It’s perhaps the most devastating occurrence in professional sports. Financially, emotionally, and professionally, relegation is a curse that throws the entirety of a football club and its fan base into utter distress. A sporting trauma of sorts of an unmatched level is an astute way to describe it, one that can bring out the worst in people – look no further than Jose Bosingwa letting out a chuckle when Queens Park Rangers’ fate was sealed two seasons ago.
For clubs consistently in the bottom half of the table, they live on a knife’s edge. The drop is the ultimate threat to ambitions, an abscess on pride that adds insult to injury. Clubs will do nearly anything to beat it, most of those fighting against it having plenty of experience of doing so on a yearly basis.
But this isn’t a hard and fast rule. For the domination of the majority of leagues by the few, by simple logic all remain in danger. By the final day of the fixture list pundits’ pre-season predictions in reality mean naught, and disaster can strike even those who were adjudged to be safe heading into the term. The history books are littered with examples of sides deemed substantial that were playing their football in the second division come next year – leaving everyone to wonder where it all went wrong.
Following are the top 10 best teams to be relegated from the top flight in the modern era, with some true giants of the game who felt the bitter sting of expulsion in two.
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10 Palmeiras 2012
In a history that has seen plenty of success, Palmeiras count eight Brazilian Serie A titles and a Copa Libertadores victory among the club’s achievements. In the 2012 Campeonato, however, matters spiraled out of control despite the Alviverde seemingly having a strong base from a coaching and playing standpoint. Despite winning the 2012 Copa do Brazil, Palmeiras imploded during the league campaign and saw themselves finish 11 points adrift of safety when all was said and done. The experienced Luiz Felipe Scolari began the season at the helm but would vacate his post for Narciso, who couldn’t reverse the damage that had already been done and himself was replaced with Gilson Kleina. Former Brazil international Marcos Assuncao, Chile playmaker Jorge Valdivia and Argentina striker Hernan Barcos couldn’t provide the leadership on the pitch necessary to stave off the drop, even as the latter scored the third most goals in the Campeonato behind Fred and Luis Fabiano.
9 River Plate 2010-11
Heading into the 2010-11 Primera Division season, River Plate held the distinction of never having been relegated from Argentina’s top flight alongside Independiente and fierce rivals Boca Juniors. But River stepped into the campaign staring down the barrel of losing this title due to the Primera Division’s coefficient based relegation system, having performed quite poorly in the preceding terms. The giants did well enough in the Apertura to secure fourth place and remove some of the pressure from their shoulders, but would need something of a repeat performance to beat the drop heading into the Clausura. A ninth place finish wouldn’t be enough, having gone the final seven games of the tournament without a win. River were thus thrust into a relegation play-off against promotion candidates Belgrano, emerging 3-1 losers on aggregate, sealing their fate. Tottenham’s Erik Lamela and Roberto Pereyra were both members of the only River side in history to be demoted to the Primera B Nacional.
8 Real Zaragoza 2007-08
Before Diego Milito would go on to become a Champions League-winning hero at Inter, the Argentine striker was guiding Real Zaragoza back to heights the club had fallen from. El Principe was the star man with 23 goals in La Liga for the Aragonese side as they finished sixth in the Spanish top flight just a few years on from playing in the Segunda Division, qualifying for the UEFA Cup. Over the summer, Milito’s elder brother Gabriel – Zaragoza’s star center back – was sold to Barcelona. But the proceeds were used to reinforce well, with the likes of Matuzalem, Carlos Diogo, Ricardo Oliveira and Roberto Ayala coming in. Andres D’Alessandro was also purchased outright from Wolfsburg. With an impressive squad, Zaragoza were expected to make a splash. What followed was chaos. Four different managers took charge of the team in a disastrous campaign, with D’Alessandro sold in the winter transfer window as nearly the entire side underperformed. The former darlings of La Liga finished rock bottom in the table and saw their star players stream out the exit door, leaving Zaragoza in the doldrums ever since.
7 Sampdoria 2010-11
Sampdoria are a leading example of just how quickly things can go awry. The 2009-10 campaign was an historic one for the Genoese outfit, with Luigi Delneri leading a plucky side with a penchant for scraping narrow victories to a fourth place finish and qualification to the Champions League play-off round. Antonio Cassano and Giampaolo Pazzini formed a formidable attacking pair that provided the firepower, the former bagging 10 assists on the campaign while the latter struck an impressive 19 goals. But soon, the niche the Blucerchiati had carved out for themselves in Serie A would evaporate. In August 2010 Delneri’s men would be dumped out of the Champions League after being moments from progressing to the group stage. Cassano then fell out with club president Riccardo Garrone and was sold in January alongside Pazzini. Sampdoria won only three times after the calendar changed over to 2011, finishing 18th and dropping down to Serie B as 30,000 rival Genoa fans gleefully staged a mock funeral for the Blucerchiati in the city streets.
6 West Ham 2002-03
After finishing seventh in the 2001-02 campaign, West Ham looked like a club on the rise. Heading into the following season the Hammers could count on reliable veterans the likes of Paolo Di Canio, Frederic Kanoute, Trevor Sinclair and David James. The real crown jewels of the squad, however, were a raft of homegrown youngsters that included Joe Cole, Michael Carrick, Jermaine Defoe and Glen Johnson – all of whom would go on to be England internationals and continue to ply their trade to this day. Nonetheless, boss Glenn Roeder struggled to get the best out of the weapons at his disposal, and a rudderless West Ham were propping up the table at the end of January. It took until match day 25 for the Hammers to even record a victory in the friendly confines of Upton Park, a phenomenon that only fueled fans’ fury with the underperformance of a quality team. Club legend Sir Trevor Brooking would eventually take over for Roeder after the latter underwent surgery to remove a brain tumor, and an uptick in form gave United a chance at salvation on the final day of the season. It wouldn’t come, and the despondent West Ham faithful were left to watch a mass talent exodus in the ensuing summer that set the course of the club for years to come.
5 Middlesbrough 1996-97
When star signing Italy international Fabrizio Ravanelli smashed home a hat-trick in a thrilling 3-3 opening day draw with Liverpool, fast times appeared to be on the way for Boro. Bryan Robson’s squad also boasted the likes of fellow summer capture Emerson, Juninho and Nick Barmby, forming an attacking force to be reckoned with that had fans in raptures. But a season that started so brightly was fatefully destined to end only in heartbreak, despite its promise and Ravanelli’s 16 Premier League goals. An injury and illness crisis saw Boro postpone a December fixture against Blackburn, for which Middlesbrough would be docked three points – a penalty that would ensure their relegation come season’s end, simultaneously saving Coventry City. By early January, Boro were bottom of the league, affected by multiple cup runs that would only pile on the pain in the end. Robson’s men reached the final of both the League Cup and FA Cup but failed to prevail in either, only adding insult to the injury of being relegated despite fielding one of the most exciting sides in the club’s history.
4 Leeds United 2003-04
In May of 2001, Leeds United found themselves in the semi-finals of the Champions League, falling short of reaching the final hurdle at the hands of Valencia. Despite a 3-0 aggregate defeat, however, the brilliant run in Europe’s most illustrious competition had the Whites looking ahead to future success. Instead, it was the beginning of the end. A fourth place finish in the Premier League saw Leeds fail to qualify for the competition for the next season, leaving the club without the necessary cash to cover loans taken out in anticipation of a financial windfall that never arrived. Leeds again would miss out on Champions League football the next season, after which the economic situation turned critical. The sales of Rio Ferdinand and Robbie Keane in the summer of 2002 were signs of the downturn to come, while Robbie Fowler and Jonathan Woodgate were shipped out for much needed capital injections mid-season as well, Leeds slumping to a 15th place finish. The club’s fall from grace was then made complete in the 2003-04 campaign as assets were sold off and the weakened squad succumbed to relegation.
3 Villarreal 2011-12
What envy other sides must have looked at Villarreal’s squad with ahead of the 2011-12 campaign. Giuseppe Rossi and Nilmar formed a fearsome attack pairing that had bagged 29 goals and eight assists between them the year before, supplied by the creative genius of Borja Valero. Diego Lopez took up his mantle between the sticks, while Mateo Musacchio and Gonzalo Rodriguez formed a formidable pair in central defence. Santi Cazorla had been sold off during the summer but prospects remained bright for The Yellow Submarine, who secured passage to the Champions League group stage in August 2011 via the play-off round. The season would end in tears. Rossi missed nearly the entire campaign with a pair of devastating knee injuries, while Nilmar constantly picked up injuries and could never find any consistency. Without a strong attack to drives opponents back, the defence suffered as well. Villarreal went through three head coaches as they proceeded to lose all six of their Champions League games – scoring two and conceding 14 – and limped to relegation doom with an 18th place finish in the Spanish top flight.
2 Atletico Madrid 1999-00
Back in 1996, Atletico Madrid celebrated their first La Liga title since 1977 alongside a Copa del Rey triumph, nearly 20 years of pain vanquished and a new era seemingly ushered in. Just a few years later, they would be bound for the Segunda Division. Atleti spent heavily in the wake of their success but could never replicate it even as names such as Juninho and Christian Vieri were brought in. Two fifth place finishes in a row gave way to a 13th place showing in the 1998-99 season, which would only be the appetizer for the main course of agony to come. Jimmy Floyd Hasselbaink joined for some £12 million from Leeds United over the summer to serve as the side’s star man, but his 24 league goals wouldn’t be enough to save a side that also included Santiago Solari and a young Joan Capdevila. In December club president Jesus Gil and his board were suspended from control of Atletico amid accusations of misuse of funds. Gil would be back four months later but the Madrid outfit’s season was already on course for a calamitous conclusion, ending up one spot off the bottom of the table and earning exile from the top flight.
1 Juventus 2005-06
Perhaps the most notorious relegation in history wasn’t decided by traditional means, but rather enforced due to perfidy. Juventus raced to the 2005-06 Scudetto on the back of 91 points and just a single loss – to Milan at San Siro – with one of the most star-studded squads in world football. Gianluigi Buffon, Zlatan Ibrahimovic, Alessandro Del Piero, Pavel Nedved and David Trezeguet are only a few of the renowned players to have turned out for the Old Lady during the condemned campaign. Soon after the completion of Juventus’ title-winning term, the Calciopoli scandal broke and the Turin club were heavily implicated. Former Bianconeri general manager Luciano Moggi and chairman Antonio Giraudo were found to have taken steps to manipulate referees in favor of the Old Lady, with heavy sanctions handed down. Juventus were demoted to Serie B and handed a nine-point penalty for the following campaign after appeals. Fabio Cannavaro and Emerson each left the club for Real Madrid in the aftermath of the scandal, while Gianluca Zabrotta and Lilian Thuram joined Barcelona, Adrian Mutu joined Fiorentina and Ibrahimovic and Patrick Vieira were sold to rivals Inter. Del Piero, Trezeguet, Buffon and Nedved remained among others to compete help the club ensure speedy promotion from Serie B.
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