Even though the UEFA Champions League officially began in 1992, before the rebranding there was the European Cup from 1955 and that was still one of the most prestigious competitions in world football. Some clubs can only dream of winning the iconic trophy, while others can only dream of qualifying, in what is known to be the so-called promised land in football terms among supporters not just in Europe, but all over the globe. Originally a knockout tournament only containing the champions from 16 European countries, the Champions League has evolved into a phenomenon with 55 different clubs entering in the qualification stage on top of 22 sides waiting in the group stage.
Eligible clubs’ entry fate is sealed prior to the action getting underway based on their country’s coefficient, a rankings leaderboard based on how well that country’s representative teams have done over the past five seasons in European competition. There are three qualifying rounds followed by a play-off round every season where teams from every corner of the continent battle it out to stake their claim in the big time. Eight teams enter if Round One, 34 compete in Round Two, 30 compete in Round Three before the Play-off round features 10 matches – between seeded teams who’ve qualified through their domestic league positions and unseeded teams who’ve gone through the qualifying stages – for the final 10 spaces in the group stage.
The group stage draw is done in four parts, drawing balls out of bowls for teams in pots 1, 2, 3 and 4 until eight groups of four teams are finalised. Pot 1 contains champions from eight countries with a high coefficient, pot 2 holds high league finishers and the Europa League winners, pot 3 features play-off qualifiers and sometimes champions from lower coefficients, and finally other qualifiers and lesser sides are put into pot 4. This new system implemented by UEFA promises more exciting groups, leading to colossal match-ups early on in the competition. A few examples from recent years have been Chelsea, Atlético Madrid and AS Roma in a group together in 2017-18 as well as Bayern Munich, Paris-Saint Germain and Celtic, despite the latter finishing the season prior undefeated in league outings.
The top two from each group enter the Round of 16, the first two-legged knockout phase, while third place drop down into Europe’s secondary competition, the UEFA Europa League’s Round of 32. Every round up until the final, which is the most-watched annual sporting event in worldwide history, has two legs with the away goals rule intact – this adds to the exhilaration the Champions League offers.
Teams from the same country or association can’t be drawn against each other before the Quarter-Finals, adding to the diverse brilliance from September to May every campaign. From 2018-19, the top four clubs from the four biggest associations – currently Spain, England, Germany and Italy – will automatically qualify for the group stages, a decision unsurprisingly causing outrage among smaller associations across Europe.
Since 2002, there has been four English representatives in the Champions League, excluding the 2017-18 season, with Manchester City, Chelsea and Arsenal dominating the spaces since ’11. Manchester United and Liverpool have enjoyed the most success in the illustrious tournament in the long-term, but have been in and out in past season while settling under new managers.
England’s last winners were Roberto Di Matteo’s Chelsea in 2012 after the tense penalty shootout win against Bayern Munich at the Allianz Arena, while the knockout stage has been no stranger to English supporters in recent years. Five different English sides have won the big one in its history. Liverpool lead the way with five, however haven’t been anywhere near since barring 2007, United have three to their name, Nottingham Forest claimed two back in the glory days while Aston Villa and Chelsea have both experienced one triumph.
Spain dominate in emphatic fashion when it accumulative wins, as Real Madrid’s record 12 and Barcelona’s five add up to 17, and have had winners for the past four seasons. Los Blancos’ dominant victory against Juventus in May 2017 made Zinedine Zidane’s men the first team to ever defend the title after toppling rivals Atlético Madrid a year earlier. Albeit, Real Madrid’s record amount of times lifting the trophy doesn’t come as a surprise when you realise they won the first five European Cups from 1956 to 1960. AC Milan, Bayern Munich and of course Barcelona and Liverpool are the only other clubs to break the five-time milestone.
Speaking of records, a man who’s broken a lot of them throughout his golden career is Cristiano Ronaldo who has scored 107 Champions League goals for Manchester United and Real Madrid, the most of any other player – including Lionel Messi. The Argentinian has been left behind by CR7 on 96 goals, while other players up there with them are Raúl, van Nistelrooy, Benzema and Thierry Henry.
Current FC Porto goalkeeper Iker Casillas has made 165 Champions League appearances, a record amount, over his dazzling time at the Bernabeu and now representing Porto. These are all records that will inevitably be broken again one day due to the overwhelming flurry of incredible young talent already prospering in the competition such as Paris-Saint Germain’s Kylian Mbappé and Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembélé.
The class of the UEFA Champions League is underlined by Tony Britten’s “Champions League” anthem, written for the competition’s formation in 1992, which has had a major effect on the football world, making it easily recognisable for the absolute god-send that it is. From a fan’s perspective, not much, if anything, beats being present in the stands while your beloved team lines up against some of the world’s best in front of the beautiful starred ball banner waving in the centre circle. But that’s just one of the things that makes you think of one word when the Champions League comes to mind, and that word is iconic.