Friday, April 22, 2011

Belgian Soccer Playoffs

There are 16 teams in the top division in Belgian soccer. They play each other twice each, for a 30-game schedule. But unlike most other European leagues, the season does not end there.
At the conclusion of the league season, the teams are divided into three groups, each with its own playoff system with its own structure.

The top six teams enter the championship playoff. Each team begins the group with half the points it earned in the regular season. Anderlecht, first in the regular season with 65 points, starts with 32 1/2 points, while sixth place Standard, which was 16 points back with 49 points, now is only 8 points back with 24 1/2. The teams play each other home and home for a 10-game playoff.
When it's over, the first place team is the Belgian champion. Second place earns Belgium's second Champions League place, third gets a Europa League place, and fourth goes into a Europa League playoff.

Teams 7 through 14 enter a playoff of their own, with a different structure. They are divided into two groups of four and play the other teams in their group twice each. The two winners advance to a home-and-home total goals series. The winner of that meets that fourth place team from the championship playoff in a total goals series, with the winner getting a Europa Cup spot.

Teams 15 and 16? Yes, they get a playoff of their own. It's a five-game series: the 15th placed team gets three home games; the 16th placed team gets two. The 15th placed team also gets a 3-point head start in the series. The loser of this series is relegated. The winner advances to yet another playoff, joined by the second, third, and fourth place teams from the lower division. These teams all play each other home-and-home, and the top-placed team at the end gets to play in the top division next year.

FRB gives these playoff ideas a qualified thumb's up. The top playoff seems like it could be quite exciting. Instead of the title being decided in the last weeks by random games against various opponents, most of them out of the race, it ends with 10 games against top-level opposition. And the halving of the points makes the race wide open.
If the English Premier League adopted this system this year it might begin looking something like:
Man United 40, Arsenal 39, Chelsea 38, Man City 35, Spurs 33, Liverpool 30. With 10 games to play, all against each other, that's a recipe for a thrilling finale.

The middle playoff is less appealing. Seven of the eight teams are eliminated with nothing to show for it, while the one winner still has an uphill battle against a better team for a Europa Cup spot. And do you really want your Europa Cup spot to go to a 7th, or 10th, or even 14th place team, when the 5th and 6th place finishers don't even get a shot at it? On the other hand, leagues do award Europa Cup berths to Cup winners, and this is sort of like a mini-Cup

The bottom playoff seems pretty dire. If you're a fan of one of these poor teams, would you want to see it play the other terrible team five consecutive times? And the reward for victory is only the right to play six more matches against lower division sides to have a one-in-four chance to survive? Just relegate us now, thank you.

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