The Uefa European Football Championship, also known as the Uefa Euros, is generally regarded as tougher than the World Cup. Despite this, even the unheralded nations have achieved astonishing results here.
At the World Cup, only European and South American nations have been successful. The weaker Asian, African and Confederation of North America, Central America and Caribbean Association Football (CONCACAF) do cause some surprises but usually don’t last the full distance. Not a single nation from the three regions has ever played the World Cup final.
Over the last couple of decades, European domination has eclipsed South America. Till 2002, of the 17 World Cups staged, South America led Europe by nine wins to eight. Since then, however, Europe has not only won all the four World Cups but also provided seven of the eight finalists.
For the Uefa Euros, from 1960-1976, only four teams qualified for the final tournament. From 1980 onwards, only eight teams competed. In 1996 the tournament expanded to 16 teams, since it was easier for European nations to qualify for the World Cup than their own continental championship; 14 of the 24 teams at the 1982, 1986 and 1990 World Cups had been European, whereas the European Championship finals still involved only eight teams. In 2016, the number was further increased to 24 teams.
The credit for all this should go to Jean-Marc Bosman, who played for RFC Liège in the Belgian First Division in Belgium. How this relatively unknown footballer changed European football is a story worth relating. Bosman’s contract had expired in 1990 and he wanted to change teams and move to the French club Dunkerque. But he felt trapped when the club of his choice, Dunkerque, refused to meet his Belgian club’s transfer fee demand and Liège refused to release him.
The surprise packages of Euro 2020 and indeed the global domination of European teams in the last couple of decades can be traced back to one Belgian footballer’s judicial challenge to the rules of European football 25 years ago…
To make matters worse, Bosman’s wages were also reduced by 70 percent because he was not a first-team player any longer. Pushed against a wall, the player decided to challenge the prevailing transfer rules and approached the European Court of Justice.
After a five-year-long court battle and his own playing career ruined, Bosman finally won his case against restraint of trade. On December 15, 1995, the ‘Bosman Ruling’ passed by the European Court of Justice changed the face of football within the European Union (EU). It had a tremendous effect on the club as well as the international scene.
The Bosman Ruling eliminated transfer fees for players out of contract with their teams, who wished to change clubs within and between European Union countries, and also prohibited national football leagues from imposing quotas on foreign players with European citizenship.
The latter part of the Ruling carries profound effects. Before the Bosman Ruling, during a top division match in the national leagues, the club was restricted to three foreign players. The governing bodies in various European nations responded by immediately ending quotas on foreign players from the EU countries for club matches played within their domestic leagues.
Two months later, on February 19, 1996, Uefa struck down restrictions on the number of players from the European Union in all its club competitions, such as the Champions League and the Uefa Cup (Europa League now).
The outcome of the Bosman Ruling can be elaborated by one single statistic. It came into effect in the EU in December 1995. In England, non-English players started only 28.9 per cent of the league matches during the 1994-1995 season. Less than a decade later, in 2003-2004, this figure almost doubled to 57.6 per cent.
It was bound to shake not only the European club soccer but also the international scene. The big spending clubs would reap the benefits by roping in the best footballers in the EU. Countries could now export their players to the big European domestic leagues, where they would only get better by playing with and against the top players the whole season.
In the club scene, across countries, evidence from the Champions League indicates that the top European clubs have definitely become stronger. The rich clubs may have got richer but, at the same time, the national teams of the traditionally weaker or smaller European nations have also been beneficiaries.
Within a decade, the Greek Miracle at the Uefa Euro 2004 endorsed the advantages of the Bosman Ruling for the smaller footballing countries of the continent. Greece beat host nation Portugal (with Cristiano Ronaldo playing for them) twice, knocked out the holders France, trounced the favourites Czech Republic and won the Euro tournament with a foreign coach (Germany’s Otto Rehhagel). Greece had only once previously qualified for the Uefa Euros in 1980, where they had failed to win a single game.
In 2004, they were ranked 19th in Europe and 13th among the 16 teams that qualified. Five of the Greek starting XI in the final were at the time plying their trade in the Italian, German, English and Portuguese leagues. Christeas, their top scorer with three goals, who also netted the only goal of the final, was with the German club Sportverein Werder Bremen that, in a club record-breaking season, had won the Bundesliga six points clear of Bayern Munich. They did the double by winning the knock-out cup competition too.
At the UEFA Euro 2016, there were apprehensions that the increase in the number of competing teams would lead to some lopsided results. But the proponents of the move were proved correct beyond expectations. In 2016, four countries appeared in the Uefa Euro for the first time. Three of the debutants made it to the knock-out phase: Wales (semi-finals), Iceland (quarter-finals) and Slovakia (last 16).
Wales lost to eventual champions Portugal in the semi-final. Their most valuable player during the campaign was Gareth Bale, who was on the rolls of the Spanish giants Real Madrid. He was Wales’ top scorer in the qualifying campaign as well as the final tournament, with seven and three goals, respectively.
Slovakia had become an EU member only in 2004. They made it to the knock-out phase (last 16). On its way, Europe’s 19th ranked team defeated Russia and drew with England, ranked ninth and third respectively. Sixteen of their 23 players were playing their club football in other EU countries, which included the top sides of the Italian, German and English leagues.
But the Cinderella story of tiny Iceland in 2016 eclipses all others. A country of only 330,000 people qualified for the Uefa European Championship for the first time in 2016, beating strong Holland twice. Thus, Iceland became the smallest nation ever to figure in the event. If that weren’t enough, they caused a sensation at the Uefa Euro 2016 itself, and advanced to the knock-out phase after defeating Austria and drawing with the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal — the eventual champions. And they were not finished. They also beat England 2-1 to make it to the quarter-finals — the biggest upset of the tournament.
In 2018, Iceland debuted at the World Cup — the smallest nation ever to feature in the biggest competition of the sport. The Icelandic miracle wouldn’t have been possible without the Bosman Ruling. Not a single player of the 23-member squad at the Euro 2016 was playing his club football in Iceland. Their team was drawn from those playing in the lesser leagues of the neighbouring Scandinavian nations of Denmark, Sweden and Norway to mega clubs of the big leagues, such as Juventus and Udinese of Italy, Nantes of France and PSV Eindhoven of Holland.
At the Euro 2020, too, the Bosman Ruling’s profound effect continued. Denmark, ranked 22nd in Europe, sensationally made it to the semi-finals. Only four of their squad of 26 were home-based. The rest, all had been playing their club football in the big five leagues of Europe — English, Spanish, Italian, German and French.
European No 23 Czech Republic were also a surprise package. They played the quarter-final. Fourteen out of 26 members of the squad had appeared for the English, Spanish, Italian, German and Greek clubs in the 2020-21 season.
Switzerland eliminated world champions France in the round of 16 and qualified for the quarter-finals for the first time. In the quarter-final, they were unlucky to go down to Spain on penalties. Like Denmark, just four of the Swiss team are with Swiss clubs. Twenty-two of their players at the Euro 2020 appeared for the English, Italian, German, French and Portuguese clubs in the last season.
So players, clubs and countries should be obliged to the Belgian footballer Jean-Mark Bosman. It was his judicial challenge to the football transfer rules that eventually led to the game being changed forever.
The writer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 25th, 2021