It’s not every year that we see players like Lionel Messi or Sergio Ramos becoming available in the football transfer market as a free agent. The former’s contract with Barcelona recently expired while the latter was let go by his former employers Real Madrid due to a contract dispute.

While there are several reports over their future, the aforementioned duo are still free agents at the moment. 

What is a free agent in football?

A free agent in football is a player who is not under contract with any club. He/she is allowed to join any team without the need for any transfer fee. Football players become free agents when their contract with their clubs runs out and they are not offered or refuse to sign a renewed deal. Then there are terminations as well. Both clubs and the players can decide to terminate their contract, which in turn makes the player a free agent.

In Lionel Messi’s case, his contract ran out on June 30 and he is a free agent as he is yet to put pen to paper on a new deal.

Becoming a free agent doesn’t necessarily mean that the player can be signed on the cheap though. There are payments like the agent’s fee and the player’s signing-on bonus that still need to be paid.

How are free agents signed?

There are two basic ways to approach a free agent. One is to contact the player’s camp once the deal with their existing club runs out and then there’s also the option of advance negotiation. In advance negotiation, a player, who is in his final six months of the contract, is given the liberty to negotiate with any other club while still under contract with their current employers.

This gives the player leverage to get a better deal either from his current employers or from the other club. One of the best examples of advance negotiations is when Polish striker Robert Lewandowski moved to Bayern Munich from Borussia Dortmund. In January 2014, Bayern Munich confirmed that the striker had signed a pre-contract agreement with them, meaning that he would see out his current contract with Dortmund until May 2014 before joining the Bavarians ahead of the next season on a free transfer. 

How Bosman ruling changed football transfers

Until 1995, signing a free agent wasn’t as common as it is now. Before the Bosman ruling, clubs in Europe barring Spain and France could prevent players from joining teams in another country even if their contracts had expired. During that time, a player who had run down his current deal wasn’t allowed to leave the club before their current employers agreed to let him go. The only way to sign even an out-of-contract player was through a transfer fee. 

All that, however, changed when Belgian midfielder Jean-Marc Bosman won a five-year legal battle against RFC Liege which changed the face of the football transfer market.

In 1990, Bosman was nearing the end of his contract with RFC Liege and was offered an improved deal by the French team, USL Dunkerque. Liege demanded an out of bound fee for the midfielder, which the French outfit refused to pay. Furthermore, after the move failed to go through, Bosman saw his wages cut by 70 per cent.

As a result of this, Bosman dragged Liege, the Belgian FA and UEFA to the European Court of Justice, demanding the freedom of movement for players anywhere in Europe. It took five long years to get the favoured judgement, but it finally allowed players to leave a club once their contract expired.

This gave players more power over clubs as they could demand higher wages.

"Once the European Court of Justice ruled that clubs no longer had to pay transfer fees after the expiration of a player's contract, all hell broke loose. Suddenly it was a free-for-all," said former Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson about the ruling in 2015.

Since then, several high-profile players have benefited from the ruling. This includes the likes of Steve McManaman, Sol Campbell, Andrea Pirlo, Paul Pogba, and Michael Ballack to name a few.

Top free agents in the 2021-22 transfer market

There has been a lot of movement in the transfer market ahead of the 2021-22 football season, with the teams signing some top best free agents in the market. This includes Real Madrid signing David Alaba, PSG getting Georginio Wijnaldum and Barcelona securing the services of Sergio Aguero and Memphis Depay.

As things stand, apart from Lionel Messi and Sergio Ramos, the list of free agents currently on the market includes Italy goalkeeper Gianluigi Donnarumma, PSG’s Julian Draxler and Bayern Munich’s Jerome Boateng.

Featured photo: AFP / Pau Barrena