Belgium’s play-offs: What are they for?
Staatshervorming / Réforme de l’état (State reform) is a topic that the vast majority of Belgians are now quite frankly fed up with as different parts of the country and different parties continue to argue over just how the federal country should be organised. Unfortunately, football fans must also put up with constant debate over the formula of the Jupiler Pro League. A minor issue, which never concerned much more than the number of teams and occasional murmurings about an Atlantic or BeNe League, has become one of the major points of frustration for supporters across the country and a source of utter bemusement among followers of Belgian football abroad.
In 2008-09 we had arguably the most exciting and captivating finish to a league campaign ever. Sinan Bolat saved a late Bryan Ruiz penalty in Gent to ensure that les Rouches went into two test matches with Anderlecht to decide the destination of the title and Bölöni Lászlo’s men retained the championship crown. The two games were the culmination of several weeks of excitement as the tension built up during the run-in with Standard managing to last the course despite a more difficult set of fixtures. However, after the classic league format, albeit in rare circumstances, had delivered such drama, it was binned for a new, much less popular structure.
At the behest of the top teams, minus Standard, a system of play-offs were brought in, which I have explained here. It was designed to increase the number of games between the top sides, thus in theory improving the quality of the league and preparing the elite clubs more rigorously for European competition, to give television companies more guaranteed games and so clubs more revenue and to increase excitement by reducing the number of dead games as any of the top fourteen could end up qualifying for Europe via the league.
Over the past three years, criticism has mounted from all corners of Belgian football. Anderlecht, who accepted the play-offs but ideally wanted a 14-team top division, began to complain incessantly about the halving of points although that’s not why they lost the title to Genk two seasons ago after pipping the Limburgers to the post during the regular season. Whereas in the Netherlands, the last two seasons have seen four or even five teams going for the title, in Belgium the points of the top six teams are halved to create an artificial closeness, which fans can see right through. When we should have been on the cusp of a Zulte Waregem title, which would outdo even the feats of Montpellier, all Essevee could do was simply jostle for position ahead of the play-offs.
The fact that all eight sides in PO2 start from scratch makes PO1 that much harder to justify for the integrity of the competition but it should not be immune to criticism either. Attendances are notoriously low for an extra series of six games for each side against the also-rans of that particular season and many clubs down tools. The appearance of Standard and Genk in 2009-10 and Gent this year may for some add a touch of glamour but the reality is that PO2 is an escape ladder for the big clubs, who have been off the pace all season – a get-out clause they don’t deserve!
However, the biggest vitriol must be reserved for PO3, known for some by a name, which sounds like it has come straight from NFL – the “play-downs”. If the shine is taken off Anderlecht-Standard or Anderlecht-Club by likely having four meetings a season, then a potential five games in succession between the two worst sides in the division is footballing torture and that’s before the rigmarole the winner has to endure with three teams from the second tier. Only in Belgium could they have taken an idea, which failed in the Netherlands and make it ten times worse.
Play-offs are nothing new in sport and indeed in football. They are used extensively in the United States, with the NFL Superbowl the most successful example of the system. Rugby league and rugby union in both the northern and southern hemispheres employ play-off systems as do the AFL in Australia. The introduction of play-offs in the late 1980s to decide the third promotion spot has added new life to England’s Championship and for me at least, the Championship play-off final, billed as the £60m game eclipses the FA Cup final as a spectacle.
Crucially however, with the exception of Belgium, most leagues who decide the overall winner of the league are in closed markets where promotion/relegation does not really exist or the sport is not able to sustain more than one professional league, thus leading to a system of licences as in the European Super League in rugby league or Australia’s wonderful NRL. Football in Europe is a very different beast with most countries having at least two professional leagues and players able to move freely from country to country.
The viability and success of play-offs in other sports does, however, demonstrate that they are a bad idea per se, which should be instantly dismissed out of hand. However, their biggest advantages are that they often add a new dimension to the months-long slog of round-robin games and climax with a grand final, a true sporting spectacle for the whole country to get behind irrespective of their club affiliation. It’s also a godsend for the television companies with even the most casual fans tuning in.
And therein lies the biggest problem with Belgium’s play-offs. PO1 is just more of the same. We’ve already had 30 rounds of league fixtures – ten more is simply overkill. Furthermore, there is no need for the play-off system to be applied to the entire league. In the face of widespread discontent, the Pro League seem happy to tinker around the edges for the time being. Next season we may yet see the same structure without the top six seeing their points total cut in two. Former Pro League chairman Ivan De Witte has come up with arguably an even worse system though, with two play-offs of eight teams at a time when Scotland are preparing to abandon such a “split”. The only advantage of his proposal is the scrapping of PO3.
The Pro League should make a clear choice. They either return to the traditional league format, which has served Belgium well for 100 years, be it with 16 or even 18 teams to make up for the reduction in games or they fully embrace the spirit of a play-off system. That means that there would only be two, slimmed down play-offs. Firstly, the side finishing second/third from bottom could face the second/third team from the second division in a play-off as currently happens between 1. and 2. Bundesliga teams in Germany.
At the top end of the competition, the top five would go into a much slimmer and more immediate play-off competition. It can be summarised as follows (using the current standings):
Game 1: Club Brugge (4th) v Lokeren (5th)
Game 2: Zulte Waregem (2nd) v Genk (3rd)
Game 3: Winner of Game 2 v Loser of Game 1
Game 4: Anderlecht v Winner of Game 1
Game 5: Winner of Game 3 v Loser of Game 4
Winner of Game 4 into the Grand Final
Grand Final with the two semi-final winners.
In order to maintain the importance of the regular season, a Champions League spot could be guaranteed for the side finishing top. The system would result in less games (as would any change) but it would also allow more Cofidis Cup games to be played at weekends, which would make it easier for supporters to attend and give the cup a shot in the arm. The calendar is now too congested and not fan friendly. On balance, I would be more than happy to see a return to the old system but if the Pro League remains wedded to the idea of play-offs, they must bring something new to the party because right now, they’re neither one thing nor the other.