Avi Luzon Borrows a League Format From a Defunct System

It was basically a calm meeting of the secretariat. While its members made a fateful decision to expand the Premier League to 16 teams and institute a three-tier playoff system, it was calm nonetheless. Avi Luzon, Israel Football Association chair, used a broad smile and a barrage of handshakes to keep things pleasant and enjoy a comfortable majority for the vote.

"After two rounds," explained Luzon, "we'll cut everybody's points in half and round up." Aviv Bushinsky, the Maccabi Tel Aviv chair, looked furious and dared ask, "Say, are there precedents for this plan?" A prepared Luzon replied, "It's taken from a method implemented in Switzerland, but it doesn't exist any more." Bushinsky shot back, "If it's no longer around, that probably says something."

Luzon wasn't lying. The problem is, neither was Bushinsky. The Swiss Football Association did utilize a similar plan between 1986 and 2004. The league had authorized a special team to develop the system, aiming to boost interest in the league. Rather, that same team after two problematic years called on the league to go back to having just 12 clubs.

Swiss soccer association members, club owners and journalists all claim the system is flawed. It failed to generate any interest in the lower two playoffs. "We figured out after just one season that the system was bad," sums up Roger Mueller, the association's spokesman. "The system only works if all 16 league clubs have suitable facilities with a potential of 10,000 fans. If you don't have this criteria, it just won't work."

Plagued by inefficiency

In the early 1980s, 12 clubs played in the Swiss premier league. When the expansion proposal came up, the heads of the bigger clubs in Basel and Zurich opposed the idea, similar to what happened in the Israeli league. And they, too, had to yield eventually. The system introduced in 1986 added other dimensions: dividing team points after two rounds in half with rounding up and a three-tiered playoff system encompassing the top six teams, the next four and the bottom six - just as Luzon devised.

"The 16-team plan was quickly revealed as inefficient," recalls Mueller. "The middle and bottom playoffs didn't interest the media at all, and it was clear we'd have to make immediate changes." He says you can't find 16 teams in Switzerland with suitable facilities "to allow us to sell this product to the fans and raise the level of play." Rather, he says, the league had a handful of teams with financial woes who couldn't meet the necessary budget to make them more attractive. "In short, it didn't work and we had to revamp."

After one dull season the special team went back to the drawing board and cut the league back down to 12 teams and a two-tier playoff system, under which the bottom six clubs played against the top six teams of the second division. That plan also proved a definitive failure with the media and ended up in the dustbin.

Dangerous dreams

"The plan did have some positive aspects," asserts Mueller. "The fight over the championship became gripping because any team with a decent budget had a shot at winning. The problem was that owners started taking financial risks, and some of them paid a heavy price." He says that "Lugano was the first to go bankrupt, followed by Sport Zurich and Servette. It really hurt our soccer."

In 2004, SFA president Ralph Zloczower convened his secretariat, which voted to downsize the league to 10 teams and eliminate the playoff system. "The central reason," Zloczower said when he opened the meeting, "is simply because it doesn't happen in any other country in Europe. We tried to change, but it didn't help." The Swiss, whose hosting the recent Euro 2008 tournament revived the expansion question, may well be interested in seeing what happens in the Israeli experiment Luzon has cooked up.