UEFA Champions League
For some teams, battling it out for honours on the domestic front is simply not enough to satisfy their ambitions; many want to be crowned champions of Europe too. Whether it’s the financial reward or the challenge of building a lasting legacy, the continent’s premier competition – the Champions League – remains the zenith of club football on this planet known as Earth.
Readers of a certain vintage may remember the European Cup, which was the precursor to the Champions League; renamed for those commercial reasons that have dogged the sport in the past 20 years or so.
Dozens of teams enter the tournament at the qualifying stage, and then some ten months later the two finalists will meet in a duel to be crowned Europe’s best football outfit. With a top prize of a cool £15 million, the stakes could not be higher.
Champions League Format
In the ‘olden days’ it was always the league winners from Europe’s premier football-playing countries that made up the European Cup draw, but a lot has changed in the past couple of decades.
Now, many countries have a number of entries into the Champions League, and that figure is determined by the nation’s coefficient. This is based on the performances of teams from a specific country in the past five Champions/Europa League tournaments; hence why Spain get four Champions League entries and Azerbaijan just the one.
A preliminary round of qualifying determines the ten teams that will join the automatic qualifiers in the initial group stage of 32, with 12 champions from the top associate nations guaranteed their place alongside six runners up and three third-placed finishers in those associates, plus the previous season’s Champions League winner (presuming they haven’t qualified in the traditional manner).
Each group of four teams is determined in a round robin, home-and-away format of six matches, with the top two progressing to the Round of 16. The team that finishes top of the group is seeded for the knockout phase of the tournament, hence the determination to be numero uno.
The last 16, quarter finals and semi-finals are a straight knockout format of two legs, with away goals counting ‘as double’ where required. The final is played out between the two remaining teams, usually in May.
Champions League History
Pan-European football competitions have been taking place for the best part of a century, although it was the Mitropa Cup, established in 1926, that first captured wider attention. This was played between teams from Europe’s mainland, and would latterly become known as the Nation’s Cup, which was first held in Servette, Switzerland, with ten teams taking part. Ujpest, of Hungary, were the inaugural winners.
It was an Englishman, ironically, whose off-the-cuff comments created the tournament we know as the Champions League to this day. The Wolves manager Stan Cullis described his team as the ‘champions of the world’ after defeating a number of Europe’s finest sides, and it was this inflammatory statement that eventually persuaded UEFA, in 1955, to create the European Club Champions’ Cup.
This tournament was gradually rebranded as the European Cup, and remained an annual standout of the football calendar up to and including its reformation as the Champions League in 1992.
Keeping it Real
Football is a sport that tends to be fluid and ever-changing, with certain teams – no doubt backed by huge financial investment in relation to their main rivals – occasionally poking their head above the parapet of history.
But one club that has been at the forefront of the European Cup/Champions League since its inception is Real Madrid. They remain the most decorated team in the competition’s history with eleven wins; the first of which came back in 1956 and the most recent in 2016 when they saw off their city rivals Atletico. The Galacticos remain, by far and away, this tournament’s most successful outfit.
If Real dominated the 1950s then the 1960s had a distinctly Italian flavour with Milan outfits AC (1963 and 1969) and Inter (’64 and ’65) dominating. Italy has produced more finalists than any other nation in this competition, although the win/loss ratio of 12/15 tells its own story.
English football’s participation has been fleeting in terms of the business end of the competition, and the number of tournament wins has been topped up considerably by Liverpool and Nottingham Forest in the 1970s-80s, who between them lifted this trophy on six occasions in a golden period of 20 years or so.
‘Our’ most recent winner was Chelsea in 2012, who beat Bayern Munich on penalties after Didier Drogba had fired a late equaliser.