...just wait until I try and explain to you how their top division in football works! In England, Spain, Italy, just about in almost every main football league in the world, the team who finishes the season top of the table, wins the championship. Exactly how it should be. You play your 34 or 38 matches, have more points that the team in second, you're the champions.
Except, this is Belgium we're talking about. They like to over-complicate things. Make things as baffling as possible. Make things so convoluted and complex, that it induces a sense of despair, and ultimately, apathy, amongst the general population. The result: many Belgian football fans don't even understand their own league.
In their wisdom, the powers that be in the Belgian FA decided to alter the format of their top league (known as the "Jupiler Pro League" - Jupiler being a lager. The only lager I've tasted here that reminds me of the fizzy piss we're accustomed to in England. The one you see all the oddballs drinking in the street), in time for the 2009/10 season. The division was reduced from 18 to 16 teams. Okay, great. Less teams, less matches, possibly more competitive, more exciting, more time to devote to the national team. Yes? No. Instead the format has been designed so that the teams actually play more, not less, matches.
The Belgian FA had the national team uppermost in their minds when they introduced this new format. Belgium aren't a great football team (ranked 57 in the world as of now), and their inability to qualify for either the World Cup or European Championships since 2002 (i.e. missing out on the last 4 tournaments), was something that, naturally, rankled with the sport's governing body.
So what do we have? Well this how you 'win' the Pro League title:
1. There are 16 teams in the division.
2. They each play each other home and play, thus playing 30 matches. So far, so simple, and so normal.
3. Then, the 'play-offs' take over.
4. Play-off 1: consisting of the top 6 teams (after the 30 matches have been played). The top 6 then enter their own mini-league where they play each other (again) home and away.
5. And they take with them half of all points won over the course of the regular season. That's right, they then divide all their points in half. So, if you finished top, with 70pts, you begin the play-offs with 35 pts. If the team in 2nd had 60pts (i.e. were 10 pts behind the leaders), they start on 30pts, now only 5 pts behind.
6. The team who finishes top after this play-off league are finally crowned Belgian champions. After having played 40 matches in total, not 30.
That's play-off 1. Not a great way to become Belgian champions, distinctly underwhelming if you ask me, and utterly ridiculous for so many reasons.
Anyway, one assumes that's that then? Nope. Not content with mucking around with the top 6, the Belgian FA thought that it was only fair to mess around with the rest of the league. Ladies and Gentleman, I give you...Play-off 2
1. Whilst play-off 1 is going on, play-off 2 takes place.
2. Teams who finished 7-14 (after their 30 matches) during the regular season make up the 2nd play-off. Rather than entering one mini-league, they enter two.
3. Teams who finished 7th, 9th, 12th and 14th (even that just seems to have been selected at random) become Group A. 8th, 10th,11th and 13th placed teams are Group B. None of the teams carry over any points won over the course of the normal season with them.
I hope you're all following this. All of this was brilliantly explained to me by one of my students. It is one of the funniest things I have ever heard.
4. Teams in each group play each other twice.
5. The winner of each group plays each other (over TWO legs) to determine the winner of play-off 2.
Please tell me that that's play-off 1 and 2 done and dusted then (I hear you ask)? Afraid not. We've already complicated the league so much up to now, the odd tweak here or there can't hurt (so said the very wise men running Belgian's top football league).
6. The winner of play-off 2 then plays (home and away) either the team who finished 4th or 5th in play-off 1. (You can just hear them shouting, "leave us alone. Please, just leave us be. Please, don't make us play any more matches.). This match is to determine who enters the 'Europa League.'
For those not in the know, it's the crap Other European cup competition that no one cares about, as opposed to its big older brother: the brash and glitzy and overpopulated 'Champions League.').
7. The opponent for the play-off 2 winner depends on whether the winner of the Belgian Cup (another domestic competition) also finished in the top 4 of play-off 1. In other words, if you won the Belgian Cup and finished 4th in play-off 1, you have already qualified for the Europa League. Therefore, the 5th placed team will play the winner of play-off 2 in the two-legged final to see who wins the final Europa League place. If you finished 4th in play-off 1 and didn't win the Belgian Cup, you contest this match.
Just to make this clear: if you finished 14th (out of 16) in the league, there is still the possibility that you could be playing football in the Europa League next season.
By this stage, the Belgian FA were having so much fun, they just couldn't resist involving the bottom two teams in the end of season play-off finale. Nobody was allowed to miss out on their new play thing.
1. Teams ranked 15th and 16h (after 30 matches) enter 'the relegation play-off.'
2. They play each other 5 times. But, 15th placed team begins the play-offs with 3pts. 16th team with 0. And just when you thought the final league placings were irrelevant.
3. The loser of the relegation play-off is relegated to the second division. Bet they couldn't wait to get the hell out of there.
4. The winner then enters (I really am not making this up. I wish I was. I really do)...play-off 4.
Play off 4:
1. This play-off is also known as 'The Belgian Second Division Final Round.' It consists of the winner of play-off 3 and 3 teams from the Belgian Second Division.
2. These 3 teams are determined by...god, I don't even know if I have the energy to explain this. It's just so farcical, you really don't know whether to laugh or cry, or hunt down every member of the Belgian FA and demand that they, with a straight face, explain their rationale behind this nonsense.
3. The 3 teams chosen from division 2 are those 3 who have finished top of each "period." What they do in division 2 is divide their league season into segments. They break up the league and after every 10, 11 and then 13 matches (they have 18 teams who play 34 games a season in this league) they take stock. They reward a team who has most points after each period. Anyway, I've almost lost the will to live now, so let's just say, these 3 teams in division 2 enter play-off 4 with the winner of play-off 3.
4. They play each other home and away. The winner gets promoted (or remains) to the Pro-League.
And that's about it. If you followed half of that, give yourself a pat on the back. I for one (after I'd finally stopped laughing so hard it was beginning to hurt) was pretty much left dumbfounded when this was all explained to me. Of course I went straight home to look it up and see if it really is as my student says it is.
Alas, it is. And I thought the English FA were a bunch of incompetent wastes of space. And only a few weeks ago, Belgians top 4 most influential football clubs have voted to extend this format for a further 3 seasons. They believe they are benefiting from all the extra revenue the additional matches are providing. And of course the Belgian FA are only happy to oblige. Many other clubs are fiercely opposed to this. I'd love to know what Belgian football fans think of it.
So there you have it. How to take a very simple format, dismantle it, and rebuild it so it undermines the very nature of a football league season. Not content with their politics being the laughing stock of Europe, Belgium's football leagues can now more than adequately provide it with some company.