It ‘works’ like this. In the regular season, the 16 league clubs play each other twice. The top six teams in the league then go into a pool that again play each other twice in a mini-championship. The six teams start that pool (‘Playoffs 1’) with – and this is the part that really makes a mockery of the Jupiler Pro League – just half of the points that they gained in the championship proper. After the required 30 ‘playoff’ games are completed, the winner of ‘Playoffs 1’ is declared champion and goes directly into the Champions League pool stage; the runners–up go into the qualification stages of that tournament, while the third-placed club enters the Europa League.
But that’s not all. At the end of the classic season, the teams that finish in positions 7th to 14th split into two groups of four. The top teams in each group then play each other (home and away) to determine the winner of the ‘Playoffs 2’. That team then meets the team finishing 4th in the ‘Playoffs 1’ with the prize being entry to the Europa League. This means that a team finishing 14th could eventually qualify for Europe; Racing Genk did just that in 2009-2010, the first season the playoffs were introduced, after finishing 11th in the league under Franky Vercauteren.
The icing on this somewhat messy cake is that, during this time, the teams finishing 15th and 16th play each other five times! This is the ‘Playoffs 3’, with the team finishing 15th having a three points start and being able to play three of the five-match series at home. Based on points accumulated after these five games, is all five are needed, the winner goes into – yet another – series of playoffs with the teams finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th (more or less but it’s more complex than that) in the Belgian second division, to determine who will enter / stay in the Jupiler Pro League. The team losing the five games mini-series (between 15th and 16th) is relegated directly to the second division.
Playoff history (main playoffs only)
With the idea of the playoffs being to generate more cash from TV and gate receipts, the bigger clubs were not at all happy in 2009-10 when lesser lights Sint Truiden, Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem all qualified for the ‘Playoffs 1’. In the event, Anderlecht won both the classic season and the title easily.
The 2011-12 season’s playoffs were not particularly interesting with Anderlecht winning both the classic season and the title. Last season was different as there was another close finish. Zulte Waregem punched well above their weight to come within minutes of clinching the title in the final game at Anderlecht. In the event, Lucas Biglia equalised after Waregem had almost achieved the unthinkable by taking the lead at the Constant Vanden Stock stadium. The Brussels club therefore won the championship for the second successive season.
This season’s qualifiers are Standard Liege, Club Brugge, Anderlecht, Zulte Waregem. Lokeren and Genk – the same six qualifiers as last season. This means that two clubs (Anderlecht and Club Brugge) have qualified in all five seasons, two clubs (Standard Liege and Genk) have qualified in four seasons, while three clubs (Gent, Zulte Waregem and Lokeren) have qualified in three seasons. Kortrijk (2) and Sint Truiden (1) have also qualified for the Playoffs 1.
Anderlecht have won three of the four playoff titles (since 2009-2010) with Genk winning the other. Anderlecht have won the most playoff points(68) and scored the most goals (70) but Standard Liege have the best points per game average (1.73) just ahead of Anderlecht (1,70), primarily thanks to their excellent 2010-2011 playoff campaign.