What Does Relegation Mean In Soccer?

Soccer is a sport with plenty of confusing terms that can leave beginners wondering what’s going on. Promotion and relegation are two terms that confuse some people, and that’s what we’re going over in this guide.

– Relegation refers to when a team finishes in the bottom few places of a league table and is demoted to a lower division for the next season.

– Promotion is the exact opposite of this and refers to the teams that finish in the top few places and get moved up to a higher division.

How Does Relegation Work?

We know that relegation happens when a team finishes towards the bottom of the league table at the end of the season, but this is a vague definition. How does it work in each league?

Almost every professional soccer league has a relegation zone unless there is only one division.

One example of this is Major League Soccer (MLS), which is the top level of soccer competition in the United States. The MLS has had no relegation since1996, which means that the teams that finish at the bottom of the league table remain in the same division for the proceeding season.

While this means there is no direct punishment for finishing at the bottom, it often means that the lowest-scoring teams receive less prize money from the league organizer at the end of the season.

In other leagues around the world, like the English Premier League and German Bundesliga, a set number of places at the bottom of the table are designated for relegation at the end of the season.

Here’s a list of how some of the top soccer leagues in the world have relegation set up for the end of the season:

  • English Premier League (20 teams) – The bottom three teams are relegated.
  • French Ligue 1 (20 teams) – The bottom two teams are relegated, with 18th place competing in a play-off to stay up.
  • Italian Serie A (20 teams) – The bottom three teams are relegated.
  • German Bundesliga (18 teams) – The bottom two teams are relegated, with the 16th competing in a play-off to stay up.
  • Spanish La Liga (20 teams) – The bottom three teams are relegated.

How Does Promotion Work?

For relegation to exist in soccer, there must also be promotions.

Promotion is when a team finishes at the top of a league table at the end of the season and moves up to a higher division in the prior season. Of course, the number of teams promoted each season needs to be the same as the number of teams relegated from the division above.

This way, the number of teams in each league stays the same every season.

Promotion can only happen in leagues, not the highest division in their tier system. For example, the English Premier League is the highest division of English soccer. Therefore, teams that finish at the top of the Premier League can not be promoted any higher than they already are.

Soccer ball in a goal net. What Does Relegation Mean In Soccer

Relegation/Promotion Play-Offs

We’ve already mentioned a little about play-offs for promotion and relegation, and they don’t exist in every league in the world. This system often involves four teams and offers supporters an exciting end to their season.

An excellent example of a promotion play-off system is the EFL Championship, the second division of English soccer.

The top two teams in this league table get promoted to the Premier League for the next season. The teams that finish 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th compete against each other for the final promotion spot. 3rd place plays against 6th place, while 4th place plays against 5th place.

The winners of these two games play against each other in the play-off final, with the winner of this game getting promoted to the Premier League. Even more excitingly, in some leagues, a promotion/relegation play-off contest takes place at the end of the season.

One example is the German Bundesliga and Bundesliga 2 (the second division of German soccer).

The Bundesliga has 18 teams, so the team that finishes 16th will participate in the play-offs against the 3rd placed team from Bundesliga 2. They play each other over two legs, with the home-field advantage considered.

If the Bundesliga team wins, they stay in the Bundesliga, but if the Bundesliga 2 team wins, the two teams will switch places for the next season.

Is Relegation A Good Thing For Soccer?

As previously mentioned, relegation doesn’t exist in every league in the world, with the United States MLS being a good example. Some fans prefer the system, while others think soccer is better off without it. So what are the pros and cons of relegation?

One of the apparent benefits of the relegation system is that it encourages teams to perform well. The threat of being relegated gives teams the incentive to try and avoid it, making for better competition on the field.

Similarly, the promotion motivates teams in the lower divisions to perform well and compete at a higher level next season.

Another great advantage to this system is that it allows new teams to compete in each league every season. Instead of seeing the same old teams and faces every season, fans get a new set of players to watch every year.

The main criticism of the relegation system is that it puts great financial strain on smaller clubs. Getting relegated often comes with a hefty pay cut, which means that teams can lose a lot of money.


As you can probably tell, soccer’s relegation and promotion system are pretty cut-throat.

Getting relegated is heartbreaking for the team it happens to but getting promoted is often the highlight of the decade for teams that get to experience it.

The play-offs always make for great, entertaining soccer at the end of a season, even if you don’t support any of the teams involved. Make sure you check them out if you get a chance!


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