Bosman at 25: Who made the best free transfer?



Decent, if unremarkable, as a player. An absolute game-changer as a court case.

It is now 25 years since Jean-Marc Bosman entered the European Court of Justice as a midfielder and emerged as a noun.

He wants a Bosman. The Bosman rule. We’re signing him on a Bosman.

The change in employment law meant footballers could choose to run down their contracts and move clubs on a free transfer. With some caveats.

It changed football hugely. But who have been the best “Bosmans” and had the most success?

Take a look at our list of the best 10 and rank them at the bottom of the page.

Sol Campbell – Tottenham to Arsenal, 2001

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: Premier League 2002, 2004; FA Cup 2002, 2005

Contentious? I’ll say. Tottenham offered their England defender a contract that would have made him the highest-paid player but he rejected it and moved down the road to arch rivals Arsenal.

“It was a big decision,” Campbell said. “I could have earned more money by going abroad but I felt this was the place to be.”

Labelled “Judas” – and far worse – for the rest of his career, Campbell’s pursuit of trophies and the Champions League were both fulfilled at Arsenal. He even scored in the Champions League final in 2006 but lost out to Barcelona.

Ruud Gullit – Sampdoria to Chelsea, 1995

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: FA Cup 1997 (as manager)

Before Bosman, English clubs just didn’t sign players like Ruud Gullit. A European giant, part of the great AC Milan side of the late 1980s and early 90s, Gullit was an icon.

He may have been past his best when he moved to London but would he have come at all pre-Bosman rule? He tried his hand in a back three before moving into midfield and was runner-up to Eric Cantona in the player of the year vote. Later he became manager at Chelsea and Newcastle as well as a regular face on BBC Sport.

Zlatan Ibrahimovic – Paris St-Germain to Manchester United, 2016

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: League Cup 2017, Europa League 2017

The signs were there, sure. Zlatan Ibrahimovic had long been one of the planet’s best and most expensive strikers. He’d just become the top scorer in PSG’s history despite only arriving at the age of 30.

But there was still more than a whiff of cynicism surrounding the Swede’s move to Old Trafford on a Bosman in the summer of 2016. He was 34, supposedly washed up, past his best. An impact sub at best.

Instead he scored 28 goals in a stellar first campaign. He scored winners at Wembley and was a key part of Jose Mourinho’s early success. He lit up the Premier League in fact, just like he told us all he would.

He has since done similar jobs at LA Galaxy and back with AC Milan, also on free transfers. King of the Bosman?

Robert Lewandowski – Borussia Dortmund to Bayern Munich, 2014

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: Bundesliga 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019, 2020; German Cup 2016, 2019, 2020; Champions League 2020

There can rarely have been better transfer business done in the history of the game. Borussia Dortmund have more reasons than most to curse the court case of 1995.

Robert Lewandowksi was not the first, or last, player to leave the Westfalenstadion for the Allianz Arena without so much as a bean changing hands, but his exit must hurt the most.

Just look at the numbers. Lewandowski has scored 175 goals in 200 Bundesliga games for Bayern. He has won the league six years in a row. He’s won the Champions League and he’ll probably win the Fifa Best award this week.

No money well spent.

Steve McManaman – Liverpool to Real Madrid 1999

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: La Liga 2001, 2003; Champions League 2000, 2002

Perhaps the first high-profile English player to take advantage of the opportunities Bosman had unwittingly unlocked, McManaman’s move to Madrid was massive news.

The England winger had come close to a £12m switch to Barcelona a few years previously and his contract negotiations were a true saga – but he had always stated his wish to play abroad.

Any doubts about his ability to fit in at the Galacticos were soon put to bed. McManaman scored a superb goal in the Champions League final in 2000 as he became the first English player to win the trophy for a foreign club.

James Milner – Manchester City to Liverpool, 2015

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: Premier League 2020; Champions League 2019

Milner won two Premier League titles with Manchester City but started just 89 of a possible 190 league games before deciding to move across the M62 to another giant club.

Liverpool fans may have wondered what sort of deal they were getting. A cracking one.

Milner played more or less a whole season at left-back under Jurgen Klopp and is still a regular presence in midfield. Versatile, reliable and above all else, quality.

Jay-Jay Okocha – Paris St-Germain to Bolton, 2002

If you are under a certain age the road from the Parc des Princes to the Reebok Stadium may seem a touch far-fetched. But that was very much the genius of Sam Allardyce.

Fernando Hierro, Ivan Campo, Youri Djorkaeff – Big Sam pulled some ludicrous signings out of the bag for Wanderers but none better than Okocha. So good, they named him twice.

What a joyous player he was to watch in full flight. All rabonas, rainbow flicks and crashing long-range free-kicks while wearing a beaming smile. A superb player.

Andrea Pirlo – AC Milan to Juventus, 2011

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: Serie A 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015; Coppa Italia 2015

“When Andrea told me that he was joining us, the first thing I thought was: ‘God exists’. A player of his level and ability, not to mention that he was free, I think it was the signing of the century!”

Who are we to argue with Juventus legend Gianluigi Buffon’s verdict?

Pirlo had been frozen out in his final season with Milan and joined Juve as a 32-year-old bit-part player. A cameo option perhaps.

Instead, Pirlo became the fulcrum of Antonio Conte’s side and won the league four years in a row while playing the best football of his career. A magnificent piece of business from the club he now manages.

Gus Poyet – Real Zaragoza to Chelsea, 1997

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: FA Cup 2000; Cup Winners’ Cup 1998

Chelsea perhaps played the Bosman game better than most in the 1990s, with Gullit the gateway signing.

Gus Poyet was a virtual unknown to most Premier League followers when he signed from Zaragoza but made an immediate impact with his goalscoring exploits from midfield.

Superb in the air and thunderous of volley, the Uruguayan scored twice in an FA Cup semi-final and managed 49 goals in just 145 games before moving into management.

Gianluca Vialli – Juventus to Chelsea, 1996

Honours won after moving on a Bosman: FA Cup 1997, 2000 (as manager); Cup Winners’ Cup 1998 (as player/manager); League Cup 1998 (as player/manager);

Vialli’s £12m move to Juve in 1992 was a world record. Four years on, Gullit brought him to London on a Bosman.

In and out of the team under Gullit, Vialli was the surprise choice to replace the Dutchman as boss and swiftly became the youngest manager to win a Uefa competition in the 1998 Cup Winners’ Cup final.

Three major honours as the boss and a more than respectable haul of 40 goals in 88 appearances puts Luca rightfully on this list.

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