How Clubs Qualify For the Champions League
Teams in the higher ranking domestic leagues in Europe can qualify for the competition by winning the league or finishing in one of the places. In the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and German Bundesliga for example, teams that finish in the top four will secure places in the following Champions League.
Teams from lower ranking domestic leagues will have fewer places to qualify for the competition. In some of the lower ranking leagues, only the team that wins the league will secure a place. There are a total of 55 different domestic leagues in Europe, and the leagues that rank under the 10th will be able to qualify for the Champions League through a series of qualification rounds. Here, the teams that won the lower ranking leagues will be seeded and play in double leg knockout rounds. The lowest ranking leagues will have the most games to play to qualify, as they will have to continuously beat teams from higher ranking leagues as they advance towards qualification.
The way the Champions League is set up, virtually any club in Europe can qualify to play amongst the best, and even recently there have been clubs who have made their debut in the competition proper.
Structure of the Champions League
The Champions League can be split into two separate stages, the group stage and the knockout stage. First, the clubs play in the group stage, which is played in September through December. Here, the 32 clubs that enter the competition are seeded into eight groups of four. There are some rules to ensure that teams from the same domestic league do not play against each other, and also to make sure that there are no groups that are full of top teams and others that have all the lower ranking teams.
Clubs in the group stage play in a double robin round against the other clubs in their groups. They play both home and away, and usually play on Tuesdays and Wednesdays. The days when there is Champions League football are usually called Champions League nights, where there are a handful of games played, sometimes featuring top teams going head to head.
The group stage follows the main structure that is used the world over in football, whereby a team that wins a game receives 3 points, a tie results in 1 point and a loss results in no points. At the end of the group stage, the teams that won the groups and placed runners up will qualify for the next stage. Clubs who placed in third will be relegated to a playoff to play in the Europa League knockout stage, which is the second tier of European football.
The 16 teams that qualified for the knockout stage will be paired and then have to play in a double leg knockout round, playing both home and away. This stage begins in February and lasts until May, with the matches being played on the same days, namely Tuesday and Wednesday, with the exception of the finals. The knockout stages begin with the round of the last 16, and then the winners of that round proceed to the quarter finals, then semi-finals and the competition concludes with the Champions League finals.
The finals are always a highly anticipated event that is a single game, played in a stadium that was predetermined before the start of the competition.
The original European Cup was created in 1955, though football between the European football clubs traces its history even further back. There were competitions such as the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy, the World Championships, the Challenge Cup, Coupe des Nations and the Latin Cup. Each of these competitions were partially international, involving teams from England, Scotland, Italy, Spain, France, Hungary and Germany amongst others.
However, each of the competitions either ended several years later or were only to be a one-time event. This was because the funding was not enough to have a contiguous competition that could be held annually between teams from Europe.
In 1948, a French sports journalist, Jacques Ferran, was writing about the South American Championship of Champions. Fascinated by the idea of having a yearly international football competition he set up the European Cup with fellow journalist Gabriel Hanot. Years later, Ferran said:
"How could Europe, which wanted to be ahead of the rest of the world, not be able to accomplish a competition of the same kind as the South American one? We needed to follow that example."
In these early years of the competition, there were many legendary players and golden generations of players who won the competition and helped popularise the event. The 1950s and 60s saw the emergence of Real Madrid as a powerhouse in the league. They won the first five editions of the European Cup, with players such as Alfredo Di Stefano and Ferenc Puskas. Benfica also won the competition twice and the Milanese teams, AC Milan and Inter Milan also both won the competition.
From the 1970s through to the 1980s, the league was won in successive years by Dutch, German and English clubs. Feyenoord won the competition in 1970, becoming the first Dutch team to do so, and were followed by Ajax who won it for three years in a row. German club Bayern Munich won their first Champions League in 1974, and won it three times in a row as well, and they were followed by Liverpool, Nottingham Forest and Aston Villa who won the competition between 1977 and 1982.
The rest of the 80s and early 90s saw the competition open up as it was won by four new winners including Steaua Bucuresti, PSV Eindhoven, Red Star Belgrade, and the first of many for Barcelona. In 1992, Barcelona and Sampdoria entered the finals for the first time in either clubs’ history and Barcelona won to lift their first trophy. It was the final competition that was played in the European Cup era.
The UEFA Champions League
The European Cup was renamed to the Champions League in 1992, with new television sponsors and coverage. The competition also was restructured to have a league format quarter finals, a structure that was quite new at the time. Marseille won the first Champions league, and they were also the first French team to win a European Cup. The star of the Marseille team was Marcel Desailly, who was bought by Milan in the following season, where he won the Champions League with the Milanese side. Desailly became the first player to win consecutive European trophies with different clubs.
The Champions League era continued where the European Cup left off, with different teams winning the competition each year. The rest of the 90s saw AC Milan, Ajax, first time winners Juventus and Borussia Dortmund, Real Madrid and Manchester United all win the Champions League trophy. Real Madrid won the competition in 1998 and broke a record 32 years trophy drought. The following year, Manchester United won their second Champions League trophy, having won their first trophy 31 years before.
Real Madrid won in 2000, followed by Bayern Munich in 2001, breaking their 25 year Champions League trophy drought. Liverpool were the next big team to win their first trophy after a long period of unsuccessful campaigns, winning in 2005 and breaking a 21 year drought. Real Madrid then set a record for the modern era, winning three Champions League titles in a row, from 2016-2018.
Barcelona won the Champions League numerous times in the modern era, establishing themselves as strong contenders for the competition, alongside the likes of Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Liverpool and Chelsea, who won their first competition in 2012 and then became double winners after beating Manchester City in the finals of 2021.
Champions League Favourites
There are many excellent teams that play in the Champions League and it is always difficult to predict because there are not many indicators to suggest how different clubs may perform. The powerhouse teams, such as Real Madrid, Liverpool, Bayern Munich and Chelsea have all won the competition, but there are some teams who have yet to win who are extremely highly rated such as Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain.
The Champions League is loved by many because it is a competition in which there are both huge upsets and great performances by world class players.