The Jupiler Pro League started off last month, with 18 clubs commencing their seasons with various ambitions. For many, the aim is to avoid the bottom three, leaving them in the abyss. For others, it is simply a comfortable mid-table to be okay.
At least half of the league’s clubs will strive for one of eight playoff positions, and thus a legitimate shot at European football. Lastly, about half a dozen have serious ambitions of reaching at least the top four, and, above all, the title.
But this year is unlike no other for professional football in Belgium, not just domestically, but also on the continental front. Here at Breaking The Lines, we will take a brief look at recent history in Belgian football, why this campaign is so important for the teams, and what the future holds.
Romelu Lukaku, Youri Tielemans, Kevin de Bruyne, Thibault Courtois, Kalidou Koulibaly, Charles de Ketelaere. I named several players, many of whom are part of the Belgium national team’s golden generation. What do they have in common? They all spent the majority or the entirety of their youth plying their trade at a Jupiler Pro League team.
Top clubs like Anderlecht, Genk, Club Brugge and Standard Liège play a pivotal role with their stellar youth academies, providing the talent of tomorrow. It is that vicious cycle of nurturing promising players and then sending them to the highest level possible, usually a big five league.
That is recent history, and that is just looking at players. Belgian clubs have also been prominent in Europe. Both Anderlecht and Mechelen have won European trophies, while Club Brugge reached the 1978 European Cup final, falling to Liverpool. It has been nearly 20 years since Antwerp fell to Parma in the 1993 UEFA Cup showpiece.
Since then, there has been limited success for Belgium on the continental front. Six teams: Anderlecht, Genk, Gent, Standard Liège, Club Brugge and Lierse, have graced the Champions League group stage in the three decades since it has happened. Only Gent and Anderlecht have ever passed the (first) group stage, the latter partaking in the second group stage at the start of the century.
There were some decent showings in the Europa League. Take the 2016-17 season for instance, when all five of Belgium’s European representatives made at least a group stage. Anderlecht, Genk and Gent all got out of their groups, making it past the second round. Gent even knocked out Spurs over two legs.
Genk would defeat Gent in the round of 16, with Anderlecht joining them in the quarterfinals. Both sides would eventually lose there, but the performances from the five clubs saw Belgium earn a whopping 12.500 coefficient points, their best in this millennium.
Since that campaign, however, no Belgian club has won a European tie in the spring. Club Brugge, Genk, Gent and Antwerp have all tried since, but none of them have been able to succeed. In fact, the season immediately after those remarkable runs, there were no teams left by the end of the group stages. Gent, Club Brugge and KV Oostende all failed in qualifying, while Anderlecht and Zulte Waregem seldom survived the first main round.
It goes to show the struggles that Belgian football has faced in recent years on the continental stage. At the conclusion of last season, Belgium finished 13th in the UEFA 5-year coefficient ranking, a first sub-top 10 finish in a decade. This means that the winner of this year’s Jupiler Pro League will not be awarded an automatic Champions League berth. Instead, they will have to get through at least one round of qualifying.
Now, back to the importance of this season, starting with the domestic league. There will be a change in format come the 2023-24 campaign, which will see the league revert back to having 16 teams. Following the 2019-20 year halted prematurely by the pandemic, the league increased the number of teams to 18, promoting two teams from the second tier.
Initially, the plan was to keep the league at 18 teams for two years then return to the status quo for this season. That plan changed when several of the clubs begged for another year with 18 in the top flight. The league agreed, working with the clubs to establish a new format for the league that will last at least a decade. In June that plan was pushed through.
From next season, there will be 16 teams in each of the two professional leagues. In the top division, the teams will meet each other home and away before playoffs occur. The top six will play for the title, with seventh to 12th playing a European playoff.
Both playoffs will see the teams play each other twice more, with points earned from the regular season halved. The winner of the European playoffs will take on the fourth or fifth-place team from the title playoffs for a place in the Europa Conference League qualifiers.
The bottom four teams will also meet each other twice more, but they will maintain all of their points from the first part of the season. After this, the bottom two teams will be relegated while the second place team of the four will enter a two-game playoff against a team from the second division.
The format likely sounds confusing to many, but Belgium has had something like this for more than a decade, initially with the goal of increasing clubs’ level in Europe. It also paved the way for other countries to opt for similar formats, the European playoff becoming increasingly popular.
Another important feature as of this season was the inclusion of under-23 teams in the Belgian football pyramid. Based on the U-21 results from the 2021-22 campaign, 14 clubs from the Pro League will now have their youth team play in the lower tiers.
For this season there will be four U-23s in the second tier, four in the third, and sixth at the fourth level. The agreement is in place for at least two years, with the Pro League reviewing the results next March.
This is a regular thing across the world, where reserve/youth teams ply their trade with senior clubs, just lower in the league system. This was trialed a couple of seasons back, when Club Brugge had their U21s play in the second division to ensure there were eight teams in the league.
The domestic side of things are now known, but what about the future of Belgian football on the continental front? At the beginning of this new season, Belgium started off 10th in the UEFA country coefficient ranking.
Should they maintain the 10th spot or even better, that will allow the domestic champions to once again be assured of Champions League football in the fall. That would come in time for the new UEFA club competition reforms starting in 2024-25, where things will be drastically shaken up.
In Europe, this season for Belgium are Club Brugge (Champions League), Union St. Gilloise (Europa League), Gent, and Anderlecht (both Europa Conference League). Union failed in Champions League qualifying yet are able to fall back on the Europa League. The same could be said for Gent, who faltered in the Europa League playoffs and will feature in the Conference League once again.
Antwerp failed to get past the playoffs of the Conference League and will be without group stage football for the first time in three seasons. A strong season from the five clubs will be required. With the latter two required to pass five rounds of qualifying combined to reach a group stage, it will be a tough ask.
How bright the future of Belgian football will hinge on this new season. New horizons, both domestically and internationally, will bring many changes to what is the present-day plan. Whatever happens in the future, this 2022-23 campaign will either be the start of something promising or a reason to have glim hopes for the future.
By: David Parkes / @dpnina10
Featured Image: @GabFoligno / Isosport / MB Media / Getty Images