One of the dangers, and thrills, of relegation is that a big-name team that has a bad year can find itself sent down. In Argentina, and several other countries like Colombia and Mexico, where the biggest clubs are especially well-connected and influential, organizers want to avoid this. So they determine relegation based on performance over multiple years.
Let's take a look at how it works in Argentina. As in many Western Hemisphere countries, the league year is divided into two parts. The first championship, the Apertura, ran from August 2010 to February 2011. The 20 teams played each other once each, with Estudiantes winning the title with 45 points. The second championship, the Clausura, with an identical format, ran February to June; Velez Sarsfeld won with 39 points.
Estudiantes and Velez are both considered champions; Velez had more combined points in the two championships by a large margin, but there is no "overall winner" crowned, though the full-season table does determine qualifiers for the continental Copa Sudamericana.
To determine the relegated teams, points over the last three years (six semiannual compeititions) are considered. Velez scored 66, 61, and 82 points in the last three years, for a total of 209, putting them top in this table.
But it is the bottom of the table that matters. Take the team First Round Bye supports in Argentina, Huracan. It had a pretty good year in 2008-09, with a total of 58 points. But it earned just 37 in 09-10, and a league-low 30 this past season. The total was just 125, far behind Velez.
Alert readers of FRB may be wondering how the scores are calculated for recently-promoted teams, who don't have three years of Premier Division points. In actuality, the table is not ranked by total points, but by points per game. Since Velez's 209 points came in 114 games, their points per game was a healthy 1.833. Huracan by contrast earned just 1.096 points per game over the three-year period. Quilmes, which returned to the top level this season, was even worse, earning just 39 points in the 38-game season, an average of 1.026 points per game.
Here is how the bottom of the table looked:
As you can see, of the relegation contenders, two, Olimpio and Quilmes, played in just the most recent season in the top flight, while the others participated in all three seasons.
(For a copy of the full table, go to this link and click "Promedio.")
In theory, it should be simple from here. The bottom two teams are relegated, while teams 17 and 18 are each matched against a lower division team in two-game playoffs. They stay up if they win and go down if they lose.
But this year there is the added complication of a tie for 18th. Gimnasia and Huracan will play a one-game neutral site playoff this Wednesday (June 22) to determine 18th place, with the winner going to a relegation playoff and the loser heading straight down.
(Promotion from Division B is based on just the past year, by the way, not a three-year system.)
So what are we to make of this system? It generally does achieve its main goal of protecting big teams from relegation, since such teams have three years to get their resources together to earn enough points to save themselves. On the other hand, is that such a worthwhile goal? Big teams have so many built-in advantages already that giving them another one seems absurdly unfair. It's not like a relegated big team wouldn't come back to the top division in a year or two anyway. This sort of system is a bad example of powerful forces colluding together to make it harder on the little guy.
Another oddity of the system is that teams can be affected significantly by results that took place two and three years ago, when they may well have had different players, coaches and even management. Take River Plate, who are 17th in the chart above. They had a terrible season in 2008-09, earning just 41 points, and were little better in 2009-10, with 43. But they weren't threatened with relegation either season because of their big point totals in 06-07 and 07-08. This season, they managed to improve tremendously, finishing in 4th and 9th in the two tournaments and 6th in the overall table, with 57 points. But those two bad seasons dragged them down to 17th over three years, and they will have to beat a lower division side in a playoff on June 22 and 26 to survive.
Oh, yes, River Plate are one of the biggest clubs in Argentina, champions 33 times, most recently in 2008. FRB knows who he'll be rooting against in that playoff.