The new top 5 league: how the Eredivisie overtook Ligue 1

The new top 5 league: how the Eredivisie overtook Ligue 1

Meeting point on an abandoned factory site, only the headlights illuminate the night. Men in suits park their cars across from each other. suitcase handover. Then suddenly: Khalid Boulahrouz, who speaks Portuguese. Cut.

The PR department of the Dutch Eredivisie was not lacking in originality and the wherewithal when, in April, they visualized their league’s success in a short film in which former HSV defender Boulahrouz, one of the protagonists of the legendary “Battle of Nuremberg”. the 2006 World Cup between the Netherlands and Portugal, plays the leading role. The suitcase he opens contains tickets – including for the group stage of the Champions League.

Shortly before, the Dutch Eredivisie had widened their lead over the Portuguese league. Sixth place in the UEFA five-year ranking – for the first time since 2001. From the 2024/25 season, two Dutch teams will have qualified directly for the premier class.

And a year later, there could be even more. At the start of the new season, the Netherlands are even slightly ahead of France. Does the established concept of “European top 5 leagues” have to be rethought? If so, then it would be the biggest turnaround a European league has seen in recent years.

A look back. In 2018, the Eredivisie was still in 14th place in the UEFA ranking – squeezed between the Czech Fortuna Liga and the Greek Super League, overtaken by Ukraine, Belgium, Austria and Switzerland. And the World Cup in Russia took place without the participation of the three-time World Cup finalist. A low point, self-inflicted. “We threatened to sink into a coefficient swamp,” Dutch journalist Michel Abbink classified the situation in a league statement.

Disgrace in the qualifying rounds: The summer is going to be a horror

The time in the mid-10s, explained then-Ajax coach Erik ten Hag in 2021, was one “when some Dutch clubs and coaches didn’t take European football so seriously”. The summer months in particular cost the league a lot of points. “We often didn’t prepare well for the qualifying rounds for the Champions League or Europa League and then approached our opponents naively.”

In 2013, FC Utrecht failed in the Europa League qualification against FC Differdange, who had previously finished fourth in the Luxembourg league. Ajax went under in 2016 against Russian representatives FK Rostow, PSV Eindhoven lost both games against NK Osijek from Croatia in 2017 – July and August became the horror months for Dutch football. Only those who get clubs into the group stages of the competitions can collect points.

In the Netherlands, however, the early qualifying rounds were still part of the pre-season, well before the start of the league. “In these rounds it’s always important to deal with the opponent because you usually don’t know them well,” explained ten Hag. “At this stage we didn’t do it well enough in the Netherlands.”

Today’s Manchester United coach was one of the drivers of change. At Ajax, he moved the start of preparation forward in order to be able to play at the top level in the qualifying rounds. And because Ajax is the role model for pretty much all other clubs in the Netherlands, it didn’t take long for the approach to become popular.

Letsch and Schmidt also helped out

The fact that the Eredivisie began to take off in the following years was of course not only due to ten Hags, but rather a combination of several factors. The previously manageable pool of players was revived by a generation of talents such as Frenkie de Jong, Matthijs de Ligt and Cody Gakpo, while at the same time the clubs moved away from pure training clubs and invested – as with Sebastien Haller or Mario Götze – in internationally proven class. And there is also a bit of Germany in the Dutch success. “The fact that coaches like Thomas Letsch and Roger Schmidt have come has led to more realism,” ten Hag once praised.

The league itself has also set accents. At the end of 2018, when the Eredivisie was stuck in perhaps the greatest depression in its history, the league passed the so-called “Veranderagenda” with several measures to improve the quality of football in the Eredivisie and at that time announced the goal of climbing back into the top 8 European leagues.

The fact that this was already successful in less than three years suggests that the long-term plan did not hold the majority of the shares, but individual measures such as the later entry of the European Cup teams into the national KNVB Cup could have already had an effect.

Precisely because of such measures, league boss Jan de Jong spoke in April of a “collective success of all clubs in the first division”. When you look at the numbers, that’s not entirely unjustified, because behind the top team from Amsterdam and constant competitor PSV Eindhoven, clubs from the second row such as Feyenoord Rotterdam or AZ Alkmaar have stood out as point collectors, who, for example, have scored more points in the past five years than the French representatives Marseille, Lille, Monaco and Nice.

The Conference League has contributed a lot to our rise.

Edwin van der Sar

In this context, however, one point is particularly relevant, from which Dutch clubs have recently benefited enormously: the introduction of the Europa Conference League. “The Conference League has contributed a lot to our rise,” said Ajax chief executive Edwin van der Sar in March. The former world-class keeper, who is currently recovering from a brain haemorrhage on holiday, was instrumental in the launch of the competition as vice-chairman of the European club association ECA, which the Netherlands plays in the cards like hardly any other country.

High importance of the Conference League

While clubs from the top leagues in the Conference League sometimes rest their players so that they are not tired in the league game three days later and Juventus Turin has been excluded more or less voluntarily, the ECL in the Netherlands enjoys a comparatively high status . With the exception of Ajax, no Eredivisie club can calculate realistic chances of winning the Champions or Europa League – but they can in the Conference League. In the first edition in 2022, Feyenoord made it to the final, most recently Alkmaar advanced to the semi-finals.

“A club like Feyenoord has reaped the rewards,” said van der Sar. “But actually it’s the whole of the Netherlands that benefits.” Because Alkmaar got just as many points for the five-year ranking by reaching the Conference League semi-finals as Paris St. Germain, who reached the round of 16 in the Champions League.

As big as the discrepancy between the two competitions in terms of audience interest and television money may be – the differences in the points for the UEFA ranking are manageable. Paying into the Conference League, as the example of the Netherlands makes clear, is extremely profitable for the five-year ranking.

And so the league, which four years ago did not have a single permanent starting place in the premier class, can have legitimate hopes of soon even taking part in the Champions League with three permanent participants. Because: If the Eredivisie keeps the narrow lead over Ligue 1 in the upcoming season, the top Dutch clubs will benefit from the Champions League reform, which will take effect from 2024. This ensures that the fifth-placed country in the five-year ranking – currently France – has an additional permanent place in the premier class.

Now the points regulation from the profit factor to the problem

While that scenario seems plausible, a permanent changing of the guard in Europe’s top five leagues is unlikely – and paradoxically, that’s linked to the Eredivisie’s past success. In the coming season, the league will send one more team to Europe – this one will compete in the Champions League. In the other competitions and qualifying phases, the number of teams remains the same.

Now the points rule is turning from a profit factor into a problem: in the Champions League, a club like Feyenoord most likely won’t be able to score as many points as in the Europa League, a club like Alkmaar in the Europa League not as many as in the Conference League.

And the additional participant also increases the quotient by which the total score is divided. Ligue 1, on the other hand, would benefit from more teams in weaker competitions. While Marseille or Monaco can hardly score in a Champions League group stage, they can go far in the Europa or Conference League.

Maintaining sixth place will be difficult in the long run.

Edwin van der Sar

That’s also why nobody in the Netherlands wants to talk about permanently attacking fifth place. It is much more likely to look in the rear-view mirror. “We are in a big battle with Portugal,” said van der Sar in March. “It will be difficult to keep the place in the long run because the top Portuguese clubs have a large financial advantage thanks to the TV money.” And league boss de Jong is also slowing down: “Sixth place is incredibly important for the attractiveness of the Eredivisie, commercial growth and the financial stability of the clubs. Now we have to work together to keep this place.”

Doesn’t exactly sound like a declaration of war in the direction of fifth place. So Khalid Boulahrouz might still have some time left for acting classes.

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