Derek Brookman looks at how a Champions League experiment fared (and failed) in the Netherlands

The play-offs were introduced in the Netherlands at the beginning of the 2005-06 season for an initial period of three years, with the intention to extend this if they proved successful. The second- to fifth-placed teams would scrap it out to determine who would be the second Dutch representative in the Champions League (the champions qualified automatically), while the next four sides would contest qualification for the UEFA Cup.

“This change will give football in the Netherlands an enormous impulse in terms of quality and excitement,” said Michael van Praag, chairman of the supervisory board representing top-flight clubs. “The play-offs will ultimately lead to more spectators and extra income for the clubs.”

There was possibly another reason as well. Willem II and Heerenveen had qualified for the Champions League as runners-up in 1999 and 2000 respectively, and the traditional big clubs reputedly saw play-offs as a way of potentially protecting their chances of qualifying for Europe’s top club competition. Interestingly, this is diametrically opposed to one of the stated aims of play-offs in England – the opening up the Champions League places.

Of course, as Van Praag had predicted, there was more excitement – that’s what you get in knockout competitions. And, as with all play-offs, there was plenty of perceived injustice as well. In the first year, 2006, Ajax finished 11 points behind third-placed Feyenoord yet trounced them 7-2 in the subsequent head-to-heads. AZ Alkmaar, whose runners-up spot would have seen them in the Champions League qualifiers were there no play-offs, subsequently lost out to Ajax and ended up in the UEFA Cup.

Two years later NAC Breda, after finishing a very creditable third in the league, came off even worse. They were soundly beaten by FC Twente (who’d finished fourth) and then by Heerenveen (who’d finished fifth), meaning they dropped down into another play-off for the last remaining UEFA Cup spot. Clearly exhausted by their exertions so far, they contrived to lose 7-0 on aggregate to NEC Nijmegen, who had come eighth and a distant 14 points behind NAC in the league, thus setting themselves up nicely for the delights of the Intertoto Cup.

Yet other areas of Van Praag’s vision were flawed. OK, the bit about more spectators and extra income was technically true – adding matches will always mean more paying customers unless no one at all bothers coming – but attendances were disappointingly low. Fans who had already forked out for season tickets were reluctant to pay for extra matches. In addition, initial interest among the general (TV-viewing) public waned.

In October 2007, national coach Marco van Basten expressed his concern after a number of Dutch sides were eliminated early from the UEFA Cup. “We need to ask ourselves what it is we do wrong,” he said. “Clubs have more and more games to play. The objective of the play-offs was to increase and improve our level of play. Well, if this is the result, we need to reassess our strategy.”

By early 2008 his doubts were being echoed throughout the game. At a meeting of the Dutch professional coaches’ organisation, many Eredivisie club trainers voiced opposition to the play-offs. They found them unfair, and felt, like Van Basten, that they were negatively affecting the quality of the national game. “We are convinced that the play-offs lead to more injuries,” said Sef Vergoossen, PSV Eindhoven’s coach at the time. “There has to be a balance between playing and recovering.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the larger clubs wanted them scrapped, whereas smaller clubs without the resources to challenge consistently for the big prizes would have been happy to see them retained. Guess who got their way. A month later the decision was taken to discontinue Champions League play-offs. For those who enjoyed this engaging and often desperate end-of-season spectacle, there’s good news – play-offs still exist for Europa League qualification. But otherwise it’s back to that old-fashioned merit-based system – the higher up the league you finish, the greater the rewards.

From WSC 278 April 2010

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