The Austrian Bundesliga: All you need to know!
Ah, the Austrian Bundesliga, a league for which - if you look hard enough - you can find three tables, and nothing appears to add up. As fans from further afield are beginning to be drawn in by the exciting talents on offer in the lesser known of the Bundesligas (the “eighth best league in Europe”, we’ll have you know) we at The Other Bundesliga felt it was high time to explain how this lovable league actually works.
Step one: The Grunddurchgang can be (not-literally) translated into something akin to a “Regular season”. The twelve top-flight teams face each other twice during this spell, from late in the summer to early the following spring. Each team plays 22 fixtures with the standard home and away meetings, and derbies between capital city neighbours Rapid and Austria Vienna which inevitably finish in unsatisfying 1-1 draws.
That sounds like a pretty normal league so far, doesn’t it? Well here’s where it begins to differ. No points or prizes are awarded for winning the league at the end of the Grunddurchgang, yet oddly enough there is some kind of smug kudos attached to being the Herbstmeister, the “Champion of the Autumn”. That refers to the team who are top after 18 games, but not 22, and Red Bull Salzburg have “won” that honour fewer times than you might expect. Why does this happen after 18 games, you say? Well that’s down to the winter break, we did mention the winter break didn’t we?
To stop us from freezing our backsides off in the various stadia scattered throughout the beautiful Alpine land of Austria, games don’t go beyond mid-December in the Bundesliga. There’s an 18 game block leading up to the Christmas period, at which point everyone goes to warm their hands with a Gluhwein or hit the ski slopes during a roughly six-week footballing hiatus. While we’re twiddling our thumbs waiting for football to return, the teams are gearing up (sometimes illegally) for a quite insane little scramble during the last four games of the Grunddurchgang.
This little run of fixtures in February/March has a great deal of significance to most teams, as for the last few seasons, the table has been split into two distinct groups after the 22 games are up. If you’re in the top-six, you’ll join the Meisterrunde, everyone else will be stuck in the Qualifikationsrunde. It might not sound too dramatic, but the positions in the upper and lower halves are fixed for the season at this point, meaning that smaller teams can guarantee their survival if they sneak into the top-six group, and if bigger teams are below the line, they’re condemned to miss out on most of the tastier fixtures for the rest of the season, instead battling only against plucky small-town teams. In recent history the match day 22 drama has been top drawer, with late, late goals deciding crucial switches of position for teams in the midfield quagmire, and one big name missing out every year since the new format came in. Exciting stuff!
What that leaves us with is a hastily compiled fixture list for the final ten matches of the league season, where the bottom-six face off on a Saturday, and the top-six meet on Sundays. Oh, and the points are halved! Yes, controversially each side’s totals are slashed in two, with half-points rounded down and an asterisk placed neatly next to the team to say that they’ll be given the advantage if they finish level with another team. This brings everyone much closer together in the battles at the top and bottom of the table, and effectively doubles the value of the points after this stage.
The Meisterrunde, more commonly known in English as the “Championship Group” involves six of the best teams, playing each other twice for the league title, or more realistically, fighting it out for a number of European spots behind leaders Red Bull Salzburg, who are just ruthless in this final stretch each year. European qualification is complicated by the stature of the winners of UEFA’s three club competitions, as well as the finishing position of the Austrian Cup winner; but in general the Bundesliga champion will go to the UEFA Champions League Play-Off Round at least these days, the second-placed team will join Champions League qualifying, and the third-placed team are likely to find themselves with guaranteed group stage action in one of UEFA’s two lesser competitions, making third a strangely sought after finishing position. Fourth and even fifth can still find themselves in a Conference League qualifying spot, but sixth place earns you nought but an early reprieve from relegation, and some increased gate receipts.
The Qualifikationsrunde is a fancy way to say the “Relegation Group” if we’re being honest. Six teams play mostly to avoid finishing last and being relegated*, but there’s still a small and complicated prize for the winner to keep the incentive up near the top. The group winner, and sometimes even the second-placed team (depending on who won the cup) will take part in a post-season domestic play-off. These exciting fixtures decide who will go on to meet the fourth or fifth-placed team from the Championship Group, to battle it out for the very last of Austria’s five European berths, a place in the depths of UEFA Europa Conference League qualifying, and inevitably a round trip to some far flung corner of Europe. Absolutely brilliant!
Whew, you can breathe a sigh of relief now you know the ins and outs of the Austrian Bundesliga. It’s a tremendous competition with some fantastic players, well-supported teams, beautiful stadia and overly-sponsored village clubs all mixed in, and on the whole the quality is better than most people expect, with a goal count that’s right up there! What’s not to love? Hopefully you can sit back and enjoy OneFootball’s coverage of the league, now you know your Herbstmeister from your Jägermeister, and we thoroughly hope that you can find a team that you like and share in the delights of the league with us. Over on Twitter you can find us @OtherBundesliga for podcasts, previews and pictures from around the grounds, and if you’re in Austria, come and say hello!
(*OK, one last thing, we promise. The Austrian second division has some unusual rulings whereby Bundesliga licences aren’t easy to come by for small teams. If none of the top teams in “Liga Zwa” - as most folks call it - are eligible to play in the Bundesliga, there can be a play-off between the team in 12th and the highest eligible team from the league below. It’s happened before and it may well happen again!)