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1 – 0 to footballers: the Heinz Muller decision

In 1995 the European Court of Justice decided footballers had the same rights as other workers under the European rules concerning free movement of workers and freedom of association. This meant that players could move to another football club for free after their contract had ended, and would not require to pay their club a transfer fee (“the Bosman rule”). The decision profoundly changed the face of European football.

Heinz Muller has now kicked off the argument for further extending the employment rights of footballers. He was a 36 year-old goalkeeper for Mainz in Germany whose fixed term contract ran out in June 2014. The club tried to let Muller go but he wanted to stay on indefinitely.

In Germany any worker who has worked under a fixed term contract for two years is entitled to have that contract renewed unless there is a fair reason not to. The rule in the UK is essentially the same – employees with two years’ uninterrupted service enjoy the right not to be unfairly dismissed.

The German court agreed with Muller. Sportsmen should not be treated any differently to other workers and should have the right to an indefinite contract after being employed under an uninterrupted fixed term contract for two years. This is great news for individual footballers but the decision may have wider implications for football and other sports. Does it mean that footballers are entitled to stay with the same club for the whole of their playing career (8 years on average, according to the Professional Footballers’ Association)? If footballers enjoy the same employment rights as other workers would they be entitled to make a discrimination claim when their club attempt let them go upon reaching a certain age?

There is a strong argument, however, that the particular nature of an athlete’s job should be taken into account. A footballer requires certain levels of physical strength and ability. If a player is no longer able to meet the physical demands of the job this could be a ‘fair reason’ for refusing to renew their contract.

Mainz intends to appeal the decision. Stay tuned for an update following the next match.


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