Belgian Pro League switches format after court ruling

Waasland-Beveren's Koita Aboubakary, Anderlecht's Peter Zulj and Michel Vlap fight for the ball during a Pro League match on February 29, 2020 (by VIRGINIE LEFOUR/BELGA MAG/AFP via Getty Images)

The Pro League, the top division of club football in Belgium, has approved a new expanded format with two more teams to play in the league for the next two seasons in an effort to avoid financial sanctions imposed by a court ruling concerning the relegation of Waasland-Beveren.

The early cancellation of the 2019-20 Pro League, or First Division A, season amid Covid-19 was confirmed in May, with the decision relegating Waasland-Beveren from the top flight.

The club took legal action against the decision, arguing that it could have retained its position in the Pro League had the season not been cancelled. A court ruled that Waasland-Beveren should be reinstated, adding that the League would be liable for a financial penalty of €2.5m ($2.9m) for every match played without the club in the division.

The 2020-21 Pro League season is due to commence on August 8 and following a general assembly meeting, the organisation has now opted to restructure the competition for the forthcoming campaign, along with the 2021-22 season.

Under the revamp, the 16-club Pro League will expand to 18 teams, including Waasland-Beveren, plus both OH Leuven and Beerschot, the two clubs involved in the 2020-21 promotion play-off from the First Division B.

Belgian newspaper Het Laatste Nieuws said the expansion proposal was accepted by a large majority of clubs, with only First Division B outfit Westerlo voting against. It added that a number of format proposals were discussed, with a 17-team league rejected by the clubs and new broadcast rights partner, subscription broadcaster Eleven Sports.

The changes mean First Division A will play out with 18 clubs for the next two seasons, with eight in First Division B. For 2020-21, one team will be relegated directly from the top division, with a play-off to be staged between the 17th-placed finisher and the runner-up in First Division B. After 2021-22, three relegation places will be introduced.

In addition, a play-off system will be launched for First Division A. The top four clubs in the regular season will compete for the title, with those placed fifth to eighth competing for the remaining qualification slot to European competition.

Pro League chairman Peter Croonen said: “Many clubs were convinced that 1A with 16 clubs is the best option. I agree, but I understand that Waasland-Beveren has resisted. We had to listen to the judge’s ruling, so there was no other option than to choose a different format.”

The decision to cancel seasons across other European leagues were also met with legal appeals. In June, the French Professional League (LFP) voted to maintain a 20-team top division during the 2020-21 season, citing the impact on the calendar and broadcast rights contracts among its reasons for doing so.

Following the ruling by the Conseil d’État, France’s highest administrative court, to suspend the relegation of Amiens and Toulouse from Ligue 1, the LFP’s executive board said that there were 23 votes for the retention of a 20-team league and two abstentions.

The LFP decided to end the 2019-20 Ligue 1 and Ligue 2 seasons in April due to the pandemic. As a result, Amiens and Toulouse, the bottom two teams in Ligue 1 at the time, were relegated to the second tier.