The Rise and Rise of the Champions League

I put together the following piece for Motherwell FC’s match magazine for the Panathinaikos game.  Thought I might as well share it.


The Champions League is without doubt the most popular sporting event in Europe, possibly even the world According to UEFA, the 2012 final between Bayern Munich and Chelsea attracted over 300 million viewers, while the match was the subject of 4.8 million tweets. With the tournament now a global phenomenon, it is easy to forget that the Champions League concept is just 20 years old, and that its predecessor, the European Cup, has been around for less than 60 years.

Even though organised club football was being played as early as the late 1850s, and national cup competitions and leagues started in the 1870s, it was a while before anyone suggested a pan-European tournament to decide the best team in the continent. In the 1930s and 1940s, there were a few local tournaments such as the Mitropa Cup and the Latin Cup, but these only covered part of the continent.

As was the case with the World Cup and European Championships, the driving forces behind the European Cup were French. In the early 1950s, Gabriel Hanot and Jacques Ferran of esteemed French sports newspaper “L’Equipe” proposed a tournament involving the biggest and best teams in Europe. Their idea came to fruition in time for the 1955/56 season, with 16 teams from across the continent invited to take part.

Only 7 of those teams were national champions, with the organisers inviting some sides based on their size and fanbase rather than their achievements. That included 5th placed Hibs who were preferred to Scottish champions Aberdeen. Hibs reached the semi-final of that first tournament, losing to French champions Stade de Reims. The tournament was won by Real Madrid, as it would be in each of the next 4 seasons.

The tournament was an immediate success. Over 38,000 turned up for the first final in Paris, and a year later there were more than 3 times as many at the Bernabeu to watch Real Madrid beat Fiorentina. The organisers very quickly dropped the invitational nature of the tournament in favour of meritocracy, making the European Cup a true contest between national champions. As years and decades passed, the competition continued to grow in stature, providing a multitude of memorable moments along the way.

But in the late 80s and early 90s, sport, and in particular football, became big business. The larger clubs started to outgrow the European Cup model, and wanted a format which allowed spectators and TV viewers to see the best play the best every year. Even with seeding, a knockout competition was susceptible to surprise results, and one bad performance could see a big side bow out. This led to the introduction of a group stage for the first time in 1991/92. The teams which reached the last eight were drawn into two groups of four, with the winners of each group proceeding to the final. That final saw Johan Cruyff’s Barcelona beat Sampdoria at Wembley to win the last ever European Cup (and Barcelona’s first).

Buoyed by the success of the group stage, UEFA decided to rebrand the trophy as the Champions League for the 1992/93 season, with the aim of converting footballing success into commercial revenue. By sheer chance, this new era in European football coincided with the breakup of the USSR and Yugoslavia, increasing the number of entrants from 32 to 36 and a year to later 42. This would set the ball rolling on the seemingly endless expansion of the tournament, an expansion which of course has led to Motherwell’s participation tonight!

The inaugural Champions League still consisted of only league champions, and followed the same format as the previous season’s European Cup. Rangers were the first Scottish side to make the group stage, and were just 90 minutes away from the final as they entered a last day showdown. Walter Smith’s side could only draw with CSKA Moscow at Ibrox, while Marseille secured a 1-0 win away to Club Brugge to squeeze into the final.

Marseille went on to defeat AC Milan in the final to become the first winners of the Champions League, but their victory was tarnished by a match-fixing scandal in their domestic campaign. Contrary to popular belief, they were not stripped of their Champions League title, and there was no evidence of wrongdoing in their European campaign, but a cloud still hangs over their success.

As a result of their misdeeds, Marseille were banned from the 1993/94 season – the only time the holders have not defended their trophy. The second season of the tournament also saw the first of many format changes, with the reintroduction of semi-finals involving the top two from each group. Unusually, the semi-finals were one-legged affairs with the two group winners given home advantage, an experiment which lasted just one season. AC Milan and Barcelona both comfortably won their home semi-finals, setting up a showpiece final in Athens, where the Italian side produced one of the greatest performances in Champions League history, crushing the Catalans 4-0.

The 1994/95 season saw the first deviation from the spirit of the old European Cup. Troubled by the expansion of the tournament as a result of sudden influx of new nations, UEFA decided to restrict Champions League entry to only the top 24 nations, with the champions of the smaller countries entering the UEFA Cup. This facilitated an increase in the number of groups from two to four, with the top two in each group progressing to the quarter-finals.

This format continued for three seasons, yielding three different winners. In 1994/95, an 18 year-old Patrick Kluivert scored the only goal as his star-studded Ajax side beat AC Milan in the final. Ajax beat reached the final again the following season, beating tonight’s opponents Panathinaikos in the semi-final. This time, they lost out to Italian opposition, defeated on penalties by Juventus. That Ajax side also contained van der Sar, Davids, Rijkaard, Seedorf, Overmars, Kanu, Litmanen and both de Boer brothers, but all of them departed for Spain, Italy or England over the next couple of years, and the Dutch side have never really been competitive in the tournament since.

1996/97 saw an ex-Motherwell player lift the trophy. Paul Lambert was part of a ‘Well side which had run Borussia Dortmund close in the 1994/95 UEFA Cup, and the German side’s manager Ottmar Hitzfeld was impressed enough to sign the Scotland midfielder just over a year later. Lambert turned in a majestic display as Dortmund won 1-0 at Old Trafford in the semi-final, and he went on to mark Zinedine Zidane out of the final, which his side won 3-1.

The champions of the smaller nations returned to the fold in 1997/98 as part of an expansion of the tournament. For the first time, the runners-up from Germany, Spain, Italy and England were granted entry, the first step towards the four-team entry system we have today. The number of groups increased again, from four to six, with the group winners being joined in the quarter-finals by the two best runners-up. The group stage provided one of the most memorable moments in the history of the tournament, 21 year-old Andriy Shevchenko launching his career with a hat-trick for Dynamo Kyiv as they won 4-0 in the Nou Camp. Real Madrid would go on to win the trophy, with Predrag Mijatovic scoring the only goal in a dull final against Juventus.

The following season’s final was much more eventful. Manchester United and Bayern Munich met in Barcelona, with the English side missing the suspended Roy Keane and Paul Scholes . Bayern took the lead through Mario Basler’s early goal, but were mugged in stoppage time as Teddy Sheringham and Ole Gunnar Solskjaer scored in quick succession to steal the trophy for Alex Ferguson’s side.

The 1999/2000 season featured a further expansion of the tournament. The group stage of the tournament moved to the current total of 32 teams, and the bigger nations were allowed a third entrant. The next four seasons would feature the much-maligned “2nd Group Stage”, meaning teams had to play at least 17 matches to win the tournament. Real Madrid won the first tournament in this format, with Steve McManaman scoring the pick of the goals in a 3-0 win over Valencia – the first time two teams from the same country met in the final.

Valencia were runners-up again the following year, with Bayern Munich exorcising the demons of 1999. The Germans won the final on penalties following a tame 1-1 draw. That season marked the final expansion of the tournament to its current size, with the biggest nations given four places in the tournament.

The 2002 final at Hampden provided one of the most famous goals in the stadium’s illustrious history as Zinedine Zidane’s volley decided a tight match against Bayer Leverkusen. That was Real Madrid’s ninth title, and they still await “La Decima” – their historic tenth.

A year later, AC Milan beat Juventus on penalties after an incredibly cagey 0-0 draw at Old Trafford. Andriy Shevchenko scored the winning spot-kick. 2003/04 provided a surprise final, with Porto and Monaco battling through to the final. Jose Mourinho’s Porto side had beaten Celtic in the UEFA Cup final the previous season, and he followed that success up with an even bigger one, comfortably winning the final 3-0 in what proved to be his final match before moving to Chelsea.

Mourinho’s Chelsea side faced Liverpool eight times in the Champions League, and the first of these meetings came in the 2004/05 semi-final. The only “goal” of the tie came from Liverpool’s Luis Garcia, though his shot may not have actually crossed the line. The final in Istanbul provided one of the most miraculous comebacks in the tournament’s history. Liverpool trailed AC Milan 3-0 at half-time, but scored three goals in six second half minutes to force extra-time and penalties. Andriy Shevchenko, Milan’s hero from 2003, saw his spot kick saved as Liverpool triumphed.

2005/06 heralded the start of Barcelona’s era. The Catalans have reached the semi-final in all but one of the last seven seasons, winning the trophy three times. The first of those three successes came against Arsenal in Paris, when Henrik Larsson came off the bench to set up two goals in the last 15 minutes. Their other wins came in 2008/09 and 2010/11, with Pep Guardiola’s side giving Manchester United a footballing lesson in both finals.

Even with Barcelona’s dominance, there have still been opportunities for other sides to get their hands on the trophy. The 2006/07 final gave AC Milan the chance for revenge against Liverpool, and they duly grabbed the opportunity. Pippo Inzaghi scored twice in a 2-1 victory. The following year, Manchester United and Chelsea met in Moscow, with Alex Ferguson’s side winning on penalties after John Terry’s famous slip.

2009/10 saw Jose Mourinho win again, with Diego Milito scoring a double in the final against Bayern Munich. Bayern would again lose out as Chelsea finally got their hands on the trophy last May, with Didier Drogba scoring the winning kick in a penalty shootout.

In spite of the criticism it receives, the Champions League remains an exciting and unpredictable competition. There have been 13 different winners in the 20 seasons of the rebranded tournament, and no side has managed to retain the trophy in that period. The tournament still manages to throw up surprises such as APOEL Nicosia’s run to last year’s quarter-finals, and of course, we all hope that Motherwell can emulate that feat this season.

About SPLstats
Providing statistics and trivia about Scottish football. Main focus is the SPL, but all Scottish football will be covered. Not affiliated to the SPL.

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