The Serie C Playoff Explainer

After Palermo failed to win promotion outright by finishing on top of group C in Serie C, the Rosanero have one other opportunity to go up this season. Enter the dreaded monster that is the Serie C playoffs.

But first, a reminder of the other unwieldy beast that is Serie C as a whole. The Italian third division is made up of 60 teams across three divisions: Group A (for teams in the North & Central West of Italy), Group B (for teams in the North & Central East of Italy) and Group C (for the Middle & South of Italy). The winners of each division earn automatic promotion to Serie B and is the best way for a club to make the jump. If a club doesn’t finish at the top of their respective group, they have a chance to win the fourth and final promotion spot, but they need to do it by running through the gauntlet of the Serie C playoffs.

So why is it a gauntlet? Well, for starters, a grand total of 28 (!!!) teams qualify for the playoffs! That is nearly HALF of all the teams that make up the entire division! Teams finishing in 2nd place to 10th place in each group (9 per group) earn a spot in the playoffs. The 28th spot goes to the winner of the Coppa Italia Serie C. If the winner of the Coppa Italia Serie C is either already promoted, already relegated or part of the relegation play-outs, the spot goes to the runner-up. Other scenarios for this particular point abound because if the Coppa winner is already in a playoff position between 4th to 10th place, the 11th placed team in the same group wins a spot in the playoff (the same thing would apply to the runner-up with that criteria).

Now, these 28 teams compete across a grand total of six rounds – but not every team enters the tournament at the same time. That’s why how high up the table a team finishes is extremely important for the playoffs because it impacts not just when you play but also the results that you can earn in order to advance. Let’s use examples from the current season’s playoffs already underway.

First Round

The first round (also known as the first preliminary round) comprises of a single match only. Typically, the fixtures are 5th vs. 10th, 6th vs. 9th and 7th vs. 8th within each group. The caveat is that the group that has the best 4th-placed team also has the 5th-placed team advance automatically, meaning that group’s fixtures are 6th vs. 11th, 7th vs. 10th and 8th vs. 9th. If teams are tied after regular time, the higher seeded team advances – no extra time, no penalties, no nothing. Effectively, the higher seed has two ways to advance versus the lower seeds one: the higher seed can win or draw and move on, the lower seed can only win in order to advance.

In the matches that were played on May 1st, in Group A, Pro Patria upset Lecco to move on, Pro Vercelli advanced as the higher seed despite a goalless draw with Pergolettese and Juventus U23 passed the same way against lower seed Piacenza. In Group B, Pescara drew Carrarese but moved on. Olbia managed to win against higher seed Ancona and Gubbio won against Lucchese. In Group C – and relevant to Palermo, all the favorites advanced. Monopoli drew Picerno but moved on. Francavilla drew Monterosi but also advanced and Foggia beat Turris outright. Six teams in total move on from this round.

Second Round

The second round (also known as the second preliminary round) begins only several days after the first round and sees two fourth placed teams and a fifth placed team enter the playoffs. The best 4th-placed team in Serie C automatically advances to the next round and their spot is given to the 5th-placed team in their group. Matchups are reshuffled so that the best 4th-placed team plays the worst-placed team and the best placed team plays the second best placed team from the first round within their respective group. Similar to the first round, the second round is also a single game where there is no extra time. The higher team advances in case of a draw and therefore can play for two of three possible results in the match (a win or a draw). The only way for a lower seeded team to advance is to win outright.

The second round took place on May 4th. In Group A, Triestina knocked out Pro Patria and the Juventus U23 continued their run by beating Pro Vercelli 1-0 away. In Group B, Virtus Entella advanced despite a draw with Olbia and Pescara passed the turn the same way in a 2-2 draw with Gubbio. In Palermo’s group, Foggia came back to upset Avellino 2-1 while Monopoli beat Virtus Francavilla 1-0 to advance. Again, six teams in total move on from this round.


Third Round

And now we get to the round where Palermo participates. The third round (also known as the first national round) is where the three 3rd-placed teams and the best 4th-placed team enter the tournament. It is also where the playoffs move from a single leg format to a two-legged tie. Before this round begins, the three 3rd-placed teams, the best 4th-placed team and the best seed from the previous round are seeded. The remaining teams are unseeded and matchups are determined via a random drawing. The seeded teams also get the benefit of playing the second leg at home and can move on even if they are tied on aggregate. There is no away goals rule here. Two days ago, the random drawing occurred and Palermo discovered their opponent, Triestina. The Rosanero will advance if they are tied or lead on aggregate since they are seeded and Triestina are not for this round. The first leg takes place on May 8th. Palermo will travel away to Triestina for this first match. Four days later on May 12th, they will place the second leg at the Renzo Barbera. The Rosanero go into this matchup with a results-based advantage. Feralpisalo, Cesena, and Renate all join the tournament here.


Should Palermo advance out of the third round, they’ll move onto the quarterfinals (sometimes called the second national round). It is at this point where the 2nd-placed teams from each group enter the tournament. Similar to the third round, the three 2nd-placed teams are all seeded as well as the best-placed team from the previous round. Palermo were the best of the 3rd-placed teams thanks to their coefficient. If you look at the final table, you’ll notice that group C only played 36 matches whereas groups A and B played the full 38. This is the result of Catania’s exclusion just three weeks from the end of the season due to financial defaults. In order to level the playing field, a calculation is applied. Palermo ended with 69.67 points, just .67 points higher than the second best 3rd-placed team Feralpisalo. Therefore, if Palermo advances to the quarterfinals, they’ll get that crucial seeding. The same procedures from the last round take effect here: a random drawing to determine the matchups, a two-legged tie with no away goals rule and in case of ties on aggregate, the higher seed advances. Here is where Padova, Reggiana and Catanzaro enter the fray.

Semifinals (Final Four)

The Final Four teams left standing from the quarterfinals move onto the semifinals. It is at this point where the tournament changes once again. Fixtures are made via another random drawing but this time, seeding is no longer a factor. While there is no away goal rule still, there is also no ties on aggregate either. This means that winners are decided by extra-time and penalties (if necessary). The winners of each semi-final match move onto the final.


And we have arrived to the final. The final is also a two-legged affair, consisting of a home and away match. The final follows the same rules as the semifinals. No away goals, tied aggregates are decided by extra time and then a penalty shootout. And after all of that, the winning team earns the fourth and final promotion spot to Serie B!

So there you have it! All Palermo has to do to earn promotion to Serie B is win and keep winning. In total, the Rosanero would play eight matches over the next month in a series of four two-legged ties. The first step is this weekend against a formidable Triestina side. The best Baldini’s men can do is take it one match at a time.

Forza Palermo!

3 Responses

  1. Why would Palermo not be seeded in the next round if all the seeded teams win this round? I thought they were the highest ranked 3rd place team

    1. Massimo you’re right! Palermo were the highest 3rd placed team – I forgot to look at the additional math due to Catania’s exclusion. As a result, Palermo’s coefficient meant they totaled 69.67 points followed by Feralpisalo at 69 and then Cesena (eliminated today) at 67. I updated the post. Great catch!