AEK, Aris, PAOK, Olympiakos and the Greek Playoffs: Do they work?

This article originally appeared on In Bed With Maradona on 16th September 2010

Last season Premier League bosses controversially proposed a playoff system to decide the qualifiers for the European places. The Greek Superleague or Σούπερ Λίγκα Ελλάδα (literally soo-per liga Ellada) has used a version of the system since 2007-2008, and in some ways, the Greek model could serve as a test for any wider applications.

As the Champions League proper is now underway with only one Greek representative, Panathinaikos, it seems appropriate to review the play-off system. The Greek system does have some oddities, as you might expect from a small country full of odd Greeks.

This season is the first that the champion qualities directly for the Champions League, which explains the presence of Panathinaikos, in Group D. Last season they managed to chip away at years of Olympiakos dominance and take the title, whilst being knocked-out of the Champions League Qualifiers by Atletico Madrid, who then went on to win the Europa League (complicated – I know).

Olympiakos titles 1990s onwards – 1997, 1998, 1999, 2000, 2001, 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009

Greece has a second spot for entry into the non-Champions third round qualifiers of the Champions League, which previously went to the second team. However, now the teams from second to fifth now play in a playoff for this spot and the two subsequent Europa League spots (or three depending on Cup winner).

The playoffs consist of an unnecessarily complicated round robin mini-league, which is weighted depending on final points. The fifth placed team starts with zero, and the teams above start with the amount of the fifth placed teams points subtracted from their points tally divided by 5. If you do not follow (I didn’t) just look below. The 2010 playoffs started like this:

1. Olympiakos 4 points: 64 – 46 divided by 5 = 3.6, rounded up

2. PAOK 3 points: 62 – 46 divided by 5 = 3.2, rounded up

3. AEK Athens 1 point: 53 – 46 divided by 5 = 1.4, rounded up

4. Aris 0 points: 46 – 46 divided by 5 = 0

In Greece last season the title was claimed by Panathinaikos after a close run race with Olympiakos, the table looking like this:

Pld GD Pts

1. Panathinaikos 30 +37 70

2. Olympiakos 30 +29 64

3. PAOK 30 +25 62

4. AEK Athens 30 +12 53

5. Aris 30 +7 46

Looking at this table one thing stands out; between second to fifth the points range was 18 points, a really significant amount over a 30 game season, representing 20% of the points available. Even within the group the gap between PAOK in third and AEK was 9 points.

In my opinion form over a 30 game season should be enough to ‘sort the wheat from the chaff’, and weed out teams who can’t last the pace. I agree with developing the game and introducing new measures to balance the power of clubs. Indeed, although I was sceptical at first, the measures put in place at the behest of Platini to ensure more league champions qualify for the Champions League will improve football across Europe.

However, the countries should be sending their strongest teams to the Champions League, and I don’t think that it is fair that Aris who took only 70% of the points of Olympiakos should be given a second chance when they have already had 30 games to prove their worth.

Supporters of the system will point out that Greece implemented their playoff points system, and used a round robin format specifically to redress the balance in favour of the teams whose league performance was better, and to not allow poorer teams an easier chance in a knockout.

This is wrong for several reasons; firstly the system still reduces the gap between the teams – in this case – 18 to 4 points. It also adds more games to an already busy schedule, something that should be given more thought; this adds unnecessary complication to the season. The teams are forced to play six games in an 18-day period, which is extreme.

Finally what is the point in introducing a playoff system if you still weight the teams who performed better; it seems like a half measure, a move of political compromise.

I can understand though, that this is a compromise to give teams a chance to break the monopoly of Olympiakos, Panathinaikos (and sometimes AEK) over the lucrative Champions League places, spread the wealth, and the idea surely must be to strengthen the lower parts of the Greek league, which is not very competitive.

However, we should look at the situation this season to assess the outcome. In the playoffs PAOK performed excellently, whilst Olympiakos went on an abysmal run of form, finishing bottom.

Pld GD Pts

1. PAOK 6 +4 16

2. AEK Athens 6 +1 9

3. Aris 6 −1 8

4. Olympiakos 6 −4 8

In effect, when based on the original league positions, Aris gained 18 points to finish above Olympiakos, AEK gained 12 points and PAOK 10 points. Why should these games be worth so much more than the rest? This is especially when they are squeezed into little over two weeks.

The concept is partly based on generating excitement and stimulating spectator interest, and in some ways this does work. The problem is; doesn’t this devalue the rest of the league season? That is one of my biggest concerns.

A major problem is that unlike the Championship playoff for instance, the winner of this actually gains nothing but the chance to play in the real qualifiers. The point here is that the winners gain no benefit unless they actually qualify. If the team doesn’t qualify then they gain very little financially, and Greece loses the chance to improve its ranking in the coefficients, which could in future jeopardise the second Champions League spot.

This season PAOK did fail to qualify for the Champions League, losing out to Ajax. To add a further twist to the tale Olympiakos were thrown into turmoil after missing out on the Champions League, and proceeded to lose in the Europa League qualifiers, and are now under new ownership.

The playoff system undoubtedly mixed things up in Greek football, and gave PAOK a chance to enter Europe’s greatest tournament. But there are problems with the idea of the playoff for a qualifying spot, and I am not sure it is the right solution, especially when the teams play a whole league season already to decide league placing.

The whole system seems to over complicate things for the sake of retaining some of the league points, effectively just cutting the points gap and then making the teams play each other again. These idiosyncrasies are typical of Greek footballing administration. Only time will tell if they got this one right.


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