By J Hutcherson (June 23, 2020) US Soccer Players - Belgian's Pro League became the first notable topflight in Europe to decide not to resume its season. Minus a government mandate, Belgian soccer authorities decided to act before the Bundesliga showed a restart was possible. Their northern neighbor the Netherlands had no choice. The Dutch government banned any pro sports until September, calling an end to the season.
The two leagues responded in different ways from a competitive standpoint. The Pro League was close enough to the break between its regular season and how it determines its champion, European spots, and relegation to leave the table as it stood after 29 games. Club Brugge won the title with a 15-point lead over Gent. Given the convoluted system the Pro League uses, that 15-point lead may or may not have been safe in the Championship playoffs. Regardless, 1st and 2nd-place took the Champions League spots, 3rd through 5th the Europa League, and 16th-place Waasland-Beveren will be playing next season a league down.
Meanwhile, the Eredivisie went in a different direction. Before being left with no choice, some Dutch clubs were already pushing to call time on the 2019-20 season. That included one club with plenty to lose. After 25 games, AZ was in 2nd-place and tied with leaders Ajax on 56 points. Both were in favor of ending the season, but how was the question. Belgium ended the season as it stood. France, also facing a government ban on games, went with points per game. The Eredivisie became the only major league in Europe to not quite void what happened in 2019-20, but also not exactly acknowledge it.
Part of the Dutch decision was with UEFA in mind. European soccer's governing body had yet to fully embrace "sporting merit" when the Eredivise decided not to name a champion or relegate and promote clubs. There was a risk that UEFA might ban clubs that didn't finish their season or use some preapproved way of determining its champion. Voiding a season would likely earn a UEFA sanction, something leagues like Belgium's and the Netherlands couldn't afford. With Dutch pragmatism in play, they went with the obvious choice. Officially, there is no 2019-20 Eredivisie champion, but the table as it stood determined the league's European places.
Qualifying should already be underway for the 2020-21 Champions League. That now has to wait for the conclusion of the resumed club seasons. That means an additional wait for any Belgian or Dutch club to once again play a game that counts. Both leagues enter their top two teams in the qualifying stages of the Champions League. That means 2nd-place Eredivisie finisher AZ will go first on August 25 or 26. Due to the need to compact the schedule, it's a single-elimination game. It will also be their first game that counts since 4-0 home win over ADO on March 7. Ajax and Club Brugge's waits are potentially longer, with the domestic leagues likely starting before the Champions League playoff round on September 22-23.
There are two reasons we're leaving France, the biggest league to end its season, out of the conversation. First, in a turnaround on the initial ban of games lasting until September, French authorities are allowing games with fans next month. This allows the Coupe de France and Coupe de Ligue finals to go forward. There are also two French clubs still alive in the Champions League. Shocked looks, PSG will play in both domestic finals as well as continuing its Champions League run. Then there's Scotland, where Rangers still have at least a game left in the Europa League. The 2019-20 Scottish Cup is at the semifinal stage and remains suspended rather than canceled.
It's a different and so far unique situation in Belgium and the Netherlands. They're likely to become the two leagues with the longest break in action for all of their clubs. From a competitive standpoint, the issue is obvious. Two formerly strong leagues fighting for respect in the UEFA coefficient now face an even tougher hurdle. Without clubs involved in the later stages of this season's European competitions and without finishing their domestic seasons, what does that mean for the coefficient?
UEFA has yet to address that issue, with Belgium currently 8th and the Netherlands 9th. 6th-place means an additional Champions League spot with 5th an additional Europa League place once the new Europa Conference League begins in 2021-22. Assuming that stays on schedule, teams between 6th and 15th put two teams into that new competition. It's another transition that could leave the Pro League and the Eredivisie even further out of the big five.
Earlier this year, talk picked up about a planned merger of the Pro League and the Eredivisie. Though facing an immediate blowback from fans of clubs in both leagues, the idea isn't exactly new. The elite teams in both leagues were part of the Atlantic League discussions in the 200s when a Super League breakaway seemed likely. Now, it's a proposed 18-team topflight that would form what reports referred to as a BeneLiga.
Where that discussion stands now is an open question. The changing situation across European soccer as a result of the pandemic is still in its early stages. Even with games returning, there's no clear path to fans in stadiums, full capacity, and fully restarting the economic engine. It's that last part that remains critical to a BeneLiga.
For both Belgian and Dutch clubs, the point of a merger is primarily financial. Creating a joint league that draws better than either of them do independently also stokes that economic engine. If the broadcast rights are worth more and the appeal in foreign markets stronger, the clubs have more to spend on players. That increases their ability to compete with the elite leagues. Ajax's run in last season's Champions League becomes sustainable rather than a one-off. At least in theory.
It's easy enough to ask what the broader appeal of Belgian and Dutch clubs really are in the era of super clubs, but that's part of the point. Staying put in their own leagues already has them crashing against a ceiling. Left on their own, that situation is unlikely to change.
What the pandemic has done is potentially make that situation worse. Without games on the schedule, both leagues are at a competitive disadvantage. They're watching an odd summer of European club soccer from the sidelines. Their reality remains a waiting game that's unlikely to play to their advantage. Instead, the break in games that count should compound the issues for both leagues. The Pro League and Eredivisie already have a way forward. Now, it's a question of when they'll choose to take it.
J Hutcherson started covering soccer in 1999 and has worked as the general manager of the US National Soccer Team Players Association since 2002. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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Logos courtesy of the Pro League and Eredivisie