If you’re looking for an exciting and enticing league to watch, then the Belgian Pro League may not be your first choice (or your second). However, there is more to this league than meets the eye. A country renowned for its famous Waffles, Brussel Sprouts and indeed its appalling colonial policies in Rwanda and Congo, but that’s not all; Belgium offers one of the most unique football leagues to this present day, yet a league that has been recently scrutinized due to its confusing league rankings. The Belgian League, or the Jupiler League (due to sponsorship) appears to have a rather similar outlook to a Matryoshka doll.
As the 2008/09 season came to a close, the big time Belgian teams such as RSC Anderlecht pestered and complained about the poor performances of the Belgian teams in Europe. Claiming that the playing such poor opposition in the domestic league didn’t give the players anything to prepare for to play their European matches. Anderlecht suggested that they created a new league format which gives their players more competition throughout the entirety of the league, it was no secret that board members of big name teams such as Liège and heavyweights Anderlecht actually sit on the board in the Belgium FA. So, of course the Belgian FA agreed that this was the best way to go forward and promote their league to the rest of Europe. These changes implemented change of fixture times, while also decreasing the league from having 18 teams to 16 teams. In addition to this, these fixtures were supposed to be played during the Christmas Break, which many people disagreed with.
So what’s so different?
The Belgian Pro League offers a unique competition structure, which offers teams the chance to compete for something all year round. At the start of the season, it really isn’t that difficult neither complex to understand, the 16 teams play each other twice (home and away). Although after the regular season, it’s broken down into three groups:
- The Championship Play-Off
- Play-Off 2/Europa League play-off (split into two groups)
- Relegation Play-Off
The Championship Play-Off
The Championship Play-Off sees the top six teams battle it out not only for the Jupiler League title, but for the coveted Champions League qualification place. These six teams go into their own league, however they start with half of the points they earned at the end of the regular season. The table below explains it a little clearer:
Disclaimer: If a team has an odd number of points, it rounds up to the nearest whole number.
Regular Season Standings
Championship Play-Off standings (before play)
From then one, the teams play each other twice (both home and away), and the team that is top of the league at the end of the games ultimately wins the competitions and qualifies for the Champions League, it’s also worth noting that the runner-up qualifies for the qualifying rounds of the Champions League.
Play Off 2/Europa League Play-Offs
This play-off is ridiculously more intricate and complex than the Championship Play-Off, teams at the end of the regular season which were placed 7th to 14th are split into two groups. Teams ranked 7th, 9th, 12th and 14th enter Group A while teams ranked 8th, 10th, 11th and 13th enter Group B. The choosing of the teams appears to have no real reason or explanation as to why these teams are picked, but they do happen to be spread out which ultimately gives the teams ranked lower a higher chance of finishing top of their respective groups. The points system does not follow the same structure as the Championship Play-Off, as all the teams in Play-Off 2 all start equally on zero points. Have a look at the tables below to help give you a visual aid as to what happens at this stage:
Group A (before play)
Group B (before play)
The teams play each other in the group both home and away (thus playing six games each), at the end of the games top team from both Group A and Group B going into the Play-Off 2 final, this game is played once again over home and away legs.
Group A (After play)
Group B (After play)
The winner of this game then goes ahead to play the fourth placed team at the end of the Championship Play-Off, this game is played over home and away legs and the overall winner then gets a place in the Europa League.
Disclaimer: If the Belgian Cup Winner finished 3rd in the Championship Play-Off, then the 4th placed team automatically qualifies for the Europa League; meaning the winner of Play-Off 2 plays the 5th placed team in the Championship Play-Off for the be all and end all European ticket.
The Relegation Play-Off
Some people might consider relegation play-offs to be relatively pointless, maybe they believe that both teams should just be automatically relegated. Although in this case, obviously not the Belgians. They give the two teams a lifeline to save themselves from demotion to the Belgian Second Division. In the Relegation Play-Off, the two teams finishing 15th and 16th at the end of the regular season play a ‘best of five’ series, where the winner stays in the topflight. The team that finished 15th playing at home three times, while the team that finished 16th only playing at home twice. As well as this, the team that finished 15th also starts the mini-league with 3 points, while the team that finished 16th starting with zero points.
Before Games are Played
After Games are Played
However, we’re not done there yet. The team that lost the Relegation Play-Off still has a chance to redeem themselves. They enter yet another mini-league, featuring the top three times from the Belgian Second Division. They all start on zero points playing eachother twice, once home, once away.
Before Games are Played
After Games are Played
Obviously, the team that finishes top of this group is promoted to the Jupiler League.
If you look further into the Belgian FA responsible for this dramatic changes, chairman François de Keersmaecker and the teams Anderlecht, Genk, Gent, Club Brugge and Standard Liège accounted to the league being formatted for seasons to come. At the end of the 2009/10 season, the clubs were asked to vote on whether they would like the Play-Offs to stay or whether to resume to a single regular season. All of the top flight teams that are not mentioned above voted for the league to be reinstated as a regular season, without any play-offs. However, because 80% of the teams didn’t agree to the league returning. The Play-Offs will possibly be used for at least three seasons when the league will review the situation again. There were protests from the majority of fans and teams because of the complexity of the league (which some people still don’t understand, even in Belgium)!
The Two Sides
Argument for the Play-Offs
As mentioned earlier, there is a lot more competition across the entirety of the league. It gives the opportunity for many teams placed mid-table to still have a chance of qualifying for European competition.
Even though it is intense on the brain, the league attracts interest from Europe because it offers something different, this can come across in generating more money from TV revenue and also just creating a bigger and more diverse fan base.
The total uncertainty of the Play-Offs gives the league a longer uncertainty over who will become Champions of their respective Play-Offs. Anyone could win, which is a great feeling for even the die-hard fans as well as looking exciting for general spectators.
The longer fixtures created by the Play-Offs attract interest from the fans, which in turn generates higher attendances across the whole of the league. The more people turn up, the more money the respective team gets.
Argument against the Play-Offs
Even if a team qualifies from the Belgian Second Division, they might still not play in the top flight on the national pyramid. This is because of several financial and stadium checks (installed with the play-offs) that each club has to meet, unfortunately for the Belgian Second Division it doesn’t receive the interest that the Jupiler League gets, in fact I would say that the fourth tier of English Football receives more money and interest that second rate Belgian football. This is bad because some clubs don’t have enough financial backing to be promoted, or maybe they don’t have enough money to expand the stadium and that’s rather unfair on the team involved.
The argument many people make is that even if a team that finished 14th can still end up qualifying for the major European competitions. It’s good for the team involved, however many people suggest that the play-offs reward form and not overall quality of team.
Close fixtures often tire the players out, which obviously puts unneeded stress and fatigue on players to play week in-week out without a proper break in-between games. In the play-offs the two legs are sometimes played within a working week, which is entirely absurd.
Read more of Ben’s work at his blog – lloretdeben.wordpress.com/