Relegation in Soccer: What Is It, What Happens & How It Works

By Luís Miguel
Updated on

Unlike the most popular sports in America, which have only one league, in Europe, soccer has a tiered championships system with multiple levels (called divisions).

Relegation in soccer is an integral part of that pyramid-like structure. But what is it, how does it work, what happens? I did my research and am here to explain everything to you.

Relegation in soccer is a merit-based mechanism through which teams that finish a season in the last positions of the league table get demoted to a division under the one they were playing in the championships’ multi-level structure. Besides poor performance, sanctions can also get teams relegated.

The above relegation in soccer definition may not seem very clear, so allow me to explain it better (and everything related to it).

Relegation in Soccer Definition

Before anything else, we need to understand a few things:

  1. The origin of the word “relegation” and its meaning.
  2. Soccer’s pyramid-like championships structure.

Let’s do this quickly!

Relegation Synonym

The synonym of “relegate” is to “reduce in rank” or “assign to a lower position”.

Since “relegation” comes from “relegate”, we can infer that the word relegation has a similar meaning.

Relegation means to assign or reduce something or someone to a lower level, ranking or position.

Soccer’s Pyramid-like Championships Structure

As I said above, soccer worldwide works differently from popular sports in America.

American Football (NFL), Baseball (MLB), Basketball (NBA), and even Soccer (MLS) itself have only one league in the United States.

Outside North America, soccer doesn’t have the same single-championship structure.

Instead, each national league has a configuration of several levels, like a pyramid.

Each level or tier is called a division.

At the top, you have the most prestigious division where all the elite clubs and world-class players compete.

As you go down this tiered structure, so does the importance and quality of the divisions — they are not as good as the ones immediately above.

The Premier League & the Championship Example

Take soccer (or football) in the United Kingdom as an example.

The Premier League is the top division. (And, coincidently, the world’s best soccer league).

One level down, you find the Championship. The second division in the English football league system.

Naturally, being relegated from the Premier League to the Championship is not any team’s goal at the start of a season.

With this in mind, what is relegation in soccer?

What Is Relegation in Soccer?

Relegation in soccer is a process based on merit.

Through relegation, at the end of a season, the teams who have had the worst performance (by finishing in the last positions of the league table) move down to a lower league (division).

That is why relegation is a merit- or performance-based system.

Those who weren’t competitive enough are “punished”. They’ll play one division down in the subsequent season.

Inversely, all the other teams get a reward: maintenance — they get to stay in the same division for the following season.

(And, if you finish in the top positions of a division below the top flight — the highest division — you are promoted one league up through a mechanism that’s the exact opposite of relegation: promotion.)

Other Reasons for Relegation in Soccer

Other causes can also punish soccer clubs with relegation, besides poor performance, such as:

  • Disciplinary sanctions like being involved in unlawful practices (match-fixing, corrupting referees, bribing opponent sides/players, etc.);
  • Failing to meet criteria set by the national league regulations;
  • Debts to former players, vendors, or other clubs;
Guy wearing an SL Benfica jersey holding soccer ball over his head

Article by:

Luís Miguel

As a true soccer enthusiast, I’m Soccermodo’s team captain. My job is to make sure the site’s content is top-notch so that you, our reader, can focus solely on improving your game and reach new heights.