In recent times a lot of domestic football leagues have tried to improve the attraction of their league by re-organising the structure of the league. The Netherlands introduced play-offs for the teams that narrowly missed the championship title, these playoffs would determine the second Champions League slot and Europa League places. Due to a large disapproval from fans, the playoffs vanished after less than a handful of seasons. Scotland has introduced "the split" where, after each team played each other thrice, the teams are split in a league for the top-6 teams in the table, and a league for the bottom-6 in the regular table. In both groups, each team plays each other once more to determine champions, European tickets, and relegators. Israel also increased the number of teams in its league to 16 with a split in three play-off groups at the end of the season (this play-off saw Hapoel Tel-Aviv grab the title away from Maccabi Haifa which had lead the league table for almost all season but had a mild collapse during the playoffs). Turkey changed the set-up of the 3rd and 4th level, Ireland and Northern Ireland decreased the number of teams in the top division, …
It all sounds complex but it becomes pretty easy to understand compared to the Belgian set-up. In Belgium too, teams were lamenting about bad performances in Europe. The big teams (who have board members in the board of the Belgian FA ; conflict of interest, anyone?) blamed this on having to play too many games against weak opposition, which would not learn the players anything new and which would make the Belgian league less attractive for good foreign players that receive offers from Belgian teams. Belgium has had a league with 18 clubs in the highest two divisions for ages, and suddenly this was no longer good enough. The big teams felt it was a waste of time and energy to continue playing against small teams such as FCV Dender EH, AFC Tubize, KSV Roeselare, … Reducing the number of teams to 16 in the top flight was a first solution, and to increase the number of encounters between the traditional top teams, playoffs were created. But, the creation was not exactly a big success : it was so complex that some fans have still not managed to understand it. As the playoffs started last weekend, I will make an attempt to explain it. Don’t blame me if you still don’t understand afterwards 🙂
1) The first stage is the general league where each team plays each other once home and once away. This means each team plays 30 games. After this 30 games, the final league table of the regular season decides the actual divide of the play-offs.
2) The top-6 teams of the regular season go into what is called Play-Off I. This is the playoff that will decide the domestic champion, the runner-up (who also plays qualifiers for the Champions League), and one of the Europa League entries. In the Play-off I each team again plays each other twice: once home and once away. This means each team plays 10 games. The teams start the Play-off I with half of the points they totalised at the end of the regular season. Imagine a team collected 66 points in the regular season, it starts Play-off I with 33 points. If the number of points after dividing by two is uneven, it is rounded up (30.5 points would become 31). The winner of Play-off I is the champion of Belgium. The nr 2 gets to play Champions League qualifiers too. The number 3 qualifies for the Europa League. The nr 4 plays the winner of Play-off II for another Europa League ticket.
3) The teams finishing numbers 7 until (and including) nr 14 in the regular league’s final table, go into Play-off II. This play-off is divided into two groups. The teams finishing nr 7, 9, 12 and 14 go into the group A of Play-off II. Numbers 8, 10, 11 and 13 of the regular league’s final table end up in group B. In both groups, each games plays each other twice (once home, once away), thus 6 games per team. Unlike Play-off I, in the groups of Play-off II each team starts with 0 points.
The winner of both groups play each other in the final of Play-off II, in a home and away format, thus adding another 2 games to the tally. The winner over 2 games, is the winner of Play-off II. This team plays the nr 4 from Play-off I to decide who gets the Europa League ticket at stake (this again is a home and away leg, thus again 2 more games).
NOTE: in case the nr 3 of Play-off I also wins the Belgian Cup, then the nr 4 of Play-off I is automatically qualified for the Europa League too, and the nr 5 of Play-off I will compete with the winner of Play-off II for the remaining Europa League ticket.
4) In the first season with play-offs, the nr 16 of the regular season relegated directly to the second level, whereas the nr 15 (second from bottom) had to play a promotion/relegation playoff with 3 teams from the second division. Because of the long gap without games for this team, the Belgian FA changed the format (they did so halfway the second season with play-offs rather than deciding this in the beginning of the new season!) : the numbers 15 and 16 of the regular season now play Play-off III. This is also called Play-Downs. The teams basically play a "best of five" ; the teams play each other 5x with the nr 15 having 3 home games and the nr 16 having 2 home games. The nr 15 also starts with a 3 points benefit over nr 16. The team losing this Play-off III relegates directly to the second level and is replaced by the champions of the second division, who promote directly (subject to getting a license to play in the highest level). The winner of Play-off III is not safe from relegation yet but has to play the promotion/relegation playoffs with three teams from second division. It has to be noted that, while I am not entirely sure of this, in case the two teams in Play-off III finish with equal points, the nr 15 from the regular league would be considered the winner of the Play-off III.
5) In second division, the champions promote directly to the premier division (subject to having met the criteria to receive a license for the highest division). Three other teams face the winner of Play-Off III of the highest level, in a mini league with the final ticket for the top division at stake. Each team plays each other once home and once away, thus 6 games per team. The teams all start from 0 points here. The winner of this mini-league stays in/promotes to the highest level.
The three teams from second division participating in theory are the 3 winners of the periodical championships. The championship in second division (which counts 18 teams), is divided in 3 periods (one of 10 games, two of 12 games each) and the winners of those qualify for the promotion/relegation playoffs. In practise, it is very usual that the team that wins the championship and promotes directly has also won one or more periodic titles, or that a team finishing second or third have won at least one periodic title. In this case the highest ranked team that did not win a periodic title qualifies for the promotion/relegation playoff. In case for example that the champions of the second division also won 2 periodic titles, the numbers 2 and 3 of the second division’s league will qualify for the promotion/relegation playoff (and if they also won a periodic title, the nr 4 also qualifies).
As you can see, the Belgian league shines in complexity. This is all very odd considering the fact that polls and massive protest actions from fans showed that about 80% of football fans is against the play-off system. Initially the Pro League also voted for a return to an 18 clubs league format without play-off like before: during the second season with play-offs, all clubs except for Anderlecht, Gent, Genk and Club Brugge (the "big 5" consists of these 4 teams plus Standard Liège) voted for returning to the old format. Standard Liège initially abstained from voting and came with a compromise to introduce a league cup in addition to a 16 teams league without playoffs. This was never really an option so Standard then chose the side of the smaller teams wanting to return to the old format. The board of the 4 big teams apparently really believe that only a play-off system can improve the level of Belgian football to the extent that it will become commercially more interesting and that teams would again perform well in Europe. Hence, despite the disapproval of playoffs by the fans, these 4 teams promised serious financial compensations to the smaller teams in return of changing their vote in favor of a play-off system. This trick narrowly worked and thus for the next 3 seasons we will see again a 16 league format with play-offs.
One sidenote has to be made: the Play-off III was created in the middle of the 2010-2011 season and the FA forgot to change its own rules to include the Play-off III as an official part of the league set-up.
The first season with play-offs (2009-2010) saw RSC Anderlecht win both the regular league and the Play-off I, winning their 30th Belgian championship. AA Gent leapfrogged Club Brugge in a direct confrontation on the last day of Play-off I to grab the second spot, Brugge finishing 3rd. The surprising St-Truiden (who had reached the play-off I by surprise in their first year after promoting from second level) finished 4th. Racing Genk and Westerlo won their groups in Play-Off II, RC Genk becoming the eventual winner of Play-off II. The duel between Genk and St-Truiden for the remaining Europa League ticket, was won by RC Genk. Excelsior Mouscron went out of business halfway the season, leaving KSV Roeselare (finishing 15h in the regular season) in the playoff for promotion/relegation. Roeselare there lost the mini-league and relegated to the second division.
Currently, in the 2010-2011 season, the play-offs started last weekend with Anderlecht, RC Genk, Club Brugge, AA Gent, Standard Liège and the surprising Sporting Lokeren in the Play-off I.
Play-off II sees KV Mechelen, Cercle Brugge, Lierse and St-Truiden in group A ; group B is made up of KV Kortrijk, Westerlo, SV Zulte-Waregem and Germinal Beerschot.
Play-off III is disputed between AS Eupen (who however try to save themselves from relegation through courtcases that are ongoing) and the team that finished bottom of the regular league, Charleroi.
The system is complex, and massive protest actions from teams and fans alike have taken place in the two highest divisions. The absurdity is that a team finishing first after the regular season can still lose its European spot in the play-offs, while the team finishing 14th in the regular table (narrowly avoiding the relegation play-offs) can still grab a European ticket if they win Play-off II. Despite the protests, it is doubtful that fans threatening to boycot the play-offs will actually do so in large enough numbers to make the clubs clear that the new system isn’t exactly wanted by the fans. So I guess each one has the choice: getting used to the play-offs for at least another 3 years, or boycot the league and search a new hobby (or witness a team across the border instead … Teams such as Willem II, PSV, Lille OSC, Borussia Dortmund and Bayer Leverkusen aren’t that far away…)