated with the current system.... It would take time before the players began to exploit the new system."

If free agency comes to European soccer, the repercussions likely will be felt far beyond the continent. It could, for example, hinder attempts to resuscitate soccer in the US.

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