This weekend represents the beginning of the express play-offs of the regional La Tercera divisions. Intriguingly, the extraordinary circumstances of this season have simplified the highly complex structure of Spain’s lower leagues.
Spain’s enthusiasm for Football is a surprise to absolutely nobody, but probably what a lot of outsiders often underestimate about the Kingdom is its sheer size. It is often far easier to get to Spain than to get across it. Apart from being 700 kilometres apart, travel between Seville and Santander for example is
hampered by tough terrain. Road networks have improved massively in the past half century, but many towns and cities in the country are poorly connected by rail, most notably in the under-industrialised southern and central regions. As one could expect, this complicates the process of travelling to another city to watch your favourite Football club play away – not least when one considers how late in the evening Spanish Football matches tend to begin. It is a heck of a tall order to ask smaller outfits lacking in financial resources to trek across the massive country every other weekend.
The Real Federación Española de Fútbol (RFEF) gets around this problem by operating regionalised leagues below La Liga and La Segunda División where budgets, interest and support are leaner. During the 2018-2019 season, an astonishing 490 clubs competed in Spain’s top four flights of league Football, compared to a pathetic 92 in England and Wales. Some of these 490 outfits are admittedly reserve sides of the country’s major clubs, but nonetheless, that is a lot of live sport every weekend. Yet outside of the top two leagues, teams competing in La Segunda B and La Tercera (Spain’s third and fourth tiers respectively) are grouped by region. La Segunda B is comprised of 4 different groups, and beneath that, the 368 La Tercera clubs (in the 2018-2019 season are sorted into 18 different groups.
At the end of 2019, Córdoba CF was relegated from La Segunda to La Segunda B. In the 2018-2019 La Segunda season, the Andalusian club competed against clubs from all over the country, but this season in La Segunda B Group IV, Córdoba CF only played against sides from the regions of Extremadura, Andalusia, Murcia and Castilla-La Mancha that collectively make up Spain’s south. Across the same two seasons, Xerez Deportivo FC competed in Group X of La Tercera that contains teams specifically from the Western Andalusian provinces of Cádiz, Córdoba, Huelva and Sevilla. Xerez Deportivo will compete in the promotion play-offs this weekend, and if they are successful, the club founded in 2014 will begin competing in La Segunda B for the first time in its history – still in a regional league, but against teams that cover a wider area. The greater volume of groups in La Tercera means that the geographical spread of each group is far more concentrated than it is in La Segunda B.
This system is kind on smaller clubs and their fans who would struggle to afford frequent long-distance journeys. It also adds a degree of excitement in the form of a all-or-nothing play-off format at the end of each season. However, the subject of promotion and relegation between La Segunda, La Segunda B and La Tercera is complicated by the very fact that the latter two leagues are regionalised to different degrees.
At the end of the 2018-2019 season, the top four of each of La Tercera’s 18 groups entered the play-offs. The 18 clubs that finished in 1st place in their groups respectively were drawn against each other in a two-leg tie. The 9 victorious clubs of these ties immediately earned promotion to La Segunda B. Meanwhile, clubs that had finished in 2nd and 4th places in their respective groups played each other on across a two-leg knockout round, as did all 3rd placed teams, all of them playing against La Tercera clubs from elsewhere in the country. The victors of these ties proceeded to the second knockout round where they were joined by the 9 losing teams of the first round of play-off fixtures between champions of their respective group. In this second knockout round, 36 teams became 18, who then competed in a third knockout round across another two legs to decide which 9 teams would ascend together with the other 9 group champions who won their first play-off match.
This means that a La Tercera club could potentially top its group outright by the end of the season before being dragged through 6 play-off matches only to capitulate at the final hurdle. When 18 teams have earned their promotion to La Segunda B, the RFEF must calculate which of the 4 groups in La Segunda B will accommodate them. Quite logically, there is no guarantee that any of the clubs from for example La Tercera Group I (that represents Galicia in Spain’s northwest) will have earned promotion through the play-off system to La Segunda B. With no vacant spots in the following La Tercera Group I season, no Galician clubs competing in La Segunda B Group I will be able to be relegated to La Tercera – no matter how poorly they perform. Meanwhile, a club from Asturias next door also competing in La Segunda B Group I may theoretically finish the season above 4 Galician clubs in the league – but suffer relegation anyway due to the abundance of Asturian clubs from La Tercera Group II who have succeeded in the play-off system.
It’s not as confusing as it sounds, I promise, but it is easy to see how potentially unfair Spain’s system of promotion and relegation between the regional leagues can be. However, this year the La Tercera play-offs have been changed slightly due to the travel restrictions as a result of the Covid-19 situation. Clubs cannot cross the country for a play-off match, thus the 4 highest finishing clubs in all 18 of La Tercera’s groups will play each other in a semi-final and final format beginning this weekend. For the first time in its history, a Football club from each of La Tercera’s 18 groups is guaranteed to ascend to La Segunda B via this alternative “express play-off”.
Meanwhile, no La Segunda B clubs will be relegated to La Tercera this season. Instead, the RFEF has ruled that as of next season (2020-2012), there will be 5 groups competing within La Segunda B – another first for Spanish Football. This will force a reshuffle of the structure of the country’s 3rd tier in order to accommodate 18 promoted sides from different provinces around the country. It is therefore impossible at this stage to know how next season’s La Segunda B will look and function.
With so much to play for, fans of La Tercera teams competing in the first round of the 2019-2020 express play-offs are set for a nail-biting weekend of sport. If only such momentous fixtures were not being played behind closed doors….