League Format Heresy

In 1944 Helen McRae Duncan became the last woman in the United Kingdom to be convicted under the Witchcraft Act of 1735.  As fantastical as that may sound, it was actually a comparatively mundane prosecution, for being a fraudulent medium, rather than actually dabbling in occult magic.  Indeed, the use of the ancient piece of legislation was viewed as so farcical that Sir Winston Churchill himself weighed in with scathing criticism.

The law was repealed shortly afterwards.  However, accusations of sacrilege and heresy in Britain, didn’t die with it.

If you ever feel like being burnt at the stake or tied to a dunking stool, simply go to any location where the public gather and loudly declare something along the lines of “The Premier League would be so much better if we did away with draws” or “The single table is boring… let’s have playoffs to decide the champion!”.

You’ll find yourself being hauled off by an angry mob wielding torches and pitchforks in no time.

That’s just how sacred football tradition is in the UK.  Just look at the backlash when Assem Allam wanted to change Hull City AFC’s name to “the Hull City Tigers”, or when Vincent Tan changed Cardiff’s shirts from blue to red.

This isn’t to say that I don’t hold with tradition.  A lot of it is very meaningful, running a rich thread through the sports history and culture.  However, one thing that does irk me, is when football fans around the world view anything but the single table, double round-robin, pro/rel format as somehow “not proper football”.

Equally baffling, irksome and also a little more amusing, is the surprisingly large group that doesn’t seem to realise how many countries use different systems.

That’s not to say that these systems are superior.  Some are downright bizarre.  I personally favour the round-robin as the better means of ensuring the best team is crowned champion.  Other systems certainly have their own merits though.

That brings us neatly to the subject of this entry… there follows a casual look at some of the different league formats used in football around the world.  Some are tweaks to the traditional system prevalent in Europe.  Others are curious implementations.  Others are quirky, to say the least.

Gibraltar Premier Division

It’s not so much the format of Gibraltar’s league that is unusual.  It’s more the scenario in which it operates.

The top tier currently has 10 clubs.

The most successful are the Lincoln Red Imps, who play at Victoria Stadium.  Then there’s current champions, Europa FC who call Victoria Stadium home.  Then you’ve got the team formerly known as Man United Gibraltar – now “Manchester 62” – who play in the warm confines of “New Trafford”.  Just kidding.  Manchester 62 also play at Victoria Stadium (though they really were once called “Man United Gibraltar”).

Every team plays at Victoria Stadium.  All 19 teams across both divisions.  Why do they have two divisions instead of one, when the league is currently largely amateur?  I’m not sure.

Of course, this is all tied to them being a British territory of 30,000 residents.  I wonder how they decide which team to support?

Belgian First Division

Okay, take a deep breath.  Belgium is in Europe, it has a warmly regarded national football team, football is the national sport and… they have playoffs!!!!

Okay, try to remain calm.  I understand that this is a lot to take in.  Would it help if I told you that these playoffs weren’t single elimination, didn’t use series…?

Basically, what happens is that after the regular season is completed, the top 6 teams qualify to a Championship Playoff Group.  Each team gets to keep half their points from the league phase (there’s some rounding up of points, which can also apparently serve as some kind of tiebreaker) and then they play each other twice more.  The top team after this are Anderlecht… erm… I mean, are crowned champions.

I can see some merit in this.  One of the few genuine criticisms of the traditional single table is that you don’t necessarily have to beat your top opponents to win the league, as long as you consistently beat everyone else.  This forces a would-be champion to prove themselves against direct rivals.

The main gripe with all playoff systems is the potential for injury to impact a strong team harshly if it comes after the regular season.

Belgium might just have something here though.

Scottish Premier League

The SPL uses “The Split”.  This is not to be confused with the “Apertura/Clausura” split season (much more on that later).  What actually happens is, after all 12 teams have played each other three times, the league is split in two, with the top 6 and bottom 6 going into separate respective sections.  The teams retain their points and play the teams in their section one more time for 38 games.

To add to the oddness of this approach, the league attempts to build the schedule so that wherever possible, teams play half their games at home.  They attempt to achieve this by drawing up a preliminary schedule, based on who they assume will be in the top and bottom half after 2/3 of the season.

When these predictions are incorrect, teams can end up playing an opponent away three times.

Then there’s the fact that teams in the top half can end up with less points than teams in the bottom half.

All this, primarily for the sake of trimming 6 games off the schedule.  You see, prior to the advent of this system, the teams would just play each other four times: twice home, twice away.

If 44 games are too many, then why not either reduce the league to 10 teams for a 36 game season or expand the top league to 20 teams and play 38 games like most leagues?

The logical answer to the latter would be that the additional 8 teams wouldn’t be competitive.  However, in a league where the “Old Firm” of Celtic and Rangers have won every league title since 1985 and 102 of the 121 titles between them, that ship has long since sailed.

Danish Superliga

Okay, this one could have a blog post of its own.  Like a transfer deal brokered by Mino Raiola, it’s complicated.

It’s almost like a blend of the Belgian and Scottish formats, with add-ons.

There’s the single table regular season, the top 6 then goes into the Championship Playoffs, which like the Belgian system, is a group phase and like Scotland, each teams’ season record so far is carried into this round.  The top team after this phase are crowned champions, the next two teams qualify for the Europa League and the fourth placed team qualifies for the European Playoffs.

The bottom eight of the regular season table also go into a group phase, except they are split into two four-team groups.

The top 2 in these groups enter the European Playoffs, along with aforementioned 4th placed team from the Championship playoffs.  If one of these teams are also the Danish Cup winners, they get a bye to the final of said playoff, which is elimination, KO format.  The whole point of this, is to decide who gets Denmark’s final Europa League spot.  For any Skyrim nerds, this is basically the footballing equivalent of Septimus Sigmus opening that Dwemer Lockbox.

The bottom 2 in the groups goes into the relegation playoffs along with promotion hopefuls from the league below.  I’ll save us all a lot of time and effort by linking you to last seasons bracket on Wikipedia…

Danish Relegation Playoffs 2016-17

I don’t know; this could be phenomenal to follow, but never have I seen so much effort put into essentially giving the bottom eight teams in a division, something to do.


This one is actually a fairly common alternative to the single table and prevalent throughout the Americas, with a fair amount of variation.  Accordingly, I’ll go through some individual leagues in a moment.  First though, some background:

“Apertura/Clausura” is Spanish for “Opening/Closing”.  In this league system, there are not one but two seasons per year.  The “Opening” season and the (wait for it) “Closing” season.  These will usually be single round robin (teams play each other once), with the home and away schedules for each club switched between the two seasons.

This will result in two champions a year (though some nations then have a grand final or playoffs), with the short seasons being a little more dramatic and allowing more teams to contend for a title throughout the year.

Chilean Primera Division

The simplest version.  Two seasons, single round robin, one champ per season based on league standings.  Both seasons results are combined to determine who gets relegated that year.  Simple, eh?  Enjoy it while you can.  You’ll miss this when we delve into the last decade of Bolivian football.

Colombia Primera A

Another simple example.  It follows Chile’s setup, with the key difference being that instead of the league table determining the champion, both the Apertura and Clausura end with the top 8 entering playoffs for that season’s title.

Mexico Liga MX

Mexico’s current format is fine, though I’ve poked a cynical finger at their implementation of pro/rel and how big clubs have circumvented it in the past by simply buying a surviving D1 club and replacing it with their own.

While their actual method of relegation (the worst team in the league based on a three year average, goes down) does favour the bigger clubs and isn’t quite as conducive to on-field drama as some, it does do a decent job of punishing consistent failure.  I can see a number of good applications for it in fact, especially if US soccer ever seeks to bring it in.

The league itself roughly follows Colombia’s setup of round robins, with playoffs (the “Liguilla” in Mexico).

This wasn’t always the case.  There was a time when Mexico’s format was in my view, one of the strangest, most nonsensical approaches I’d ever seen.  Mercifully it was abandoned in 2011.  However, this entry wouldn’t be complete without covering it.

Y’see, each team would play each other once, as is the schedule today.  However, rather than the standings being based on an overall table, teams were drawn into groups.  Not seeded, not calculated, not assigned geographically or otherwise. Drawn.

What this basically amounted to, was playoff qualification being based on one teams results compared to a random handful of others.  This meant that it was theoretically possible (in fact it happened more than once) for a team to miss out on the playoffs, because a team with a worse record was drawn into a weaker group – even though you’d all played exactly the same set of opponents.

It was silly and it endured for far too long.  In fact, it was a pointless millstone around the neck of what in my opinion, is one of the most entertaining leagues in the world to watch.

Costa Rican Liga FPD

Costa Rica are into their second season of a new format.  They use the terms “Invierno” and “Verano” (winter and summer) instead of “Apertura/Clausura” but it’s the same arrangement.

The big difference to the standard, comes after the end of each seasons round robin phase.

At this point, the top 4 enter an additional “group stage” called the “Quadrangular”.  For the same reasons as with the Belgian system, I can see some merit in that.

The odd thing here, is that neither the “Quadrangular” nor the initial round robin phase decides the champion (well not quite).  Instead, the top team in the round robin phase, plays a final against the winner of the “Quadrangular”.  Unless of course the same team wins both, in which case they win the title outright.

Unusual, a bit gimmicky, but somewhat interesting.


One of the US’s Designated Division IIs (provisionally) and would-be MLS competitors if they could get their act together, the NASL is uses the split season format. (using the terms Spring/Fall rather than Opening/Closing”).

Both these seasons are single table, with the top team getting that title.

At this point, the two champions are joined by the other two teams with the best record across both seasons for a four-team playoff, culminating in the annual Soccer Bowl.

It’s an interesting approach and unique in the US.  Let’s hope that they can get beyond their financial woes and remain an interesting part of the American soccer landscape.

Bolivian LFP

The Bolivian League is in a relatively settled period.  The current format is a double round robin between the 12 league teams, a playoff between the top two to determine the Apertura Champions, then repeat for the Clausura season.

It’s been an insane journey though.

Bolivia’s history of league formats is basically what the football world would be like if my dabbling in Football Manager’s editor actually impacted reality.

Back in 2008, the league did an experiment.  The Apertura season was a round robin, with the title given to the top team.  All very neat.  All very sensible.  However, it seems that Bolivia has a weird “Jeckyll and Hyde” fixation regarding their split football seasons.

The 2008 Clausura season saw the teams split into groups of six, playing each other twice, then for reasons not well explained, two games would be played against a designated rival in the other group.

The top 3 of each group then went into phase 2.

Here, a group of seeded matches occurred.  The top team from one group played the 3rd place from the other, with the 2nd placed teams playing each other.  The match winners, and rather oddly the best losers, advanced to single elimination playoffs.

That lasted until 2010, when they clearly thought it wasn’t convoluted enough, so instead started playing a first phase with two six team groups, the top three of which went into a six team round robin for the title, while the other six had a similar round robin, the purpose of which I’m not sure.  That was the Apertura for that season.

As if they didn’t want you to get your head around this newly-introduced mass of entropy, the 2010 Clausura was just a round robin.  It seems that following Bolivian football is a bit like navigating a quantum physics thought experiment, then being tasked with figuring out how to open a packet of tissues.

In 2011, they just had a single season, round robin, Clausura without Apertura, in order to shift to the “European” league schedule.  This turned out to be a cruel lulling of the Bolivian people into a false sense of security.   In 2011-12 the insanity came roaring back with the split season returning, six team groups and playoff series.

Mercifully, 2012-13 saw the current system introduced and it’s been that way ever since.  It’s probably not a good idea to get too comfortable though…

Qatari Stars League/Qatargas League

This one essentially relates to the weird scenarios that occur when promotion and relegation is adopted for the sake of it.

You see, the AFC (Asia’s football confederation) has a licensing system to determine which nation’s clubs compete in which continental tournament.  The top nations enter the AFC Champions League.  Those deemed as “Developing Nations” (strictly in football terms) enter the AFC Cup.  I’ve never found the full details, but something that scores you points in this licensing system is the adoption of pro/rel.

Qatar currently has 18 professional clubs.  That’s a nice healthy number for a single league, without pro/rel, but because it behooves the QFA to have pro/rel, four of the pro teams play in the second tier Qatargas League.

As well as the four pro teams, the Qatargas League also hosts the 14 reserve teams of the QSL clubs, all of which are ineligible for promotion.  That’s right: 18 clubs, only four of which can be promoted.

Not to worry.  I’m sure the hordes of youth prospects and ambitious professional teams that pro/rel will inevitably begat are just around the corner…

Argentina Primera Division

Inventors of the “Apertura/Clausura” system and serial league format tinkerers.  The Argentine top flight is also the oldest national football league outside the British Isles.

They actually stepped away from the split season system a few years ago, dabbling in zonal groups with playoffs among other approaches.

This season, they went with a massive single table, comprised of 30 (thirty) clubs!

It’s a single round robin for 29 games, with each team playing an additional “rivalry game” (so for example, Boca Juniors play River Plate).

They use an averaging system similar to Liga MX for relegation, sending four teams down.

For those who demand narrative and “things to play for” behind every game they watch, there are five Copa Libertadores and six Copa Sudamericana berths up for grabs.

Major League Soccer

To Soccer Hipsters, MLS represents the Grand Bastardization of Soccer.

Using a league format akin to traditional North American leagues, with a closed system (shock!), regional conferences (horror!), inter-conference play (sacrilege!), a single-entity franchise investor/operator ownership model (avert thine eyes!!), parity measures and college drafts (it buuuurns!!!!) with postseason championship playoffs (AAAAAAGHH!!!!),  some find misguided principal in chiding and rejecting the league.

My own cynicism can’t help but think that if Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo were tearing up the Club World Cup for a Los Angeles super club, they’d get over it.

MLS has had its share of silliness.  Shoot-outs instead of ties were odd and unnecessary, though using an ice hockey-inspired concept rather than penalties was an interesting departure (though I’m told the implementation and execution was poor).  The clock counting down instead of up seemed like an attempt to be different for the sake of it.

The use of “best of three” series in the playoffs however, is something I’ve found intriguing.  Though of course, the football world would probably take such an innovation better, coming from a nation that hadn’t held the sport in such disdain for so long.

Lessons have been learnt though and I’m positive on the league.  I’m a parity convert so favour such mechanisms, though I objected to the veto of Olof Mellberg’s transfer to TFC and find things like the blind draw for Jermaine Jones allocation needlessly farcical.

In the end though, it’s just a league finding its way, navigating the cultures of football, North American sports and all their various offshoots.

So there we have it…

A curiosity piece really.  I’m sure there are other examples out there that are either interesting, zany or both.

If you know of any that you think should be included or just want to point out, feel free to leave a comment!



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