Just like many other fans that love football, the current period without it has left a void. Sadly enough, it gets filled with drama caused by the leading organisations of the sport we all love. The last couple of weeks, I was able to follow what happened in the SPFL, and it baffled me.
Then there were the Netherlands with their scandal with a vote that wasn’t followed (although it wasn’t binding). Sixteen clubs voted for promotion and relegation, nine voted against it, and a further nine abstained saying that the Dutch federation (KNVB) should decide. Nine teams did do the right thing by saying they shouldn’t judge if teams should get a promotion or if they should be relegated. A small sign of hope that some teams still have some integrity in our sport.
Until the start of last week, we could look at what happened elsewhere in Europe thinking that in Belgium we were handling it a lot better. All the licenses for next season were distributed, everything was set to finalise the proposal to extend the league from 16 teams to 18 teams (permanently or with a return to 16 teams within 1 or 3 years). Since the league was stopped after matchday 29 and with the forecast that the season wouldn’t resume, multiple officials from teams and the governing bodies stated that Club Brugge would be a deserved champion.
The consensus was that the team in the last place and both teams in the running for promotion deserve their place in the first division since they couldn’t battle it out on the field. Waasland-Beveren were 2 points below safety with one game to go, while Beerschot and Leuven still had to play a return leg in the championship games (the 1st leg ended in a 1-0 victory for Beerschot).
To understand this a bit better, I’ll explain how our league works: the first division of 16 teams play each other twice, the team that ends last gets relegated. The top 6 teams play for the title in a Play-off where their points get cut in half. In the second division with eight teams, they play each other four times, the winners of each period play against each other for the championship and to get promoted.
So last week, everything seemed set for a clean solution. Club Brugge would be declared champion, no one would get relegated, and both teams in the running for promotion would get promoted. Then Thursday night after the task force that designed the proposal presented it to the board of directors (where a couple of top teams, smaller teams and second division teams are represented by directors of respective clubs), it all changed. 6 out of 7 of the members of the task force agreed on the proposal, but 1 (the director of KAA Gent) kept refusing to participate in it. He wanted to keep the 16 teams in the first division by any means possible.
When the competition with 18 teams was proposed to the board of directors (10 members), two more teams supported Gent’s opinion (Charleroi and Standard). That is when the trouble started as a majority of 80% was needed to pass a resolution, and those three teams together already formed over 20%. The top 5 teams (over five years) get three votes each, the 11 other teams in the first division get two votes each and the teams in the second division get one vote each.
All three of those opposing teams have Mogi Bayat as a considerable influence in the club when it comes to transfers. He’s the brother of the Iranian-French director of Charleroi who is also the managing director of the Belgian football association. Mogi Bayat is also involved in the big money laundering and bribery scandal that hit Belgian football last season (one of the two main targets of the investigation). And suddenly two other teams saw an opportunity to gain something from the situation.
What followed was a couple of hours of intense lobbying. To start, they needed money to finance the attempt to persuade (some fans called it bribery) the smaller teams to change their preference. The sight was set on the side that would be declared as champion: Club Brugge. They would have to share the money they got from the Champions League; otherwise, they wouldn’t get the title. Also, they were threatened with losing their CL-group stage spot to one of the other teams. So the Belgian champions gave in and accepted to share a portion of their money (around €2.5m-€3m).
In the meantime, the two teams that would get promoted were being blackmailed into giving up the idea of 18 teams. The promoted teams would have to give up their portion of the money they would typically get from the broadcasting rights for the coming three seasons if a competition of 18 would be installed. They would still have to play their return game to decide who gets promoted.
All major sporting events are prohibited until the 1st of August, with the next season starting on the 7th of August. They just have to find a solution to play the game (for example they have to go to Germany to play the tie). If they don’t play the game, neither of them gets promoted, and they’ll give the chance to Westerlo who accumulated the most points with both periods combined (although they normally had 0% chance for gaining promotion).
Those two teams had to choose the lesser of two evils. Now there are still a lot of teams left who voted for an extension to 20 teams in December last year. So here is where the money they got by persuading Club Brugge came in handy. Everyone who voted in favour of the proposal with 16 teams where W.Beveren would get relegated (even though they were still in a position to avoid relegation) would get a part of that money which was ironically called: “solidarity fund”.
Everyone who votes against wouldn’t get the money if the resolution was passed. Also, everyone who would go to court can’t claim a part of that fund. And unsurprisingly, the teams who pressured everyone else into this proposal took the most substantial chunk of that fund. And suddenly in 24 hours, they went from 80% in favour of 18 teams, no relegations, two promotions to a “solution” with 16 teams including a team that got relegated undeservingly.
Two other teams get pressured into playing a last game although the FA declared that it is impossible to play any games for the remainder of this season. Also, a couple of “top” teams who had a shocker of a season managed to get themselves some extra money from a team they called the deserving champion until the point they could pound them into giving them money. Finally, the proposal got 84.7% of the votes, and it was done.
To make it worse the directors of the competition and the Belgian FA declared afterwards that “there wasn’t any other viable solution”. And that they just had to make difficult decisions. On the other hand, they openly declared it as an important accomplishment in their career. The three teams involved in promotion/relegation are looking into the options to pursue legal action against everything that happened. But they risk losing even more funding and/or a final chance to get promotion.
It took only 24 hours to ruin our league by openly using underhand tactics to force teams into voting for a resolution they didn’t want the day before. The fun game we all love was ruined by a few greedy directors and player agents who had to decide for everyone else. And sadly enough this isn’t even that “abnormal” anymore. And the supporters just have to sit in silence, watch, but most of all pay to let all of this happen.
I really hope this can still be turned around, for teams like Hearts and Waasland-Beveren, and especially their supporters, who deserve much better treatment than what has happened the last few months during a global time of crisis that some managers exploited for personal goals. They have to realise that this game is all about the fans, and without us, this sport would be nowhere. However, they still treat us like pawns, and that has to change, we deserve better.
This is an opinion of the author and all opinions in this column are the author’s view.