The UEFA Champions League (UCL) or simply, the Champions League is a football tournament organised by the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) and features the best clubs in Europe who fight it out for the Champions League trophy through a group stage and knockout phase.
Real Madrid has the most Champions League titles with 13 followed by AC Milan who has 7. Bayern Munich and Liverpool have 6 each, followed by Barcelona with 5, Ajax with 4, and Inter Milan and Manchester United with 3 each.
It is one of the most prestigious football tournaments in the world and the most prestigious club competition in European football, played by the national league champions (and, for some nations, one or more runners-up) of their national associations.
Introduced in 1955 as the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens (French for European Champion Clubs’ Cup), and commonly known as the European Cup, it was initially a straight knockout tournament open only to the champions of Europe’s domestic leagues, with its winner reckoned as the European club champion. ‘
The competition took on its current name in 1992, adding a round-robin group stage in 1991 and allowing multiple entrants from certain countries since 1997. It has since been expanded, and while most of Europe’s national leagues can still only enter their champion, the strongest leagues now provide up to four teams.
Clubs that finish next-in-line in their national league, having not qualified for the Champions League, are eligible for the second-tier UEFA Europa League competition, and from 2021, teams not eligible for the UEFA Europa League qualify for a third-tier competition called the UEFA Europa Conference League.
In its present format, the Champions League begins in late June with a preliminary round, three qualifying rounds and a play-off round, all played over two legs.
The six surviving teams enter the group stage, joining 26 teams qualified in advance. The 32 teams are drawn into eight groups of four teams and play each other in a double round-robin system.
The eight group winners and eight runners-up proceed to the knockout phase that culminates with the final match in late May or early June.
The winner of the Champions League qualifies for the following year’s Champions League, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup.
The first time the champions of two European leagues met was in what was nicknamed the 1895 World Championship when English champions Sunderland beat Scottish champions Heart of Midlothian 5–3.
The first pan-European tournament was the Challenge Cup, a competition between clubs in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The Mitropa Cup, a competition modelled after the Challenge Cup, was created in 1927, an idea of Austrian Hugo Meisl, and played between Central European clubs.
In 1930, the Coupe des Nations, the first attempt to create a cup for national champion clubs of Europe, was played and organised by Swiss club Servette. Held in Geneva, it brought together ten champions from across the continent. The tournament was won by Újpest of Hungary.
Latin European nations came together to form the Latin Cup in 1949.
After receiving reports from his journalists over the highly successful South American Championship of Champions of 1948, Gabriel Hanot, the then editor of L’Équipe, began proposing the creation of a continent-wide tournament.
In interviews, Jacques Ferran (one of the founders of the European Champions Cup, together with Gabriel Hanot), said that the South American Championship of Champions was the inspiration for the European Champions Cup.
After Stan Cullis declared Wolverhampton Wanderers “Champions of the World” following a successful run of friendlies in the 1950s, in particular a 3–2 friendly victory against Budapest Honvéd, Hanot finally managed to convince UEFA to put into practice such a tournament. It was conceived in Paris in 1955 as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup.
The first edition of the European Cup took place during the 1955–56 season. Sixteen teams participated (some by invitation): Milan (Italy), AGF Aarhus (Denmark), Anderlecht (Belgium), Djurgården (Sweden), Gwardia Warszawa (Poland), Hibernian (Scotland), Partizan (Yugoslavia), PSV Eindhoven (Netherlands), Rapid Wien (Austria), Real Madrid (Spain), Rot-Weiss Essen (West Germany), Saarbrücken (Saar), Servette (Switzerland), Sporting CP (Portugal), Stade de Reims (France), and Vörös Lobogó (Hungary).
The first European Cup match took place on 4th September 1955 and ended in a 3–3 draw between Sporting CP and Partizan. The first goal in European Cup history was scored by João Baptista Martins of Sporting CP.
The inaugural final took place at the Parc des Princes between Stade de Reims and Real Madrid. The Spanish squad came back from behind to win 4–3 thanks to goals from Alfredo Di Stéfano and Marquitos, as well as two goals from Héctor Rial.
Real Madrid successfully defended the trophy next season in their home stadium, the Santiago Bernabéu, against Fiorentina. After a scoreless first half, Real Madrid scored twice in six minutes to defeat the Italians.
In 1958, Milan failed to capitalise after going ahead on the scoreline twice, only for Real Madrid to equalise. The final, held in Heysel Stadium, went to extra time where Francisco Gento scored the game-winning goal to allow Real Madrid to retain the title for the third consecutive season.
In a rematch of the first final, Real Madrid faced Stade Reims at the Neckarstadion in the 1959 final and won 2–0.
West German side Eintracht Frankfurt became the first non-Latin team to reach the European Cup final. The 1960 final holds the record for the most goals scored, with Real Madrid beating Eintracht Frankfurt 7–3 in Hampden Park, courtesy of four goals by Ferenc Puskás and a hat-trick by Alfredo Di Stéfano. This was Real Madrid’s fifth consecutive title, a record that still stands today.
Real Madrid’s reign ended in the 1960–61 season when bitter rivals Barcelona dethroned them in the first round. Barcelona themselves, however, would be defeated in the final by Portuguese side Benfica 3–2 at Wankdorf Stadium. Reinforced by Eusébio, Benfica defeated Real Madrid 5–3 at the Olympic Stadium in Amsterdam and kept the title for a second consecutive season.
Benfica wanted to repeat Real Madrid’s successful run of the 1950s after reaching the showpiece event of the 1962–63 European Cup, but a brace from Brazilian-Italian José Altafini at the Wembley Stadium gave the spoils to Milan, making the trophy leave the Iberian Peninsula for the first time ever.
Inter Milan beat an ageing Real Madrid 3–1 in the Ernst-Happel-Stadion to win the 1963–64 season and replicate their local rivals’ success. The title stayed in the city of Milan for the third year in a row after Inter beat Benfica 1–0 at their home ground, the San Siro.
Under the leadership of Jock Stein, Scottish club Celtic defeated Inter Milan 2–1 in the 1967 final to become the first British club to win the European Cup. The Celtic players that day subsequently became known as the “Lisbon Lions”, all of whom were born within 30 miles of Glasgow.
The 1967–68 season saw Manchester United become the first English team to win the European Cup, beating Benfica 4–1 in the final.
This final came 10 years after the Munich air disaster, which claimed the lives of eight United players and left their manager, Matt Busby, fighting for his life.
In the 1968–69 season, Ajax became the first Dutch team to reach the European Cup final, but they were beaten by Milan 4–1, who claimed their second European Cup, with Pierino Prati scoring a hat-trick.
The 1969–70 season saw the first Dutch winners of the competition. Rotterdam-based club Feyenoord knocked out the defending champions, Milan in the second round, before defeating Celtic in the final.
In the 1970–71 season Ajax won the title, beating Greek side Panathinaikos in the final. The season saw a number of changes, with penalty shoot-outs being introduced, and the away goals rule being changed so that it would be used in all rounds except the final.
It was also the first time a Greek team reach the final, as well as the first season that Real Madrid failed to qualify, having finished sixth in La Liga the previous season.
The UEFA Champions League begins with a double round-robin group stage of 32 teams, which since the 2009–10 season is preceded by two qualification ‘streams’ for teams that do not receive direct entry to the tournament proper.
The two streams are divided between teams qualified by virtue of being league champions, and those qualified by virtue of finishing 2nd–4th in their national championship.
The number of teams that each association enters into the UEFA Champions League is based upon the UEFA coefficients of the member associations.
These coefficients are generated by the results of clubs representing each association during the previous five Champions League and UEFA Cup/Europa League seasons. The higher an association’s coefficient, the more teams represent the association in the Champions League, and the fewer qualification rounds the association’s teams must compete in.
Four of the remaining six qualifying places are granted to the winners of a six-round qualifying tournament between the remaining 43 or 44 national champions, within which those champions from associations with higher coefficients receive byes to later rounds. The other two are granted to the winners of a three-round qualifying tournament between the 11 clubs from the associations ranked 5 through 15, which have qualified based upon finishing second, or third in their respective national league.
In addition to sporting criteria, any club must be licensed by its national association to participate in the Champions League. To obtain a license, the club must meet certain stadium, infrastructure and finance requirements.
In 2005–06, Liverpool and Artmedia Bratislava became the first teams to reach the Champions League group stage after playing in all three qualifying rounds. Real Madrid and Barcelona hold the record for the most appearances in the group stage, having qualified 25 times, followed by Porto and Bayern on 24.
Between 1999 and 2008, no differentiation was made between champions and non-champions in qualification.
The 16 top-ranked teams spread across the biggest domestic leagues qualified directly for the tournament group stage. Prior to this, three preliminary knockout qualifying rounds whittled down the remaining teams, with teams starting in different rounds.
An exception to the usual European qualification system happened in 2005, after Liverpool won the Champions League the year before, but did not finish in a Champions League qualification place in the Premier League that season.
UEFA gave special dispensation for Liverpool to enter the Champions League, giving England five qualifiers. UEFA subsequently ruled that the defending champions qualify for the competition the following year regardless of their domestic league placing.
However, for those leagues with four entrants in the Champions League, this meant that, if the Champions League winner fell outside of its domestic league’s top four, it would qualify at the expense of the fourth-placed team in the league.
Until 2015–16, no association could have more than four entrants in the Champions League. In May 2012, Tottenham Hotspur finished fourth in the 2011–12 Premier League, two places ahead of Chelsea, but failed to qualify for the 2012–13 Champions League, after Chelsea won the 2012 final.
Tottenham were demoted to the 2012–13 UEFA Europa League.
In May 2013, it was decided that starting from the 2015–16 season (and continuing at least for the three-year cycle until the 2017–18 season), the winners of the previous season’s UEFA Europa League would qualify for the UEFA Champions League, entering at least the play-off round, and entering the group stage if the berth reserved for the Champions League title holders was not used.
The previous limit of a maximum of four teams per association was increased to five, meaning that a fourth-placed team from one of the top three ranked associations would only have to be moved to the Europa League if both the Champions League and Europa League winners came from that association and both finished outside the top four of their domestic league.
In 2007, Michel Platini, the UEFA president, had proposed taking one place from the three leagues with four entrants and allocating it to that nation’s cup winners. This proposal was rejected in a vote at a UEFA Strategy Council meeting.
In the same meeting, however, it was agreed that the third-placed team in the top three leagues would receive automatic qualification for the group stage, rather than entry into the third qualifying round, while the fourth-placed team would enter the play-off round for non-champions, guaranteeing an opponent from one of the top 15 leagues in Europe.
This was part of Platini’s plan to increase the number of teams qualifying directly into the group stage, while simultaneously increasing the number of teams from lower-ranked nations in the group stage.
In 2012, Arsène Wenger referred to qualifying for the Champion’s League by finishing in the top four places in the English Premier League as the “4th Place Trophy”.
The phrase was coined after a pre-match conference when he was questioned about Arsenal’s lack of a trophy after exiting the FA Cup. He said, “The first trophy is to finish in the top four”. At Arsenal’s 2012 AGM, Wenger was also quoted as saying: “For me, there are five trophies every season – Premier League, Champions League, the third is to qualify for the Champions League…”
Group stage and knockout phase
The tournament proper begins with a group stage of 32 teams, divided into eight groups of four.
Seeding is used whilst making the draw for this stage, whilst teams from the same nation may not be drawn into groups together. Each team plays six group stage games, meeting the other three teams in its group home and away in a round-robin format.
The winning team and the runners-up from each group then progress to the next round. The third-placed team enters the UEFA Europa League.
For the next stage – the last 16 – the winning team from one group plays against the runners-up from another group, and teams from the same association may not be drawn against each other. From the quarter-finals onwards, the draw is entirely random, without association protection.
The tournament uses the away goals rule – if the aggregate score of the two games is tied, then the team who scored more goals at their opponent’s stadium advances.
The group stage is played from September to December, whilst the knock-out stage starts in February. The knock-out ties are played in a two-legged format, with the exception of the final.
The final is typically held in the last two weeks of May, or in the early days of June, which has happened in three consecutive odd-numbered years since 2015. In the 2019–20 season, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the tournament was suspended for five months, with the final taking place in August.