Champions League: History and Competition Format

Inception and history || Competition format



The present tournament called Champions League, originally kwown as Champions Cup, started as an original idea of the French journalist Gabriel Hanot, editor of the sports magazine L'Équipe. He proposed the creation of a European competition to decide the best team in the Continent. The idea arose to challenge the claim of English papers that Wolverhampton Wanderers FC was the best team in the world, following their 3-2 victory against Budapesti Honvéd SE at Molineux Stadium on December 14, 1954 (Hungarian football was highly regarded in the 50s). This claim raised some controversy in European media, and Hanot was the first to answer: "We better wait until the Wolves travel to Moscow and Budapest to proclaim their invincibility; but if the English are so sure about their hegemony in football, the time has come to create a European tournament."

On December 16, 1954, Hanot and his colleague Jacques Ryswick exposed a first draft of their project:

• There will be 14-16 participants, playing a round robin.

• The games will be played in midweek and they will start at night (something unusual in the 50s) to allow for the working class to watch them.

• The games will be sponsored by the television of the participant club's country or the most important sports paper.

Most of the clubs consulted by L'Équipe proposed a competition format based on knock-out rounds instead of a league, to reduce the number of games. The French magazine made a tentative list of participants and send invitations to their national federations seeking approval. The following 18 clubs were included in this list (L'Équipe had in mind 16 final participants, but expected some withdrawals): SC Rot-Weiß Essen (FRG), Chelsea FC (England), SK Rapid (Austria), RSC Anderlechtois (Belgium), KB [Copenhagen] (Denmark), Hibernian FC (Scotland), Real Madrid CF (Spain), Stade de Reims (France), Flamengo Holland Sport (Netherlands), Budapesti Honvéd SE (Hungary), AC Milan (Italy), Sporting CP (Portugal), 1. FC Saarbrücken (Saarland), Malmö FF (Sweden), Servette FC (Switzerland), TJ Spartak Sokolovo Praha (Czechoslovakia), FK Dynamo [Moscow] (USSR), FK Partizan (Yugoslavia). Surprisingly, more than half of these teams were not even the current champions in their domestic leagues. L'Équipe established an open calendar for the different rounds and proposed that the final would be played in Paris somewhen between May 1 and June 30.

On March 2, 1955, UEFA held a Constituent Congress in Vienna, and some representatives of L'Équipe took adventage of this to propose their project to the highest European football organization. They stated their idea of a continental tournament, the steps they had taken so far to that effect, and their null intention of monopolizing its organization or commercially exploting it. Some UEFA members like Delauny, Sebes, Schwartz, or Graham didn't show much interest about this project, but Crahay encouraged the French journalists to go on with it and elaborate a final report.

In the meantime, the federations of Austria, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Italy, and Yugoslavia held a meeting on March 4 to revive an old Central Europe competition, Mitropa Cup, which had been going on between 1927 and 1939. L'Équipe reacted quickly to this: on April 2, 1955, the French magazine gathered the presidents of the most important European clubs at the Ambassador Hotel in Paris to seek approval for the new continental tournament (two more delegations, USSR and Czechoslovakia, were represented by the Hungarian UEFA member Sebes).

This meeting was a complete success: frictions were left aside by all members and there were no allusions either to political affairs. One of the most difficult subjects was the financial one. From the revenues of each game, it should be deducted local taxes, the rent of stadiums (in some countries they belonged to the city government or some organism other than the clubs), organization and referee expenses, as well as a 1,000$ allowance for the visiting team. According to the French proposal, the total income of each game would be divided as follows: 1) 5% for the local team's Federation; 2) 60% for the local team; 3) 30% as a common fund to share among all participants depending on the number of games played; 4) 5% for organization expenses. Finally, a proposal by Santiago Bernabéu (the president of Real Madrid CF) was approved, whereby the income of every match would be distributed 50-50 between the two contestants. This idea pleased most of his colleagues, because Real Madrid owned one of the largest stadiums in Europe and this meant that Bernabéu explicitly renounced a bigger slice of the pecuniary cake for the sake of the global competition.

During these seminal sessions, an Executive Committee was appointed to supervise the competition with the following members:

President: Ernest Bedrignans (France).

First Vice-President: Santiago Bernabéu (Spain).

Second Vice-President: Gusztav Sebes (Hungary).

Representatives: Buttersby (England), Keller (Saar), Jansen (FRG), Piazzalunga (Switzerland).

To close this marathon working sessions in Paris, the participants clubs where drafted. From the group of 18 invited teams, Budapesti Honvéd SE (Hungary), Flamengo Holland Sport (Netherlands), Malmö FF (Sweden), and KB (Denmark) were replaced by Budapesti Vörös Lobogó, PSV [Eindhoven], Djugårdens IF, and AGF [Århus], respectively. The Russian and the Czechoslovakian participants, FK Dynamo [Moscow] and TJ Spartak Sokolovo Praha, refused to join the competition and remained as substitutions in case of a future withdrawal. The English team Chelsea FC withdrew from the tournament after the draft alleging incompatibilities with the English League calendar, and was replaced by WKS Gwardia, from Poland.

UEFA initially refused to organize Champions Cup, and preferred to support a different competition suggested by the municipalities of those cities which held trade fairs yearly. It was a risk-proof proposal, since the local governments undertook all the organization expenses. On April 10, 1955, a meeting was held in Basel (Switzerland) among representatives of UEFA and city halls whereby a new European competition was created, namely Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (Messestädte Cup), with participant teams from cities such as Barcelona, Basel, Birmingham, Brussels, Budapest, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Lausanne, Leipzig, London, Milano, Moscow, Paris, Vienna, and Zagreb.

Things were getting serious in Europe and FIFA decided to come in and try to find a solution. On May 7, the Directive Committee of the highest football association held an emergency meeting in London to discuss the ongoing situation in European football. In these talks, it was officially approved the inception of three different club tournaments in the Continent: L'Équipe's competition, Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, and Mitropa Cup. Regarding the former, FIFA stipulated the following requirements: 1) participant clubs should be approved by their respective federations; 2) the competition would be organized and supervised by UEFA; 3) the original name of European Cup would be reserved for a possible (and future) tournament among national squads, and therefore L'Équipe's competition should be called European Champion Clubs' Cup.

On May 17, 1955, the newly created Executive Committee of Champion Clubs' Cup held its first working session at the Hotel Castellana Hilton in Madrid. Its members accepted the directives proposed by FIFA, and later invited the president of UEFA, the Danish Ebbe Schwartz, to join them. The participating teams and the competition dates were definitely established. On May 21, another meeting was held in Paris between UEFA representatives and the Executive Committee. UEFA committed itself to organize the newborn competition and respect all the decissions already approved. A new Executive Committee was appointed, with Mr. Schwartz as President, Mr. Sebes as Vice-President, Mr. Delauny as Secretary, and Mr. Graham and Mr. Bauwens as Representatives.

Finally, everything was ready for the launch of European Champion Clubs' Cup on September 4, 1955, with the first game in Lisbon between Sporting CP, from Portugal, and FK Partizan, from Yugoslavia. This meant the starting gun for the most prestigious club competition in the world. The rest is already history... going on.



The original Champion Clubs' Cup was created to include only the domestic League winners of those national federations associated to UEFA. During its first editions, there were successive knock-out rounds leading to a single-game final. After the increase of States in Europe-Asia as a result of the redistribution of some territories, the original competition format was replaced from season 1994-95 on by a different one, in which only the title holder plus 23 domestic winners (from the best federations in UEFA Country Ranking) participated in Champions League, while the rest of domestic champions were relegated to play UEFA Cup. The title holder and the winners of the best 7 countries qualify for a 1/8 Final League Stage, and the champions of countries ranked 8-15 have to play a Qualifying Round against winners of countries ranked 16-23.

From season 1997-98 on, UEFA modified again the competition system of Champions League. The winners of the first 48 countries in UEFA Country Ranking (UCR) participate in C1 (besides, the first 8 countries can register their League runners-up). Winners of countries ranked 17-48 in UCR (with variations, depending on the number of participants) have to play a First Qualifying Round. The survivors later access a Second Qualifying Round together with the champions of countries ranked 9-16 and the 8 runners-up above mentioned. Losers in this round don't conclude their participation in European competitions, since they receive a "wild card" to participate in UEFA Cup, starting from the First Round. Survivors of Second Qualifying Round, together with winners of the first 8 countries, access the Champions League Stage, distributed in 6 groups of 4 teams each. All 6 winners and the best 2 runners-up of these groups qualify for the 1/4 Final round. Notwithstanding all the above, since a berth is always reserved in C1 for the title holder (whatever its place in domestic League is), it may be the case that a positional displacement occurs to allow for this extra berth, which would crucially affect those teams of federations ranked in "boundary" positions of UCR (8, 16, and 48).

The main novelty introduced in season 1998-99 of C1 was the so-called "golden goal" in finals, namely, a definitive goal scored in extra time that gives the victory to a team with no need to play any longer. After some critics by players and trainers, this rule was later suppressed, from season 2002-03 on, and replaced by the so-called "silver goal": should a final end with a draw after regulation, an extra time of just 15 minutes will be played. If a team finishes that period with advantage in the score, the game is over. If the draw still remains, the second half of the extra time will be necessary. Ultimately, a penalty shoot-out will decide the winner.

In a meeting held in Lisbon on October 6, 1998, UEFA decided to modify the competition format of C1, C2, and C3, under the pressure of the most powerful teams and private TV channels in Europe. This new model started in season 1999-2000. The main novelties occurred in Champions League, changing from 24 teams in the League Stage to 32. The structure of this new competition is as follows (exemplified by season 1999-2000):

FIRST QUALIFYING ROUND (18 teams): Winners of countries ranked 30-49 in UCR for to the period 1994-98 (except Liechtenstein and Andorra). Total games: 9.

SECOND QUALIFYING ROUND (28 teams): 9 survivors of the previous round, together with champions of countries ranked 17-29 in UCR for the period 1994-98 and runners-up of countries ranked 10-15 in the above UCR. Total games: 14.

THIRD QUALIFYING ROUND (32 teams): 14 survivors of the previous round, together with champions of countries ranked 11-16 in UCR for the period 1994-98, plus runners-up of countries ranked 6-9 in the above UCR, plus third-placed teams of countries ranked 1-5 in the above UCR, plus fourth-placed teams of countries ranked 1-3 in the above UCR. Total games: 16. The 16 losers receive a "wild card" to access the New UEFA Cup (a merge of the former UEFA Cup and Cup Winners' Cup) starting from the First Round.

CHAMPIONS LEAGUE (32 teams): The 16 survivors of the previous round, together with the title holder of C1, winners of countries ranked 1-10 in UCR for the period 1994-98, and runners-up of countries ranked 1-5 in the above UCR, are distributed in 8 groups of 4 teams each in a First Group-Match Stage. After playing a round robin (3 points per victory, 1 point per draw), all the winners and runners-up of these groups advance to a Second Group-Match Stage, with 4 groups of 4 teams each playing a round robin again. The third-qualified teams after First Group-Match Stage receive a "wild card" to access UEFA Cup starting from the Third Round. The winners and runners-up of Second Group-Match Stage qualify for a knock-out round of 1/4 Finals and further Semi Finals. The two ultimate winners play the final at a predetermined venue.


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