Explainer: Why unique Belgian football championship play-offs cause confusion

Explainer: Why unique Belgian football championship play-offs cause confusion
Jupiler Pro League trophy. Credit: Belga / Kurt Desplenter

The Belgian Pro League reaches its conclusion on Sunday, the results of which will see one of Royal Antwerp, Royale Union Saint-Gilloise or KRC Genk named as champions of Belgian football.

For casual observers of the Belgian football championship, it may seem a little strange that these three clubs are still challenging for the title this weekend. Fourth-placed Club Brugge, who make up the numbers on Sunday, were ruled out of the running in the previous round – how and why, well… we’ll get to that in good time.

When the league came to the end of its 34-game season, Genk were in first place, beating second-placed Union Saint-Gilloise to the top spot on goal difference, three points ahead of third-placed Antwerp. In most leagues, Wouter Vrancken’s team would have been crowned champions.

Not in Belgium, however. Finishing top after 34 games is no guarantee that you will be champions. In Belgium, even fourth-placed clubs like Club Brugge – which finished some sixteen points behind Genk – have the chance to claim the title after the regular season is over due to the play-off system which was introduced in 2009-2010 season.

Before then, Belgian clubs were struggling to progress to the latter stages of the two main European competitions – the Champions League and the Europa League. To raise the level of the league, play-offs were introduced.

“When the play-offs were introduced, Belgium was 14th on the UEFA Coefficient rankings,” Phil Vinck from the Mauveside, a podcast and website dedicated mostly to the fortunes of Anderlecht, told the Brussels Times. “Thanks to the performances from Union SG, Anderlecht, Club Bruges and Anderlecht this season, Belgium have now solidified their position as a top 10, currently 8th, league in Europe,”

Club Brugge's goalkeeper Simon Mignolet celebrates winning the 2022 championship play-offs. Credit: Belga / Virginie Lefour

“But are these positive performances a direct result from the implementation of the play-offs? That’s a tough question, the level of the Belgian Pro League has definitely been increased. In a way, it is probably more competitive than ever before. If you look at the Dutch Eredivisie, the league is dominated by Ajax, PSV and Feyenoord, but teams in Belgium are more on an equal level. Upsets where the lower ranked teams win against the favourite are more common than it used to be.”

Choosing champions

So, the play-off format has its advantages, but how exactly does it work?

For the purposes of this article, we will only be dealing with the championship play-offs (there are others, including those that decide relegation), which can be explained ‘simply’ like this:

  • The Belgian Pro League consists of 16 clubs. Each club faces each other twice: one home game, one away game. At the end of the regular season the top six will play for the title in the Champions Playoffs (after COVID it was the top 4, as it is this season, but from next season, the league will revert back to the original format).
  • A club’s points at the end of the regular season are divided by two, if you finish the season with 72 points, you start the playoffs with 36 points. When it’s an odd number of points, they are rounded “up” e.g: 67 becomes 34, 65 becomes 33 and so on.
  • When teams finish on equal points in the playoffs, the team without the extra half point (from the rounded number) will be placed higher.

You would not be alone in considering it unfair that a team which finished fourth (or even sixth from next season) and some way off the pace could snatch the title from the team that ended the season in first place.

Yet this is the opportunity that the play-off system offers teams like Club Brugge every season. You may struggle to keep up with the teams over a 34-game campaign but if you can stay with them until the end and make it into the Championship Group, you can still come out as title winners.

However, due to a heavy 3-1 defeat to Genk last weekend, Club Brugge’s hopes of winning the league are now over. And some would argue that that is fair enough, considering.

Most are not fans

The play-off format has never been universally loved, with some believing it is not a fair system. Scott Coyne from the Belgian Football Podcast told the Brussels Times that opinions remains split among fans.

“The majority of fans don't like it, but accept it is what it is and that as long as it’s in place you just have to work with it,” he said. “Some clubs favour it and others dislike it. It’s worth remembering that in Belgium, the G5 – the top 5 clubs based on performance over previous five seasons – have double the voting rights at Pro League Council meetings so should there ever be a change, these clubs would have to vote for it.”

A dejected Casper Nielsen after losing the play-offs despite Union Saint-Gilloise finishing first in the regular season in 2022. Credit: Belga / Laurie Dieffembacq

“Outside of Belgium the play-off system causes huge confusion and is seen by some to be quite odd and difficult to understand," he added. “There is a view among some who believe that it's bad because it works against the principle of consistency, which is a cornerstone of winning championships.”

Phil Vinck supports this idea of a split of opinion. “As an Anderlecht fan myself, I have always found myself in between,” he added. “I’m not against it, but is it necessary? I don’t think so. Without play-offs you can still have a final matchday where multiple teams can fight for the title, just look at the Bayern-Dortmund finale in the Bundesliga last weekend, and the Man City-Liverpool title race in the Premiership in 2022.”

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