The UEFA Champions League is the most important and famous official football tournament of all the competitions organised by UEFA or the Union of European Football Associations at club level, and one of the most recognised worldwide. Previously, the Champions League was known as the European Cup. The final of this tournament is the most anticipated sporting event of the year, which is watched by approximately 300 million people.
Champions League History
In 1954, the English team Wolverhampton travelled to different parts of Europe to play against many of the biggest and most prestigious clubs in Europe. The results they obtained were very good, so the English press published that this team was the best in Europe, something that was not to the liking of Gabriel Hanot, a French journalist who declared that the Associazione Calcio Milan, Real Madrid and Saint Etienne were better clubs than the English, so through a column in the newspaper L’Équipe, Hanot and Jacques Ferran launched an initiative: to hold a championship for the European clubs.
This initiative had the support of important European leaders, including Raimundo Saporta and Santiago Bernabéu, whose cooperation helped to promote the competition, which was finally approved by UEFA in April 1955. The first edition of the competition was held in April 1955, with Real Madrid winning the competition after beating Stade de Reims by four goals to three at the Stade Parc des Princes in Paris. The Spanish club holds the most titles in the history of the competition.
This competition was until 1991 known as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, more popularly known as the European Cup. At that time it had a knockout format, but in 1992 the competition was restructured to include a league competition format, which later became the preliminary to the knockout phase. From that year it was renamed the UEFA Champions League, a name that is still used today. It should be noted that, for statistical purposes, both the European Champion Clubs’ Cup and the UEFA Champions League are considered to be the same competition.
The tournament has been held every year since 1955. In the early days, the national league champions qualified for the competition, but from 1997 onwards, the runners-up also qualified, and since 1999 even those ranked as high as fourth, depending on the UEFA coefficient of each league, with those with the lowest coefficient having to go through a preliminary round.
The winner of the UEFA Champions League plays in the European Super Cup against the winner of the Europa League and also becomes the confederation’s representative in the FIFA Club World Cup. To date, the Royal Spanish Football Federation has won the most championships.
UEFA Champions League participants and format
A total of sixteen teams were invited to take part in the first edition of the tournament in 1955, but from the second edition onwards, access to the competition was determined by the final ranking in the European league system, so the number of participating teams rose to twenty-two: the champions of each country’s league, plus the reigning UEFA Champions League winners.
As mentioned above, the runners-up in their respective European leagues were also allowed to participate in the tournament from 1997 onwards, and it was in 1999 that the third and fourth-placed teams, based on UEFA coefficient, were admitted. Therefore, since the 1999 edition, thirty-two teams have participated in the Champions League, the first phase of which is played in the form of a group stage.
The participating teams are divided into eight groups of four teams each. The four teams in each group play each other in round-robin matches, with the top two teams in each group advancing to the round of 16. The third-placed teams from each group advance directly to the round of 16 of the Europa League. An important fact to bear in mind is that UEFA does not allow two teams from the same country to be in the same group.
All UEFA Champions League matches are played on Tuesdays or Wednesdays at 20:45, with the exception of matches in Eastern European or Eurasian countries and the final match.
Following a new club-driven restructuring, from 2018 onwards, the top four teams from the top four associations according to the UEFA rankings will qualify directly for the group stage, plus the top two from the next two. The champions of the seventh to tenth-placed associations complete the list of participants. The two-route qualification system remains unchanged, as does the rule that there can only be a maximum of five clubs from the same country participating in the tournament, in addition to the reigning champions.
The Champions League trophy
The winning team in the UEFA Champions League is presented with a cup, which throughout the history of the tournament has had two different designs. From its first edition in 1955 until 1965, the first version of the cup was presented, which months later had to be returned. The UEFA Executive Committee allowed Real Madrid to keep that first trophy in March 1967, as it was the team with the most championships to date. The trophy had been donated by the newspaper L’Équipe in the early days of the tournament.
From the 1966 edition of the UEFA Champions League, the trophy was replaced by a silver cup weighing eight kilos and standing seventy-four centimetres high, which was designed by Jörg Stadelmann. This cup is affectionately known in Latin America and Spain as “la Orejona”, as it has large handles.
In the 1968 edition, a new rule was introduced: the trophy became the property of every team that won the championship three years in a row or five years in succession. If this happened, a new cup with exactly the same design would be produced for the following editions. Tournament winners who failed to complete the cycle would have to return the cup two months before the date of the next year’s final, but would receive a smaller replica in return. This remained the case until 2007.
UEFA became the eternal owner of the trophy from the 2008 edition onwards, so the real thing is no longer handed over as property, but the team that wins the trophy is given an exact replica, as well as a badge of recognition. The only clubs to have the authentic trophy in their trophy cabinets are: Real Madrid, Ajax, Bayern Munich, Milan and Liverpool.