If you were to describe Belgian football, which words would you use? Would you have used the word ‘juggernaut’ a decade ago, for example? One would doubt it. Once Marc Wilmots came in, the Red Devils (the national team, of course, not Manchester United!) rose from their ashes. The domestic football had its fair share of changes, too. At the end of the 2015-16 season, drastic changes were made in Belgian football. What were these changes? A salary cap regulation for the players? No, this is Europe, so get over it! How did those soon-to-be-revealed changes affect the game in Belgium? It is too early to tell, but so far, no harm has been done – a nationwide scandal in 2018 aside. All the same, football in Belgium is fun to watch for three reasons.
The first of those reasons that one should watch Belgian football is the recently revamped football system. In 2015, the Royal Belgian FA decided to make a couple of changes on the football pyramid. Until the 2015-16 season, there were a total of 134 professional football clubs in Belgium – 16 in the First Division, 18 in the Second Division, 36 in the Third Division, and finally, 64 in the Fourth Division. There were also 8 tiers in the pyramid, the first 4 being nationally professional whereas the latter 4 being provincially amateur. With the approval of the revision, the number of professional clubs shrank to 24, meaning the number of teams in the Second Division (now known as First Division B) was reduced to 8. Consequently, the Second, Third, and Fourth Divisions all ceased to exist at the end of the 2015-16 season. A new third-tier competition was added in the form of the First Amateur Division while the Second and Third Amateur Divisions were split into three and four regional groups respectively.
The play-offs and play-outs are where the season comes to a thrilling end, so they should be an excellent reason to be a spectator of Belgian football. The idea of having a play-off round at the end of the normal season came from the bigger clubs, such as RSC Anderlecht and Club Brugge KV, the reasons being that the Belgian clubs were making early exits in European competitions and that the league was simply too uncompetitive for the so-called ‘Big Five’ – of which members were RSC Anderlecht, Club Brugge, Standard Liége, Gent, and Genk. The number of teams in the First Division was also decreased from 18 to 16. The problem was that most of the fans were against the play-offs since it looked too confusing to figure out the system. In short, the first 6 teams competed for the two Champions League spots. The next 8 teams were split into two groups. The group winners then faced one another to play the fourth-placed team from the Champions League play-offs. Nowadays, there are 12 teams in the Europa League play-offs – 9 from First Division A (7th-15th-placed teams) and the three unpromoted teams from First Division B that finished between the 1st and 4th places. The procedure is for the Europa League play-offs of recent years is basically the same as the past editions. The promotion play-offs in First Division B is contested between two period winners in a two-legged contest. The winner wins promotion to First Division A while the loser joins the other two teams from the top 4 in the Europa League play-offs. If a team wins both halves -opening and closing periods, that is-, there is no need to play the play-offs and the team in question gets an automatic promotion to First Division A. There also used to be relegation play-offs between the 2009-10 season and the 2014-15 season. The play-outs were contested between the bottom two teams of the First Division as a best-of-five series. The 15th placed team usually had the upper hand as the side entered the play-outs with a three-point bonus and three home matches. The winner won the right to participate in the Belgian Second Division Final Round, along with the period winners. If the champions of the Second Division won at least one of the three periods, the highest placed team(s) would fill in the remaining spot(s). If the 15th-placed team won the four-team group, the side would stay in the First Division. The loser of the aforementioned relegation play-outs would go down to the Second Division. The relegation play-outs are now in use in First Division B, where the bottom 4 clubs play one another so as not to get relegated to the First Amateur Division. The bottom side at the end of the play-outs bids farewell to professionalism. Rather mind-boggling, is it not? We are not even going to talk about other possibilities. No, we will not.
If there is a unique thing about Belgian domestic football, it has to be the matricule numbering system. ‘What is it?’, you might ask. It is the numbering system to tell apart the clubs with similar names – or the same, for that matter. It was introduced in the year 1926 by the Royal Belgian FA. Does anyone know why Royal Antwerp have the number ‘1’ on their logo? That is because they were the first club to register for the numbers, hence number 1 for Antwerp. In the case of the dissolution of a football club, the matricule used to be lost in the records for good. Why did we use ‘used to’? We will explain it later. Koninklijke Lierse SK was founded in 1906, and got the number 30 as the matricule. The club dissolved in 2018, and the number 30 is no longer used by any other club. If two or more clubs merged, the sides had to agree on one of their matricules in order to come together under one roof. In December 2009, a football club by the name of Royal Excelsior Mouscron went bust, and the club merged with Royal Racing Club Peruwelz in the spring of 2010. The newly-merged Royal Mouscron-Peruwelz (renamed Royal Excel Mouscron in 2016) took the number 216, meaning they declared the former Peruwelz side as their forerunners, or in other words ‘predecessors’. In 2017, the RBFA introduced a new rule regarding the matricules. As a result, a football club can now reclaim its former matricule number. That is the reason why we had used ‘used to’ in one of the previous sentences. For example, OH Leuven was founded in 2002 as the result of merger between FC Zwarte Duivels Oud-Heverlee (#6142), Koninklijke Stade Leuven (#18) and Koninklijke Daring Club Leuven (#223). For the first 16 years of existence, OHL played with the matricule of the former FCZDO-H. In 2018, however, a year after the introduction of the new rule, the club chose to continue with the matricule number 18, the number of Stade Leuven.
These things (the recently revamped pyramid, the play-offs, the matricule numbering system) make the Belgian football rather unique. The low number of professional teams probably made things financially easier for smaller clubs. By the year 2016, clubs like Germinal Beerschot and Racing White Daring Molenbeek had folded due to bankruptcy. Others like KSV Waregem and KSK Beveren had to merge with other clubs in order to survive, albeit in a different identity. Not only is it confusing, but also action-packed towards the end of the season. Although slim, there is a chance of a sixth-placed club winning the league and a First Division B team playing in the Europa League. The introduction of the play-offs and play-outs certainly made football more exciting in Belgium, although that is a mere opinion. The matricule numbering system is not implemented in (almost) any of the FIFA countries other than Belgium.
‘Operatie Propere Handen (Operation Clean Hands)’ -also known as the 2017-19 Belgian football fraud scandal- aside, a scandal that damaged the reputation of Belgian domestic football a little bit, all looks well with football in ‘the Flat Country’.
I would like to give credit to the website named ‘The Paths Less Travelled’ for explaining the play-off/play-out system that was implemented between 2009-10 and 2014-15. You can read it here: https://thepathslesstravelled.wordpress.com/2011/04/10/belgian-playoffs-european-footballs-most-complex-system/. I would also like to thank Sven Claes, although he did not reply any of my questions. If you are interested, I can recommend Kristof Terreur as well, even though he mostly covers English football. If you find any misinformation, grammatical or punctuation mistakes, please do warn me @jmanstories on Twitter, and via firstname.lastname@example.org on Gmail. All feedback are much appreciated. If you want to read more stories like this, you can either visit this website, or simply, subscribe by entering your e-mail. All the content is free, so you do not have to pay for anything as I do not release stories for money. Thanks for reading!