Champions League at Wembley Stadium

UEFA Champions League

The UEFA Champions League defines the careers of managers and coaches. As an annual club competition, the very best teams get more opportunities at glory with their clubs than they do with international teams (where the World Cup is the single trophy that cements legacies, rather than builds them). Nonetheless, opportunities offer no guarantees.

While data analytics holds increasing influence on elite teams – and teams trying to become elite – as they build and train squads capable of lifting that iconic trophy, the Champions League knows how to humble optimisation, genius, brilliance, and passion. Only two teams can play in the final, after all, and hard work isn’t enough. You’ve got to have something special.

It is qualification for the competition that fans of each club place great emphasis on. Teams must qualify. While lifting the trophy is the ultimate dream, those hours spent in gruelling competition on the pitch represent the hero’s journey, and it’s those legendary European Nights that make the history books.

But when was the Champions League founded? How do teams qualify? Who is stitched into the lore of European football’s most prestigious competition? You can find out everything and more below.

The 101 of the UEFA Champions League:

  • The UEFA Champions League has a two-part history. Formerly beginning in 1955 as the European Cup, sixteen teams played in a bracketed knockout tournament, in which the teams were chosen by l’Equipe, the French football magazine. More than three decades later, the competition became what we now know it to be in 1992.
  • There are two other European club competitions teams can play in. The UEFA Champions League is number one; the UEFA Europa League, number two; the UEFA Europa Conference League, number three.
  • Fifty-two teams enter at various stages of the competition’s qualification rounds, which will be whittled down to six to enter the group stage. These six teams will join twenty-six teams who qualified for the group stage based on their final position in their domestic leagues.
  • Thirty-two teams play in the round-robin group stage, with the field split into eight groups of four. The top-two teams from each group enter the Round of 16 draw, which begins the two-legged knockout tournament where hearts live in mouths until the last whistle of the final, crowning the winner.

An Illustrious History of the UEFA Champions League

Founded in 1955, the European Cup was the second major European club football competition after the Mitropa Cup, which ran from 1927 to 1992. L’Equipe organised the competition as FIFA and UEFA were more squarely focused on international matches. Dealing directly with the clubs themselves, l’Equipe ensured many national champions were involved – from Real Madrid (Spain) to Reims (France) – but some of teams rejected invitations, so the magazine selected other teams who best represented their nations and European football. Real Madrid set a pace they have continued ever since by winning the first five European Cup tournaments until the 1960-61 season when Benfica lifted the trophy.

Clubs from Southern Europe had a tight grip on the competition until Glasgow Celtic triumphed in 1966-67, which saw a northerly shift in power, as teams from England, The Netherlands, and Germany won time after time – the only exception being AC Milan in 1968-69.

This continued until 1984-85 when Michel Platini (future disgraced UEFA President) scored the only goal in the match against Liverpool, played despite what has come to be known as the Heysel Stadium disaster occurring an hour before kick-off. English clubs, as a result of the disaster, were placed under an indefinite ban from UEFA competitions.

In 1991-92, the competition underwent serious change. The ban on English clubs was lifted, meaning Arsenal entered at the First Knockout Round. More importantly, though, for the first time a Group Stage was used. Notably – in opposition to convention – it was placed after the initial two knockout rounds. Eight teams qualified from the those rounds and were split into two groups of four, with the winners of each group proceeding to the final. Ronald Koeman clinched the trophy for Barcelona – the first in its history – in the 112th minute.

In 1992-93, the thirty-eighth iteration of the European Cup became the first UEFA Champions League – won by Olympique de Marseille. It had the same format as the 1991-92 season with the addition of qualification rounds before the ‘Champions League proper’ begins.

The 1994-95 structure more closely resembles the modern-day competition: qualification knockout rounds leading into a round-robin group stage – which at the time consisted of sixteen teams separated into four groups – and then the quarter- and semi-finals, culminating in a final. Ajax won this year’s iteration, later becoming one of the most famous squads not only to wear the colours of Ajax but to play football in general, bringing the concept of Total Football into the sport’s standard lexicon.

Since Ajax’s infamous victory, though, winners of the competition have been from a small pool of continental powerhouses: Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, AC Milan, Liverpool, Manchester United, and Chelsea. Only in four seasons have other teams won from 1995 to present day: 1995-96 (Juventus), 1996-97 (Borussia Dortmund), 2003-04 (Jose Mourinho’s FC Porto), and 2009-10 (Jose Mourinho’s Inter Milan).

Real Madrid have won five of the last nine competitions (2013-22). They are the competition’s darling. They rewrite inevitability – making luck impossible or more important.

The UEFA Champions League Timeline

  • 1955: the inaugural European Cup was played and subsequently won by Real Madrid, who go onto claim the title until
  • 1966-67 to 1984-85: the dominance of teams from Spain, Portugal, and Italy subsided after Glasgow Celtic lifted the trophy in 1966-67, with English, Dutch, and German teams dominating European football for close to two decades.
  • 1991-92: the competition’s first group stage was used. Against the norm, the winners of the two groups proceeded straight to the final.
  • 1992-93: the European Cup becomes the UEFA Champions League. Olympique de Marseille – with a team consisting of Marcel Desailly, Rudi Voller, Abedi Pele, and Didier Deschamps – beat Franco Baresi, Frank Rijkaard, Marco Van Basten, and a young Paolo Maldini’s AC Milan.
  • 1994-95 to 2022/223: Louis Van Gaal’s legendary Ajax team win the 1994-95 Champions League. Since then, only a select few teams have claimed the title. Real Madrid, after winning the first five European Cups, have had their names engraved on the trophy in five of the last nine seasons, cementing themselves as the competition’s most decorated club.

 

A Fresh Season: The UEFA Champions League 23/24

Manchester City finally reached the pinnacle of their lavish investment and transformation – started more than 15 years ago, in 2008 – by winning the 22/23 UEFA Champions League. They’ve come close before, specifically their 1-0 loss to Chelsea in the 20/21 final, and now that they’ve had their hands on the biggest competition that European club football has to offer it’s unlikely Pep and his team intend to step away for a year to rebuild and recuperate. Whether they win it or not, though, they are the team to beat. It’s just that this year, they’ll be defending champions. 

Real Madrid will know what it means to face Manchester City in their relentless pursuit of glory, having been dismantled by the Blues last season. However, bolstered by the arrival of Jude Bellingham – despite losing Karim Benzema – Madrid will be hopeful that they can once again lift the much-coveted trophy. 

PSG, whether they keep or sell Mbappe, want to fight for it too. They are pivoting their recruitment ethos to team-first targets rather than superstars. Luis Enrique has a distinct, positional style of football that will take some implementation, and this season may come too soon for PSG, like City, to see their vision of investment come to fruition with a UCL title.

Bayern, though, will see themselves as the best-placed to repel the City assault. Tuchel’s introduction towards the end of last season, at the business end of things, didn’t pan out. They were humbled, routinely, and were lucky to lift the Bundesliga. Now, though, with a new season ahead, a squad that’s being reshuffled with important, energising signings entering the fray, elevating parts of the team to make them a more dynamic and consistent threat for this season.

Arsenal, much like in the Premier League, will be hoping to get closer in the first UCL campaign since 16/17. The likes of Manchester United, Barcelona, Napoli and Inter Milan will be the long-shots for the prize, but they will all feel like, with the right journey before like – like Inter Milan’s was last season, all the way to Istanbul – they could be finalists.

Cristiano Ronaldo during the UEFA Champions League final

The UEFA Champions League: Top Players

The UEFA Champions League in both its current form and that of the European Cup before now has been running, as we’ve established, since 1955. That being said, since making their debuts in 2003 and 2005 on biggest stages, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi have changed the sport on an individual level. They’re very different players. They divide the sport’s fanbase into two camps, quite clearly. But, together, they’ve separated themselves from other footballers both past and present. As both near the ends of their careers, we’re entering a time when few very twists and overtakes can happen. For years, they’ve traded places as who could top the UCL’s list for Most Appearances (besting Ronaldo’s former club teammate Iker Casillas on 177) and for Most Goals.

Ronaldo has 183 Champions League appearances to Messi’s 161. Ronaldo’s Champions League looks almost over, as his appeal to elite clubs drastically dwindles. Messi’s remains strong, as he hopes to take and be taken by Mbappé and Neymar to more UCL glory this season, and, potentially, the following. After next season, though, Messi may fade from the European football’s stage.

Messi sits 11 goals short of Ronaldo’s total of 140. There’s time and opportunity for the Argentine genius to surpass that.

Football, though, does exist beyond these two players. Paco Gento, Real Madrid’s fast and productive left-winger, has won six European Cup finals – losing two more – placing him at the top of the competition’s most-decorated-player list. Fifteen Madrid players are tied at five winners’ medals behind Gento – with this group consisting of players like Alfredo di Stefano, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, and Rafael Lesmes – with Alessandro Costacurta and Paolo Maldini from AC Milan.

Clarence Seedorf is the only player to have won the competition with three separate teams: Ajax (1995, as part of Louis Van Gaal’s infamous side), Real Marid (1998), and AC Milan (in both 2003 and 2007).

The UEFA Champions League: DAZN’s Pop Quiz

To test or even expand your knowledge of the UEFA Champions League’s long and storied history with our pop quiz below.

Q: Which Country Has Seen Their Clubs Win the Most Champions League Titles?

A: Helped by being home to the competition’s most successful team Real Madrid (14 wins), Spain have the most Champions League medals within its borders. Adding Barcelona’s 5 to Madrid’s total, Spain has 19 titles. England come second with 14 – Liverpool being the country’s most successful Champions League side with 6. Italy come third thanks to AC Milan’s 7, but Juventus have had just as many runners-up medals (7) as AC’s winners.

Q: Which Club Won the UEFA Champions League by Winning Every Single Game?

A: Many teams have won the competition without losing a game, but only one has done so with a 100% win-rate – and that’s true of any European competition. Accomplished in 2019-2020 under the guidance of Hansi Flick, Bayern Munich beat PSG in the final held in Lisbon’s Estádio da Luz to complete a journey that included notable, bruising victories over Barcelona (8-2 across two legs) and Chelsea (7-1 across two legs). They were too good, led by Robert Lewandowski who scored 15 goals.

Q: Which Two Teams Have Won Every UCL Final They’ve Appeared In?

A: While Dutch teams Feyenoord (1970) and PSV Eindhoven (1988), English side Aston Villa (1982), and then-Yugoslavian, now-Serbian team Red Star Belgrade (1991) have won the single final they’ve all appeared in, boasting a 100% record, only two teams have that record in multiple finals. Nottingham Forest and FC Porto are those two teams. In 1979 and 1980, the one-of-a-kind Brian Clough took Forest to back-to-back European titles, beating Malmö FF of Sweden and Hamburger SV of Germany. FC Porto’s successes were in 1987 against Bayern Munich (with Hansi Flick in their ranks) and 2004 against Monaco.

Our Predictions: UEFA CL 23/24

Looking ahead to the UEFA CL 2023/24 competition, it’s hard to envision a world in which the usual suspects are disrupted. While Manchester United, Barcelona, and Juventus offer solemn warnings for big clubs mismanaging squad builds, coach hires, and finances, all three clubs appear to be – despite many questionable performances in the 2022/23 season – back on the right track. Manchester City, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and PSG will always be able to compete. Chelsea could be there thanks to their financial muscles and once Graham Potter has his team firing.

Liverpool, arguably, have the biggest question mark hovering around them. Their midfield is aging and the sharp decline of Virgil Van Dijk and Fabinho mean a rebuild in key areas is necessary to maintain a challenge to European giants. However, even with a poor squad, Liverpool are Champions League specialists. This is their competition. They cannot be written off.

Beyond these obvious choices, each year has surprise teams, like this season’s Napoli and Benfica. Another year under Conte – should they qualify for the UEFA CL 2023/24 – could push Spurs towards being an outside contender, rather than making up the numbers in the latter stages. AC Milan’s young squad will be another year older and better, but could they hit enough of peak to rock the boat? RB Leipzig and Dortmund have enough talent in their squad that, in the right rhythm, could make them semi-finalists.

Without question, though, the UEFA Champions League brings talent and drama. It’s a spectacle. One that – though winners are crowned and paraded – never disheartens those that lose, but, rather, inspires them to come back again and again and again.