Does the Bundesliga play-off system work?

The 2019/20 season is nearly over in Germany and for those who don’t know, here’s a quick guide of how the Bundesliga relegates and promotes its worst and best sides. The bottom two teams in the Bundesliga go down automatically, just as the top two sides in the 2.Bundesliga (the second tier) go up with no questions asked. The final place in each division is decided over two legs, with third from bottom in the Bundesliga playing third in the 2.Bundesliga (the same system is used for the second and third tier places).

This year, Werder Bremen, thanks to a remarkable escape on the final day, faced 1. FC Heidenheim, who did their best to mess things up but were simply trumped by Hamburger SV (HSV), who lost 5-1 on the last day to crash out of the play off place. This system, in principle, seems very attractive, but is it fair? Does it enhance competition in a league in desperate need of it? The answer to both of these questions is probably no. 

Let’s examine the positives first. It is much fairer to the third placed team in the division below than England’s play-off system. In Germany there are no 2004 Crystal Palace-esque stories of teams scraping into the play-offs on the final day then going on to win it, no third place finishing nine clear of the play-off winner à la Sheffield United 2011/12. The top three in both the 2. Bundesliga and 3.Liga either get promoted or have a chance at achieving it ahead of anyone else in the division. The only catch? They’re always playing against higher placed opposition. 

This is perhaps the biggest criticism levelled at the German play-off model. It hardly seems fair that the side from the second division must a team who have had years of Bundesliga money and faced Bundesliga opposition all season, over two legs to achieve their ambition of playing in Germany’s promised land for the first time in their history. For example, estimated back in December that Werder Bremen would be paid around 33 million euros this season alone through broadcast deals. Heidenheim were estimated to receive less than half of that (13 million euros).

 If it seems like an uphill battle, that’s because it is. In fact, just three second division sides have won the play-off over their Bundesliga opposition since the re-introduction of the system in 2009, with Union Berlin beating VFB Stuttgart last season to join FC Nürnberg in 2009 and Fortuna Düsseldorf in 2012. Some say that 2.Bundesliga sides must prove their right to sit at the top table by ousting a guest already sat there – this shows whether or not the likes of Heidenheim are prepared for the big time. But this school of thought fails to account for the summer of recruitment and preparation that would be afforded to Heidenheim were they to be promoted automatically or by playing second tier opposition in the play-offs. They might not be ready now, but they could well be when the season resumes. 

Secondly, the relegation play-off rewards mediocrity over success. Werder Bremen have been ok since the restart, beating Schalke (as everyone has), Freiburg, Paderborn and Köln. But they are by no means a great side. They deserve to be relegated just as much as Fortuna Düsseldorf, who looked utterly bereft of ideas against Union Berlin on the final day – a game they had to win to secure their survival. 

On the other hand, Heidenheim have had their best season in recent years. HSV, despite their implosion, have been good all year, as have Darmstadt down in fifth. Why not reward these sides with the opportunity to get into the Bundesliga?

History suggests that the side who finish 16th may well find themselves in the same position again next term – both Wolfsburg and HSV have won consecutive play-offs to keep themselves in the Bundesliga in recent years. This, very much like the sharing of TV money, smacks of a system built to reinforce the status quo, rather than open its doors to newcomers. 

The English play-offs are a lottery, but what a glorious lottery they are. Play-off semi finals provide some of the most fevered atmospheres to be found in the game, and while the Wembley showpiece is a lot more of a tense affair than say a cup final, it’s still quite a sight to see 80,000+ fans cram into the home of football for the biggest 90 minutes of their season. Some of the great moments in The Football League’s history have come in play-off finals: Bobby Zamora’s last minute smash and grab for QPR against Derby County in 2014, or Paul Dickov’s dramatic equaliser for Manchester City (yes, they were once in League One) against Gillingham in 1999 to name just two. The Bundesliga cannot boast moments like these, as their play-off system takes place over two legs, with the tie played at the higher placed club often less than pleasant. 

Take 1860 Munich’s home leg in the 2. Bundesliga play-off (i.e. deciding relegation/promotion to and from the second and third tiers). Finding their side 2-0 down then 3.Liga side Jahn Regensburg, a half full Allianz Arena made sure the 1860 players knew what they were thinking. The atmosphere turned nasty soon after the second goal went in, with the game actually suspended for fifteen minutes while the Bavarian riot police attempted to halt the rain of projectiles making their way onto the pitch. Compare and contrast to the jubilant scenes to be found in North West London at the end of May. 

Of course there is bitter disappointment for one side (this writer has experienced it all too frequently), but there is not that anger and frustration at a perceived season’s worth of lack of effort and generally rubbish football.

When Werder Bremen beat Heidenheim last night, their fans were nothing more than relieved. If Nottingham Forest win at an empty Wembley in a few weeks their fans will feel ecstatic. That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Bundesliga play-off system. 


About the author

Josh Minchin is a sports writer based in London specialising in UK and German football. He is a graduate of the University of Sheffield where he studied German and History, which is why you'll find him writing about all things Bundesliga. When he's not watching Augsburg play out a 0-0 draw with Mainz, he enjoys watching cricket and being terrible at golf.

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