Back in 1990, an unknown Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman was coming to the end of an unsuccessful two-year stint with his then Belgian club RFC Liège. He wanted to sign with French second division club USL Dunkerque on improved personal terms. In line with the rules of the day, a player could not leave his club at the end of his contract period unless the club agreed to let him go on a free transfer or the club received an acceptable transfer fee from a buying club. Liège refused to allow Bosman to leave for free and Dunkerque could not meet the transfer fee. Protracted legal proceedings began that culminated with a ruling of the ECJ in 1995 to the effect that the then transfer system placed an unreasonable restraint on the freedom of movement of workers within the EU.
The regulations re players’ transfers were amended accordingly to allow every EU footballer to negotiate deals to any other EU-based team for free upon the expiry of his current contract and to sign pre-contract deals with other clubs not in the same division once he entered the final six months remaining on his current deal. This means players whose contracts end on 30 June are entitled as of the preceding January transfer window, to negotiate pre-contract agreements with other clubs and depart their existing clubs for free at the end of the season. The player cannot sign a pre-contract deal with a club in the same division, but what if he simply enters into a verbal contract (with all the inherent uncertainty of so doing) to sign for another club in the same division upon the expiry of his current contract?
Fast forward to May 2018 and Stefan De Vrij, the highly rated Dutch international centre-back who signed a four-year deal with Serie A club Lazio in July 2014 that he allowed to run down so he could move for free at the end of the current season. According to all media reports, De Vrij has agreed to join Serie A giants Inter Milan in the summer transfer window 2018. Sunday 20 May 2018 saw the final round of games in Serie A. Lazio in fourth place was at home to fifth-placed Inter Milan. Lazio was 3 points ahead of Inter but an Inter win would ensure it would leapfrog its hosts on the head-to-head tiebreaker into the guaranteed (€40m) riches of the 2018-19 Uefa Champions League group phase. All Lazio had to do was draw and Champions League football was assured. With 12 minutes remaining Lazio led 2-1. Cue De Vrij who gave away a penalty by felling Inter’s Icardi. Icardi leveled from the spot and Inter went on to win 3-2, taking Lazio’s place in next season’s Champions League in the process. De Vrij will now go on to join Inter in the Champions League next season while his former teammates have to suffer the Europa League. On one view, De Vrij should not have been selected – his move to Inter is well known – but he had been Lazio’s standout defender all season and his commitment to the Lazio cause has never been questioned. On another view, had Lazio beaten Crotone (themselves relegated) the previous Sunday, none of this would have mattered. But this is football and football has a peculiar habit of conjuring up such unhappy coincidences. And this is Italian football and (how do I put this sensitively?) Italian football has a habit of not adhering to the letter or spirit of the law. On any view however, no player should be allowed to negotiate with a club in the same division in the final six months of his contract let alone agree to join them albeit verbally as opposed to in writing – lest they wish to end up in the same invidious position as Stefan De Vrij against whom conspiracy theories will abound, particularly on social media, for years to come.
Of course policing such situations is nigh impossible but this surely could not have been the outcome ever intended by the ECJ over 20 years ago – not that the Nerazzurri will be much troubled by it. If there is a lesson to be relearned – a club should do everything it can to prevent its star players from running down their contracts in the final 6 months, whilst remaining on its books.