Football Features

The most shocking relegations of the 21st century

By Harry Edwards

Published: 17:12, 30 October 2023

We’re over a quarter of the way through the main European seasons, and there are a couple of huge names sitting in their respective relegation zones.

Ajax are probably the story of the season so far, bottom of the Eredivisie after eight games played with just five points. Those five points came in their opening three matches, with Ajax now on a run of five-straight defeats in the league, including losses to Feyenoord and PSV.

The most successful side in Eredivisie history, Ajax may have two games in hand on some of the teams above them, but they look to be in real trouble. There are problems on and off the pitch, with Ajax sacking Maurice Steijn and temporarily replacing him with Hedwiges Maduro, as well as getting rid of sporting director Sven Mislintat. In the stands, fans have been extremely vocal with their displeasure, even causing the game against Feyenoord to be abandoned and finished a few days later — ending in a 4-0 defeat at home for Ajax.

Ajax’s most recent result was that defeat to PSV, losing 5-2 away from home against one of their rivals, despite going ahead after 10 minutes and then leading 2-1 at half time.

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But it’s not just Ajax. Sitting bottom of the Ligue 1 table, without a win and just three points from their opening nine games, are Lyon. The French club are under new ownership with Jean-Michel Aulas having sold up last year, and the uncertainty off the pitch is seeping through to the players.

Two big names sitting at the bottom of their respective leagues with genuine fears they could go down. And there’s precedent for it. Below we’ve taken a look at some of the most shocking relegations in football this century — we’re not including Juventus’ relegation to Serie B in 2004/05, as that came as a punishment, rather than on-pitch struggles.

Have we missed any out? Let us know!

West Ham – 2002/03

For some this is the biggest relegation in Premier League history. Not so much due to the stature of West Ham in the Premier League, as they had finished seventh the season before, but more down to the quality of their squad.

The Hammers had the likes of David James, Michael Carrick, Joe Cole, Jermain Defoe, Paolo Di Canio, Frederic Kanoute, Trvor Sinclair and Tomas Repka in their squad. A team too good to go down. Except they weren’t. West Ham lost four of their opening five games and then went winless in 14 between October and January, given the Hammers a mountain to climb.

It proved to be a mountain too big, with West Ham going down despite collecting 42 points, the most a relegation side has had in Premier League history.

Villarreal – 2011/12

Villarreal went into the 2011/12 season a Champions League team, having finished fourth in La Liga the campaign prior. They had Marcos Senna, Mateo Mussachio, Nilmar, Diego Lopez, Giuseppe Rossi and Borja Valero among their squad, but were missing the likes of Santi Cazorla and Joan Capdevila who had been sold in the summer.

In the Champions League, Villarreal finished bottom of their group without a point against Bayern Munich, Napoli and Manchester City, and their form carried over in La Liga. Across the campaign, Villarreal lost 15 times with just nine wins — only basement club Racing Santander had fewer victories — and amassed 41 points. Another high total, Villarreal finished a point behind 17th-placed Granada thanks to an 88th minute goal from Atletico Madrid’s Falcao on the final day of the season.

Schalke – 2020/21

In 2017/18, Schalke finished second in the Bundesliga and made it to the last 16 of the Champions League the following campaign. In 2021/22, they were starting their first campaign in the 2. Bundesliga for over 30 years. Now this wasn’t an immediate drop off, as Schalke finished 14th and 12th before their relegation, but it felt inconceivable that they would drop into the second tier.

It was just the fourth time Schalke had been relegated from the top flight, and they went through five different managers! Dimitios Grammozis, David Wagner, Manuel Baum, Huub Stevens and Christian Gross all tried and failed to turn the tide at Schalke, as did the likes of Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Sead Kolasinac and Shkodran Mustafi who were all signed during the season. In the end, Schalke finished on just 16 points from 34 games, 17 points behind the relegation play-off spot with just three wins all season.

River Plate – 2010/11

River Plate are one of the biggest names in South American football, both now and historically. But that didn’t protect them from relegation in 2010/11. Despite picking up 57 points in the 2010/11 campaign, River Plate fell into the relegation play-off matches due to their poor performances in the two season’s prior — with the Argentine Primera Division working on the past three campaigns.

In 2008/09, River Plate had 41 points and a year later they only improved slightly to 43. River played Belgrano in their two-legged playoff match and lost the first game 2-0, giving themselves work to do. The second was 1-1 and had to be abandoned in the final minute due to fan unrest, which brought a pitch invasion. Players had to be escorted off the pitch with fan violence continuing after the game. But the damage had been done on the pitch, and River were relegated for the first time in their 110-year history.

Monaco – 2010/11

This was another gradual fall to relegation, but Monaco’s drop to Ligue 2 still came as a shock. Sure, they weren’t finishing second as they did in 2002/03, and they weren’t the same team that reached the 2003/04 Champions League final, but no one will have predicted this. In 2009/10, Monaco had finished eighth and reached the French Cup final, only losing to PSG after half-time.

But the drop off the season later was crazy. Draws were the main problem for Monaco as they drew almost half of their league matches (17), with nine wins and 12 defeats. Like West Ham, this was another high-points relegation, with 44 points not enough for safety. Monaco finished two points behind 17th-placed Nice, losing to Lyon on the final game of the season, with the highest-ever tally for a relegated side in a 38-game season. It ended Monaco’s 34-season stay in Ligue 1 and they didn’t seal an immediate return.

Deportivo La Coruna – 2010/11

In 1999/2000, Deportivo La Coruna shocked everyone to win La Liga for the first time, finishing five points clear of Barcelona and Valencia. They followed that up with four more top four finishes, becoming a familiar name in the Champions League, but it wouldn’t last for Deportivo La Coruna.

They fought in mid-table for a few seasons, finishing from seventh to 13th, with a 10th-placed finish in 2009/10. A later year, they were facing relegation. Their 40th season in La Liga, Deportivo looked like a completely different side with most of their big names gone and won 10 times in La Liga with 43 points. Like many on this list, Deportivo were just one point from safety and dropped into the bottom three on the final weekend.

Sampdoria – 2010/11

Another former league winner to suffer relegation, Sampdoria’s Serie A success game in 1990/91, but they had already dropped out of the top flight in 1998/99. Returning in 2003/04, Sampdoria grew comfortable in Serie A, never finishing lower than 13th with five top-half finishes in the next seven seasons.

In 2010/11, Sampdoria entered the qualifying rounds of the Champions League having finished fourth in Serie A the season prior, and played Europa League football. Unfortunately, in that same campaign they were relegated from Serie A. A disaster when you consider what came the season before, Sampdoria won just three of their final 22 games from the start of 2011, a run which also included 15 defeats. In Sampdoria’s opening 16 games they had lost just three times, and in the end it proved costly, with the Genoa-based club finishing five points behind 17th-placed Lecce.

Corinthians – 2007

Back to South America, Corinthians broke the hearts of millions of their fans as they were relegated from the Brazilian top flight in 2007. A four-time Brazilian champion and world champions in 2000 (adding another one in 2012), it was implausible that Corinthians would be playing football in the second tier. But that became the case.

In the 2007 season, there were a lot of off-field problems for Corinthians including controversy surrounding Kia Joorabchian, who was connected to the club through former president Alberto Dualib, and his company. They were in debt and this obviously affected things on the pitch, but who would have predicted relegation? Ten wins, 14 draws and 14 defeats was the record for Corinthians that season as they were one of four teams relegated.

Fiorentina – 2001/02

This was the final season of Fiorentina as we knew them, with the club filing for bankruptcy following their relegation in 2001/02. Fiorentina had been relegated before, having to claw their way back to the top flight in 1993/94, but they were comfortable on their return.

In the seven seasons before their relegation, Fiorentina did not finish lower than 10th and sealed two top-four finishes, including a run to third place in 1998/99. But the wheels fell off in 2001/02. Despite bringing in a lot of money from the sale of Rui Costa, Fiorentina were struggling with the economy down, and the problems came on the pitch too. Enrico Chiesa suffered an ACL injury early on in the campaign and Fiorentina were unable to cope without him, with an ageing defence doing them no wonders at the back. They took just 22 points from their 34 games and had to restart in Serie C2 as a new club.

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