The UEFA Champions League is European football’s premier club competition. Formed in 1992, the Champions League replaced what was known as the European Cup. The main differences between the two competitions, is that the Champions League allows more than one team from each qualifying country to participate in the competition. Also, the Champions League saw the introduction of a group stage, whereas the European Cup was a straight knock-out tournament.
Qualification for the Champions League is via domestic football leagues within the UEFA section. It’s possible, from the strongest leagues in Europe, such as the English Premier League and Spanish La Liga, for there to be up to four clubs entering the tournament. An example of this can be seen in the 2014/15 Champions League group stages. Spain had four representatives, England had four representatives and Germany had four representatives. From 2015/16 onwards, this number could even increase to five. There has been opposition to the increasing number of teams from the main European leagues, suggesting that the tournament is biased towards the top clubs. The argument is that the system fails to provide good opportunities to all the teams that actually win their domestic league.
Nevertheless, the popularity of the Champions League is unmatched around the world of football. The actual final itself, draws in television audiences of over 350 million people and is sure to do so again in 2014/15, with the likes of Barcelona, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Juventus all competing to reach the final.
As it stands, Real Madrid are the most successful club in the competition’s history. Stretching back to when the European Cup was first formed in 1955, Real Madrid have lifted the trophy on 10 occasions. In fact, Spanish teams are the most successful in total, with a combined record of 14 wins between them. There are no teams close to beating Real Madrid’s record, with AC Milan in second place on 7 wins but currently a long way off competing with the top clubs in Europe. It’s then down to 5 wins apiece for Bayern Munich and Liverpool, which highlights how far ahead of the rest Real Madrid are in terms of overall victories.
Interestingly, there are a number of teams who have won the Champions League, that are probably never going to win the trophy again in the current fornat. This may seem like a bold statement but Steaua Bucharest and Celtic have both lifted the trophy twice in their history. Are they ever going to be able to compete the with the likes of Real Madrid and Bayern Munich again? The way European football is set-up, the answer has to be no. These teams lose their best players to the Spanish and English leagues regularly and never have the opportunity to build a strong side.
As the Champions League is home to the best club sides in the world, naturally it is also home to the best best players in the world. The current crop include Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Playing for Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively, these are players who are playing in the Champions League consistently, season after season and their records are phenomenal. At the time of writing, Messi has recorded 77 goals from just 97 appearances, with Ronaldo in second place on 76 goals from 114 appearances. Within the top 10 goalscorers list, it’s only Didier Drogba, with 44 goals, along with Messi and Ronaldo, who are still currently active. Other players in the list, such as Raul, Ruud van Nistelrooy and Thierry Henry have all retired. Legends in the list, such as Alfredo di Stefano and Eusebio have sadly passed away but their achievements were huge, especially considering they are still part of that top 10 list today.
In terms of appearances, Xavi Hernandez of Barcelona holds the record with 155 and could build on that before the end of the season. Tucked in behind Xavi is Manchester United legend Ryan Giggs, who made 151 appearances, scoring 29 goals. Real Madrid players Iker Casillas and Cristiano Ronaldo are the only players, along with Xavi, who are currently active in the top 10 list of Champions League appearances.
The Champions League final is the show piece event of the European football season and the stadium is always chosen prior to the start of the event. The hope, is that the stadium will be a neutral venue, however, there has been occasions when teams have ended up playing in their own stadium, such as Bayern Munich in 2011/12. Interestingly, that did not help the German team, who went on to lose to Chelsea on penalties.
With the current format, it’s possible for two teams from the same country to meet in the final. The first time this happened was in 1999/2000, when Real Madrid met Valencia. Since then, there has been all English, Italian and German finals. Things even went one step further in 2013/14, when Real Madrid and Atletico Madrid, two teams from the same city, met in the final. This led a number of people to criticise the format of the tournament.
Since the 1991/92 season, there has only been one 0-0 draw in the final, which came when Milan and Juventus met at Old Trafford in 2002/03. With the form of the teams contesting this season’s Champions League, it’s unlikely there will be another 0-0 draw in the final this year.
The Champions League is the only football tournament that can come close to matching the World Cup. In terms of excitement, star players, prestige and financial importance, no other club tournament comes close to matching the UEFA Champions League.