The balance of power between European and South American teams in the World Cup has changed dramatically in favor of the Europeans since the Bosman ruling of 1995.
The Bosman Ruling is the result of a dispute between the Belgian player Jean-Marc Bosman and his club RFC Liege. In 1990, his contract with his club ended and Bosman wanted to leave but back then it wasn’t a straightforward transaction like it is today. During this period, even when a player’s contract ended the new club had to pay a fee to the old club. Dunkerque (a second division side in France) wanted to buy Bosman but the price of Liege was too expensive and no deal was agreed. He was offered a new deal at RFC Liege but Bosman was unhappy. Bosman took his case to the European court of justice and on the 15th of December 1995 he won the trial and the Bosman ruling was born. With this new ruling players had the freedom from then on to move to the club of their choice at the end of their contract. Furthermore, the player could leave his club even if his contract hadn’t ended, with the payment by a new club of a fee fixed on his contract. More importantly, the number of European Union players in any club had no more limits anymore.
Since this law was applied, Europeans have won 5 of the 6 World Cups played, whereas before this law South Americans had won 8 of the 15 World Cups played. In the 6 World Cups before the Bosman ruling, European teams had won 34% of the games against South American teams, with 28% draws. Whereas, in the 6 World Cups after the 1995 ruling, Europeans won 42% of the games with 23% draws. By taking into consideration only the knock-out stages of these World Cups, Europeans won 23.5 % of the games for 23.5 % draws in the 6 World Cups before the ruling, whereas in the 6 World Cups after the ruling, Europeans won 55% of the games with 17% draws.
Furthermore, before the ruling, there was a clear difference in the results between the World Cups played in Europe and those played outside of Europe. Brazil was the only team to win a World Cup hosted by Europe (in Sweden) in 1958. As for the Europeans, they have never won a World cup played outside Europe. Things changed drastically after 1995 with Spain winning a World Cup in South Africa in 2010 and Germany winning a World Cup in Brazil in 2014. Among the 6 World Cups played before the ruling, 3 were played in Europe (‘74, ‘82 and ‘90). In these World Cups, Europeans won 40% of the knock-out games with 40% draws. Whereas in the 3 World Cups played in Europe after 1995 (‘98, ‘06 and ‘18), Europeans won 57% of the games with 29% draws. Furthermore, they managed to secure the 4 semi-final tickets in 2 of these 3 World Cups (‘06 and ‘18) though they had succeeded in doing so in only one of the 3 World Cups before the ruling (‘82).
Among the 6 World Cups played before the ruling, 3 were played outside of Europe (‘78, ‘86 ad ‘94). In these World Cups, Europeans had won only 17% of the knock-out stage games with just 17% draws. However, in the 3 World Cups played outside of Europe after 1995 (2002, 2010 and 2014), European won 53% of the knock-out games with 7% draws.
All the top national teams in Europe (France, Italy, Spain and Germany) took advantage of this ruling, with the exception of England. France did so early on with all its best players signing contracts with the top teams in Europe in 1995 and 1996 such as Zinedine Zidane with Juventus, Youri Djorkaeff with Inter Milan and Marcel Desailly with Milan AC. There were no limits anymore on the number of European Union players a team could count in its squad. The results were impressive, with France reaching an unprecedented level to win its first World Cup in 1998. Among the squad of 22 players that won the World Cup that year, 15 were playing their club football in the best teams in Europe outside of France.
More than a decade later, Spain also won its first World Cup in 2010. The impact of the ruling on the quality of the Spanish clubs first was amazing with lots of the top European footballers joining the Spanish league. The 2 top teams in Spain (Barcelona and Real Madrid) were reinforced by top European players such as Thierry Henry, Eric Abidal, Fabio Canavarro, Pepe, Rafael Van Der Vaart, Wesley Sneijder, Arjen Robben, Ruud Van Niistelrooy, which led them to win several European cups. The exposure gained by the Spanish players of these two teams strengthened the level of the Spanish national team that ultimately won the World Cup in 2010.
Germany also took advantage of the ruling by winning its 4th World Cup in 2014. Several German players of the winning squad were playing their club football outside of Germany like Sami Khedira (Real Madrid), Mesut Ozil (Arsenal), Andre Schurle (Chelsea), Lukas Podolski (Arsenal), Miroslav klose (Lazio) and Shkodran Mustafi (Sampdoria). The exposure of these players to different coaches’ tactical approaches increased the level of the national team.
The only top European national team that have been disadvantaged by the Bosman ruling is England, whose best players very rarely diversified their tactical culture by playing outside their domestic league – whose attractiveness is double edged. Thus, the best English players prefer to stay in their country (where they have high salaries) despite the fact that the competition of the best worldwide players often doesn’t allow them to play regularly and evolve their level.
In addition to the leading European national teams, other emerging European teams have taken advantage of this ruling. For example, the Belgian national team at the last World Cup was composed of 70% of players who played their club football in the very competitive Premier League in England. These players improved drastically since they left the relatively weak Belgian League. The Belgian national team finished 3rd in the last World Cup (its best performance ever) and is ranked 1st in the FIFA ranking. The same applies for the Croatian national team that reached the final of the last World cup with very few players of the squad playing in the Croatian League. There are also other emerging teams in Europe such as Switzerland, Portugal, Denmark and Sweden that could make decisive results in the final stages of the upcoming World Cups.
The Bosman ruling generated a strong trend of results that benefitted European teams in the World Cups. This trend should be even more accentuated in the next World Cup (2022 in Qatar), which will probably be the first World Cup played outside of Europe that will have 4 semi-finalists from the old continent and the first time we have 8 European teams in the quarter-finals of the competition.