What Is Relegation In Soccer And How Does It Work?

Relegation happens to a soccer team when it fails to win enough of the matches in its league during a season and so ends the season at or near the bottom of the league. Here is an explanation of how the system of relegation and promotion between the divisions in a league works.

In American elite sport, the idea of the team or teams with the poorest record/s at the end of a season dropping out of a top league and spending a season playing teams at the second level is alien to most fans.

In a sporting world dominated by a system of team ‘franchises’, whereby the owner of a particular franchise is guaranteed that their team has a place in their particular league, the idea that teams can drop out of a league and be replaced by different ones coming up from the next league down is a concept which would surprise – and horrify – many fans.

But in larger leagues around the world – in soccer as well as many other sports – a system of promotion and relegation between divisions is in place, whereby the best teams at the end of one season from the league immediately below swap places with the worst-performing teams in the league above. 

In theory, this helps maintain, and expand, interest in the higher divisions, through new teams being allowed in and given a chance to compete with those who have already earned their place among those playing at a higher level.

soccer fans in stadium

So this article will explain how relegation in soccer works – most of the principles of which also apply to other sports, such as rugby union and cricket – outline a little of its history and give a few examples of where it is a well-established feature of the game. Hopefully, we can also explain why it’s a good thing for many teams, and the sport of soccer in general.

We’ll start by giving you a relegation definition, as that will help make it clear what could be at stake in some situations. Relegation is the demotion of a team to the next lowest tier in its league, as a result of it finishing a season at the bottom of the standings.

In the vast majority of cases, this will be because that team has the worst record of wins, draws and losses, and so, over the course of a season, has performed worse than its rivals in that league.

That team is usually replaced by a team which has earned promotion from the division below, thanks to finishing top or in one of the places immediately below which is deemed to earn a place in the higher league under that particular league’s rules.

What Happened Before Relegation Was Introduced To Soccer?

When soccer leagues were first introduced, the decisions over whether teams with the worst record at the end of a season should be allowed to stay in that league for the next season, or be forced to play in a lower-ranked league was made by a vote of the other teams in that league.

This was largely because soccer at the time was a game played and run overwhelmingly by amateurs, and so it was considered fair that club owners and senior officials should have the ultimate say on whether a team that had suffered a poor season was still worthy of a place in the league.

This system of re-election lived on in the lowest division of the English Football League – at the time, the Fourth Division – long after promotion and relegation was introduced in the other divisions, including at the top of that same division.

A similar process applied, in reverse, for teams wishing to join the Football League, with all (then) 92 members of the league having a vote to decide which team merited a place in the league as the replacement for the team voted out.

Eventually, however, as soccer become more organized at the levels immediately below the Football League, calls grew for a promotion-and-relegation system, as was already in place between the divisions of the league, to also be implemented between the fifth tier of English soccer, and the fourth division of the league itself.

As a result, the vote to decide which team, if any, dropped out of the league was dropped following the 1985-86 season. However, in practice, no team had been voted out of the league since 1978, with Southport – a team based 20 miles north of that hotbed of English soccer, the city of Liverpool – having the unfortunate distinction of being the last team to suffer relegation soccer as a result of a vote by the other 91 teams.

When Was Relegation First Introduced In Soccer?

The first competitive soccer league began in England in 1888, and comprised 12 founder members. Below this top level, the Football Alliance was established, but for several decades, a system of re-election as described above, was implemented, with the two teams in the bottom places in the top division facing an election against the top two teams from the embryonic Second Division.

Eventually, the league expanded to four divisions, and so, primarily to ensure that all teams were treated equally and on merit, based on their performance throughout the preceding season, promotion and relegation were introduced covering all four divisions.

The first team to suffer the ignominy of being relegated in English soccer was Stoke City, who, in 1890, was voted out of the league, in favor of Sunderland F.C.

The new Second Division was established in 1892, and among the names which made their first appearances in that year, thanks to the league’s expansion, were Newton Heath and Ardwick, both from the city of Manchester. These two teams went on to become Manchester United and Manchester City respectively.

In those early years of English soccer, the shortest stay was recorded by Darwen F.C., from north Lancashire. Elected to the league in 1891 when the competition was expanded from 12 to 14 teams, they were immediately voted out the following season, and replaced by Sheffield Wednesday F.C.

Why Is Relegation Sometimes Seen As The ‘Dreaded Drop’?

You might hear relegation talked of as ‘the dreaded drop’. This is in large part, of course, because no team wants to have it confirmed that, over the course of a season, it has not been good enough to compete with the others in its division.

It also means that, while they will start the next season with the incentive of getting promoted back to the division out of which they have fallen, many soccer coaches and players know well that this is no foregone conclusion.

This is because, while in theory, the standard of the game is lower in the lower division, the competition to earn promotion will be fierce. So there may be a group of teams that are all very similar in terms of their capabilities but are fighting for the small number of promotion slots available.

Equally, the teams in the lower positions in any league may all be very well-matched, and on their day, capable of beating any of the teams around them in the league table. So this means that a team which has a run of poor results can soon find itself engaged in a battle to keep their place in the higher league.

This battle is especially fierce in an elite division such as the English Premier League, simply because the amount of money which teams earn through having their games regularly featured on T.V. around the world is hugely greater than that paid to the teams in lower divisions. So teams fight hard to try to earn a place in this elite league, and once there, to stay in it. This is the prime reason why budgets, transfer fees and other spending by the Premier League clubs are so huge – everyone wants the best players available, and so the laws of demand mean the fees demanded when other teams want one of their best players continually rise.

Also, once a team loses its place in this top league, it has no guarantee that it will quickly regain that place. Because after relegation there is no longer the huge ‘pot’ of T.V. money to rely on, clubs have to cut their budgets. And the easiest and quickest way of doing so is to sell some of their star players.

While the Premier League aims to minimize the impact of relegation on a team by offering ‘parachute payments’ to help financially support a team after dropping out of the elite division, these payments can be seen as a double-edged sword. While they might allow a team to keep players earning salaries inflated by the money available to the Premier League, they also put tremendous pressure on a relegated team to make a quick return to the top level, so that they can continue to afford to honor these expensive contracts.

Ultimately, no team wants to fall foul of the final change to the system of inter-league promotion and relegation, which was introduced for the 1986-87 English league soccer season. This saw the old system of all 92 clubs voting to decide whether to expel one team from the bottom tier of the English senior football divisions replaced by direct promotion and relegation. The bottom team in the Football League each season was to drop into the fifth tier of the English game, which was known at the time as the Conference (now the National League), to be replaced by the champions of that League.

Why Is There No Relegation In The M.L.S.?

This is because, under its constitution, the M.L.S. is a self-contained league competition, one of very few in the world in which there is no supporting hierarchy outside the league itself.

When the league was established in 1997, it was the first and only professional soccer league in the U.S.A., and each of the teams – initially 10, but now expanded to 24 – is a member of U.S. Soccer, under whose constitution any changes, such as introducing promotion and relegation, would need to be approved by a majority of those 24 teams.

The large investment which club owners have made in setting up and developing their teams means that they try to do all they can to protect, and even boost their returns from it.

So, it is widely believed, allowing in teams from a lower-ranking league could dilute the ‘elite’ nature of the competition. The people who organise the N.B.A. in basketball and the World Series in baseball also have similar beliefs about their own competitions – they believe they are purely for the best of the best, and allowing relegation from their leagues would devalue their business proposition, and so the potential for earning money from sponsors.

Have Any Really Famous Soccer Clubs Been Relegated? 

It may surprise you, but plenty of well-known clubs have, at one time or another, had a bad season, and as a result, lost their place in their country’s top league – be it the Premier League in England, Germany’s Bundesliga, La Liga in Spain, or the Italian Serie A.

Here are some examples:

  • Outside the Premier League era, some of you might not realize that Manchester United suffered the indignity of being relegated from the top flight of English soccer in 1974, the only time the club has not competed at the top level since before the Second World War.
  • The first season of the English Premier League, 1992-93, ended with another famous team, Nottingham Forest, dropping down into the division below. Their relegation brought an ignominious end to the glorious career of their manager, Brian Clough, during which he guided his largely unfancied squad to two European Cup victories in succession, in 1979 and 1980. Unusually, Forest are one of the very few sides which have bounced straight back by earning a promotion back to the Premier League the following season.
  • Today, Manchester City is one of the richest soccer clubs in the world, but it was a different story in 1995-96, when, after a series of battles to stay in England’s top flight, they finally succumbed to the drop. City’s fall from the heights, however, was arguably the most spectacular ever, because just two seasons later they were relegated again, to the third tier of English soccer. Fortunately for its fans, City was back in the elite division by 1999. Now, more than a decade after a lucrative takeover, those days in the doldrums will have faded from most fans’ memories.
  • Atletico Madrid, one of Spain’s elite teams, suffered their own episode of life in a lower league for the first time, after the 1999-2000 season. Having won Spain’s top league, La Liga, in 1996, Atletico had suffered a tumultuous drop down the league rankings, and even the signing of striker Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink from English side Leeds United for £12million couldn’t save them from the drop.
  • Possibly the most dramatic fall from one of the elite leagues was suffered by Juventus, who were relegated from Italy’s elite Serie A division in 2005-06 – and this despite actually winning the league during the normal playing season!

Ultimately, though, the performance of the team on the field was to count for nothing, when the club was stripped of the league title and relegated to Serie B as punishment for their part in match-fixing activities over the previous two seasons.

So as you can see, soccer teams will try very hard to avoid relegation, for a number of important reasons, not just the prestige of playing at an elite, or even just a higher level. But as at least one team has to suffer this fate at the end of every season, it is inevitable that, from time to time, some famous names face a battle to keep their position as one of their country’s elite teams.