What is relegation in soccer?

It comes as no surprise that many Americans are not familiar with the concept of relegation in soccer. This is down to the fact that most American sports such as Major League Soccer do not embrace the concept of relegation. 

Therefore, in the MLS, teams are not relegated. This article will throw more light on what relegation means and will enhance your understanding of relegation in soccer.

Relegation is said to have occurred when a soccer team loses their place from the league where they play in a season to a lower league for the following season. 

It’s a situation where the team drops from their current league to an inferior or low standard and low-quality league. For instance, Schalke 04’s relegation from the German Bundesliga to Bundesliga 2. It’s a big deal in soccer leagues where it is adopted and has spelled doom for a good number of soccer teams.

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What does Relegation mean in Soccer?

Relegation in soccer can be referred to as the process of transferring a team from a league where they play in a season to a lower league for the following season mostly because of a very bad performance and poor results in the league where they practiced.

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The concept of Relegation and Promotion is one of the significant differences between sports in Europe and North America.

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This is because the majority of the elite leagues in North American sports are closed, ensuring that the same teams play each other every season. Changes in participation only occur when the league body invites another team or if one of the teams in the league decides to leave.

For example, the likes of the NFL, MLS, NBA, and MLB operate as a closed league that comprises top teams. This is not the same in the European scene. Sports leagues in Europe operate with a different system that ensures that every team must earn their place in a league. 

This system does no favors to the caliber of the team, who owns the team, how prestigious they are amongst others. All teams have an even playing ground at the start of the season and the worst performers at the end of the season will lose their place in the league and be demoted to the lower division. 

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The same also applies to the teams who are in the most elite league, the teams in the leagues below earn a place in the league above them if they finish at the top places that have been stipulated to guarantee a promotion.

However, once a team gains promotion to an elite league above their division the previous season, they must fight to stay out in the league or return from whence they came. A team that is relegated will play the next season in a lower league than the one they presently participate in.

The fear of relegation ensures that every team sits up and gives their best although, at the end of the season, some will be marked out for not being able to give their best or give what they don’t have by slipping down to a lower division.

How Relegation Works

Relegation works by transferring the lowest-ranked teams in a league at the end of the season to the next lower ranked league.

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They will then compete in the lower-ranked league for the following season while the highest-ranked teams in the same lower league are promoted to make up for the spaces in the league where the teams slipped from. That is the concept of relegation and promotion in soccer.

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This is not the same procedure in a closed league like the MLS. A finish at the bottom of the league after an MLS season comes with few consequences. Regardless, the team that finishes at the bottom of the MLS league table in a season continues to participate year in, year out.

We can analyze the concept of relegation in soccer closely with an example of the English Premier League

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Premier League Relegation

20 teams compete in the Premier League every season and one comes out tops as the best team by finishing in the first place. At the end of the season, some teams will fall short of expectations and won’t do enough to survive in the league another season, especially the newly promoted teams.

These sides will perform poorly, lose a lot of games, conceding a lot of goals, score a few goals, win a few matches, mostly a single figure at the end of the season, amongst others, and end up rock bottom at the end of the season. 

Regardless, Premier League relegation affects the three lowest-placed teams on the Premier League table at the end of the season and they would drop to the English Football League Championship, the second tier of club football in England. These three relegated teams will play in the Championship for the duration of the following season.

Relegation is not an exciting prospect but serves to ensure that teams that are not good enough to compete in a soccer league are demoted to a lower one with teams that share similar abilities with them.

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What Is the Relegation Zone?

The English Premier League alongside other European Leagues like the German Bundesliga, Italian Serie A, Spanish La Liga, and French Ligue one have a relegation zone. 

This is the zone that determines which sides will be relegated at the end of a soccer season. Meanwhile, the number of teams that suffer relegation at the end of the season can vary from league to league. In the Premier League, the lowest three teams on the log drop to the lower division. Find a breakdown of the number of teams that are relegated from the leagues mentioned below:

  • Spanish LaLiga– 3 teams
  • German Bundesliga – 2 teams
  • Italian Serie A – 3 teams
  • Brasileirao – Brazil – 4 teams
  • Argentine Primera – 4 teams
  • Liga MX  Mexico – 1 team
  • Premier League – England – 3 teams

As a season progresses, the teams in the places marked out as relegation spots across the various leagues are referred to as being in the relegation zone. 

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Therefore, the relegation zone in a soccer league can be described as the bottom section of the league table that comprises the teams that will be relegated if they end the season in that position.

Merits and Demerits of Relegation

A good number of soccer leagues outside North America deploy the relegation and promotion system to ensure that teams progress to the elite leagues on merit. Therefore, teams put in significant effort to maintain their places.

It remains to be seen if a closed league system would materialize as a recent clamor for something similar in the mold of the European Soccer League was frowned upon and heavily criticized.

The Benefits of Relegation in Soccer

Relegation in soccer ensures that teams compete and put in their best until the last day of the soccer season. This is not the same in North America where some teams just become less motivated as they know they do not have anything to play for but pride and this doesn’t cut it.

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As long as a team knows that there is a room that they get sucked down to a lower division, they will put in their best, ensuring that soccer games remain competitive.

If a team beats the drop in a season, they come back the following season with a determination to improve. This is not the same in a closed league system, after all, the worst that could happen is that they will finish bottom with no detrimental consequences.

There is also a new breath of life and motivation in a team that battles relegation throughout the season and manages to beat the drop on the last day.

Relegation ensures that the league remains competitive until the end of the season

In the Premier League, even if the winner of the league title has been decided before the last day, on the last day the battle for survival to remain in the Premier League and beat the drop also continues. These relegation-threatened teams take the fight to their opponents on the day and thereby provide an exciting spectacle of football on the day.

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A system of promotion and relegation enhances dynamism as news teams enter and leave the league every year

The league’s competitiveness remains fresh as it is easy for a league to become boring when it is always the same of the same.

Disadvantages of Relegation

Relegation has a severe impact on a team’s finances

Teams that have been competing in an elite league for years operate with a financial structure that is based on the income they generate at the elite level. However, if they become relegated, their revenue suffers a huge drop and they’d have to cut off some expenses and lose some high profile players to compete in a lower league.

A team can fire on all cylinders for years and become relegated after one poor season.

In the Premier League, we saw how Sheffield United impressed in the Premier League under Chris Wilder in the 2019/20 season. They were very impressive Premier League newcomers and finished 9th. It was not the same in the following 2020/21 season as they finished 20th on the log and were relegated.

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We’ve seen some decent teams suffer poor form due to factors like player injuries, poor coaching, amongst others, and never get the chance to bounce back if they can’t escape being relegated.


Regardless, relegation in soccer has come to stay in soccer leagues around the world and hopefully, this article has thrown more light on how the concept works and what it entails. I’m sure that this article has answered the question; What does relegation mean in soccer?