Belgian playoffs: European football’s most complex system

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…)

About thepathslesstravelled

An Aspie who has had a lifelong fascination with travelling, discovering new cultures and discovering new ways of life, and with a strange attraction to the less known and often forgotten places in the world. And very obsessed with sports and music.
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17 Responses to Belgian playoffs: European football’s most complex system

  1. Sid Wilkins says:

    Well, I am a Brit living in Lier, Belgium and I am a Lierse supporter. This system is a complete joke – as said above the team finishing 14th (this was in fact Lierse who survived relegation by 1 point) can end up in Europe. Lierse are currently sitting top of their play-off group with 1 game to go! The Belgian FA should be ashamed of themselves, unfortunately fans are still going to watch this rubbish (and I really mean that – watching the Belgian First Division is like watching the lower English Divisions at best). Well, I have not been going to these rediculous matches.

  2. Florence says:

    Hi , I would like to find out if you have any information on how did the play off system effect the numbers of fans watching the games or their interest at the initial first stage ‘general league’. What do you think the advantages and the disadvantages of the play offs..Thank You

    • I am very much against the playoffs and thus not entirely neutral. But to answer your question: purely in terms of attendances, the play-offs have been a success so far. In the regular season, people have just continued to attend games of their teams as usual. A lot of fans did threaten to not attend the playoff games as a way of protesting against this system. In reality though, only few actually did boycott the playoffs and could not resist going to the stadium to watch their team. Add to that that the last playoffs were very unpredictable with a huge climax title decider on the last day of the season, and the TV money coming in, and I am afraid the playoffs will eventually be accepted by the fans and are here to stay. Unfortunately because the real victims are the teams in the lower leagues, with less teams in the highest division, promoting beyond second division will only become harder and harder… And second division in financial terms is a graveyard. Hardly any TV incomes, very low attendances, little media attention, … The only benefit the playoffs bring IMO is that a team finishing mid table can still play with a goal until the end of the season, because due to the playoffs for the Europa League slot, even a team finishing 11th or 12th in the regular league can suddenly still make it into Europe. However, it is not exactly fair, I would say. I am against the playoffs but I fear that they won’t disappear soon.

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  4. milleryogi says:

    I’ve attempted to understand the Belgian playoffs for two years now and I can honestly say its insane. I do, however, appreciate you doing the research and explaining it. While its still confusing and maddening you’ve increased my understanding slightly–as much as possible I think. I still think its absurd however.

    • I am Belgian, that is why I know it in depth 🙂 However, there are constant talks about reforming the playoff system, however nothing seems to happen. The big clubs are very keen on keeping things as they are. Heck, they now even want to reform the Belgian Cup, another reform nobody is waiting for. But I hope that reform will NOT proceed. The playoffs are still controversy guaranteed but a few very tense championships have made some people accept the playoffs (not including me !). Sadly enough, more and more countries experiment with such systems. Israel and Turkey have introduced playoff systems of some sort now as well, and I think Russia too. They all share one thing: they are complex and hard to understand. Good old days when football was not about commerce and big clubs had no say in the way the leagues were ruled …

  5. Chris Lambe says:

    Many thanks for clarifying a truly daft system. I’m an English fan, living in France, who wants to go to a game in the first week of play offs and want to be sure he’ll get a ticket. How do fans get tickets? When do they know when and where (home or away) their team is playing? It mist be chaos on the first weekend of the play-offs…

    • Sorry for delayed reply. The play-off calendar is made once the regular league has been concluded and the participants in each play-off (1, 2 and 3) are known. So for fans, it’s waiting until shortly before play-offs’ start to know when their team will be playing against each other opponent in the play-offs. A lot of fans have a season ticket or a ticket for all home games in the play-offs. But some clubs may have tickets being sold per game, each club administers that individually. The best thing to do, I think, is to select in advance which club you’d like to see at home, and then contact them to find out about their ticket sales system. Or to select the games you’d like to see (in case both clubs involved are in the same play-off) and then contact the home teams in advance to find out about tickets. Sometimes of course on the streets or in fan clubs, you’ll find tickets being re-sold if someone who owns a ticket cannot make it to the stadium that day… but it’s not the most certain system to get tickets, obviously. I haven’t been to a division 1 game in a lot of time, so for away games I’m unsure how it is being done per club, although I think most clubs organise a bus for their fans to an away game (due to having to buy tickets in advance and sometimes police escorts of away teams’ fans to and from the stadium). Due to restrictions on traveling without supporters busses, and restrictions on buying tickets at the gate for away fans, it’s no longer like the old days when fans of the visiting team could just purchase their ticket at the gate and travel to the game independently. I’m not sure if every game per default is subject to police escorts for visiting away fans, them having to travel to the game per busses, etc. Rules have changed several times I guess, and it’s long time ago that I saw a game in the highest division. So better ask the clubs of which you want to see an away game, how transport for their fans is arranged. Sorry to say it’s all so complex, I miss the good old days when fans were not yet segregated in the stadium, when everyone traveled in their own way, and purchased tickets at the gate. Those good old days seem an eternity ago … But despite that, I hope you will have a good time in Belgium, and enjoy the games!

  6. bob says:

    Thanks for the info.
    I am playing a computer game … I shouldn’t go into details about that, as it’s interesting to no-one but me…
    However (I can’t resist telling you) with a Belgian team to coach promoted to the Pro league I had no idea what was going on, this explanation you give however has helped me. Thanks.

  7. The Maltese Premier League seems to have a similar play-off system. As far as I can tell, the top six teams go into a home-and-away play-off of 10 matches, with the points from the original season being halved. The winners go to the CL qualifying rounds, and the 2nd and 3rd (and 4th, providing both national cup finalists finished in the top 3) get EL qualifiers. Then the bottom six teams go into the same type of play-off (including their points being halved) and the two teams in 11th and 12th place are automatically relegated. However, the second division is more straight forward – the top 2 teams are automatically promoted to the Premier League.

  8. Calum Wilford says:

    I’m also interested in going to a game in Leuven so this helped me understand. The 3rd tier Spanish league playoffs are fun. On a computer game in finished 4th with a last minute win on tge last day. Played about 10 more games and got promoted.

    • With the new reforms of Belgian football and the split between professional football and amateur football, it’s still unclear to many how the new season will be like and how the new divisions will be composed. Personally I am not in favor of these new reforms at all, but other than outing your disapproval you cannot do a lot as “just a fan”… Leuven is a very nice city, it’s small but very vibrant due to the many university students. Lots of bars and pubs, lots of cultural events and concerts, … And OH Leuven is a nice club with friendly supporters. Their stadium is currently being rebuilt (at the time of writing this there is no stand at all on one side of the pitch, a new stand is going to be constructed there). The stadium is quite pleasant, hopefully the new stand won’t change anything about that. Leuven is one of the 3 remaining teams that have to escape from relegation tomorrow (either Westerlo, OH Leuven, or St Truiden will relegate, tomorrow we’ll have closure on that. Mouscron technically can relegate too, but the odds of that happening is de facto 0%).

  9. Filip says:

    Hi im really confused that teams on 5 and 6 place in play off 1 cant play europa league but winner of play off 2 can play.Can somobedy please explain me thank you very much and sorry for my bad english thanks.

    • Hello Filip.
      Actually, the way it goes now (the system has once again been changed!):
      Nr 1 of the playoff 1 goes to group stage of the Champions League.
      Nr 2 of the playoff 1 goes to qualifiers of the Champions League (league route)
      Cup winner qualifies directly for the group stage of Europa League.
      Nr 3 of playoff 1 goes to the qualifiers for the Europa League.
      Nr 4 of playoff 1 plays a decisive extra game against the winner of playoff 2 for the last remaining spot for the qualifiers of the Europa League.
      That said, if the Cup winner finishes 3rd or 4th spot in playoff 1, then nr 5 from playoff 1 plays that decisive game against the winner of playoff 2.

      This is how it goes at the time of writing. However, things can change pretty rapidly in Belgium as they are still looking for the perfect system. This year for example, there are 3 teams from division 1B (second level on the pyramid) participating in playoff 2, and the rules regarding the decisive games at the end of playoff 2 have been changed as well. In the end, I’m beginning to get confused myself sometimes 🙂

  10. Stuart Foran says:

    Is it a bit confusing. Should just be a straight league format. Celtic in Scotland are 33 points clear can u imagine if anderlecht or club brugges were that far ahead yet they had to go into a play off system. I watch the Belgian football on premier sports sort of understand it just seems pointless but suppose u will have to win your games in the play offs….

  11. Hi! The playoff format is really confusing and thank you for helping us understand it better. Our recent article speaks about a similar confusing format followed in India. Do give it a read!

    • I think that, since the moment I wrote the article, the system has changed again, and there is frequent discussion about yet more changes to the system…
      I see playoff systems occur in other countries too, in some form. I hope the Indian football fans at least understand how it works and support the set-up. In Belgium, there is a lot of divide amongst fans in whether to support the playoff system or not. It’s hard to please everyone I guess, but I’m not a fan of the concept personally.

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