Ask people in Belgium how the Jupiler League Playoffs work and you’ll get a lot of head-shaking. It’s certainly a complex syatem and, yes, it was dreamed up by consultants. For new readers and for those who have not been paying attention, here’s the beef:
The 16 league clubs play each other twice in a classic set-up. 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 bit is controversial – just half of the points that they gained in the championship proper. After the required 30 ‘playoff’ games, the winner of ‘Playoffs 1’ will be declared champion and – this is new – will go directly into the Champions League pool stage; the runners–up will go into the qualification stages of that tournament, while the third-placed club will enter the Europa League.
But that’s not all. The teams that finish in positions 7th to 14th will be split into two groups of four. The top team in each group will then play each other (home and away) to determine the winner of the ‘Playoffs 2’. That team will then meet 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 qualify for Europe; Racing Genk did qualify for Europe in 2009-2010 after finishing 11th.
The icing on the cake is that, during this time, the teams finishing 15th and 16th will 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 five games, the winner will go into – another – series of playoffs with the teams finishing 2nd, 3rd and 4th (more or less) in the second division, to determine who will enter / stay in the Jupiler League. The team losing the five games mini-series (between 15th and 16th) will be relegated directly to the second division.
The idea was to have more games between the big clubs – more cash from TV and gate receipts – and to keep the suspense going to the end of the season. In 2009-2010, the bigger clubs were not happy when Sint Truiden, Kortrijk and Zulte Waregem qualified for the ‘Playoffs 1’.
2010-2011, however, saw an exciting series of matches after Anderlecht had won the season ‘proper’ by one point from Genk, with Standard Liege 16 points adrift of the ‘champions’. Standard, led by Jelle Van Damme and Axel Witsel, went through the playoffs unbeaten, winning eight of their 10 matches. With a Boussoufa-less Anderlecht dropping out, it went down to the last game of the season at Genk, with Standard the visitors. Genk snatched a draw with Thibaut Courtois performing brilliantly in the Genk goal. The rest, as they say, is history. Genk were champions with Courtois and coach Franky Vercauteren then going their different ways, leaving Genk to stumble into the Champions League.
Before last season, players and fans universally disliked the system. There has probably been somewhat of a change now with a few more fans feeling positive about the playoffs; the majority, however, would undoubtedly still vote for a simple ‘classic’ season. As for what the clubs think; the powerful ones like a smaller division and more ‘big’ matches. Standard were the one major club opposed to the playoffs last season but the system allowed them to come from nowhere and almost grab the title. We will see what 2011-2012 brings. One thing was sure, Anderlecht were never going to allow any players to get a transfer to Russia before this season’s playoffs.