It is almost 30 years since UEFA decided to do away with the old format of what used to be known as the European Cup. A major rebrand and rethink changed the old knockout competition between the champions of Europe’s leagues into the multi-stage, multi-format behemoth we know today.
There have been a few changes over the years. It is fair to say that this season’s Champions League is nothing like the 1991-92 European Cup. But that is not to say that everyone thinks that the modern way is best – or even that every alteration has been celebrated and kept.
There had been games between champions since the late 19th century, but the European Cup came into being for the 1955-56 season after a pair of French journalists persuaded UEFA to launch a competition based on the South America Championship of Champions that had been in existence since 1948.
Only 16 clubs took part in that inaugural season, with Real Madrid beating Reims 4-3 in the final in Paris. The Spanish club then went on to win the first five finals and create an early domination of European football. Ties were played on a home and away basis, with the club scoring more goals on aggregate going through. The final was the only round of the competition decided by a one-off game.
The main difference between the old European Cup and the modern Champions League was – somewhat ironically – that only the champions of each domestic league were invited to compete. The reigning European champions were also allowed to participate the following year, no matter whether they had won their domestic league or not.
Critics of the modern competition point to the fact that it was only the best of the best that were able to truly call themselves champions of Europe. No club was able to finish fourth in their league and then go on to claim the European Cup the season after. The knockout format also meant that teams had little scope for playing poorly. They were not able to draw a few games and then sneak into the round of 16 like today’s clubs.
A preliminary round was introduced very early on for the smaller club champions of Europe. But the knockout format stayed largely the same, with a first round consisting of 16 teams remaining in effect until the 1966-67 season. The first round was then extended to 32 teams, but due to some clubs receiving byes in some years it did mean that Ajax could win the European Cup in 1973 only playing four rounds of football and just seven matches in total.
Even with this limited format, the bigger clubs of Europe tended to succeed. After Real Madrid’s early dominance, the title was shared by the likes of Benfica, Inter, Ajax and Bayern Munich. Feyenoord were probably the first surprise winners in 1970, before Nottingham Forest continued the English takeover in the late 1970s that continued up until the banning of the country’s clubs following crowd trouble and violence at the 1985 final.
The absence of the English champions made no difference to the format, however. It was still a strictly knockout competition until the 1991-92 season, when a group stage was introduced for the first time. The first and second rounds were still played as usual, but then there was a quarter-final stage consisting of two groups of four, playing on a home and away basis.
The two group winners – Sampdoria and Barcelona – then went on to play in the final. It was only a minor tweak, but one that changed the way the competition was played completely – and one that signalled the biggest shake-up in the history of the European Cup the very next year.
The Champions League began in the 1992-93 season with UEFA teaming up with a marketing company to rebrand the tournament and increase broadcasting rights and income for the clubs involved. Initially there was not that much difference, as all clubs still had to progress through at least one knockout round before the group stage.
A semi-final round was introduced the next year, before a group stage more akin to the one we know today appearing for the 1994-95 season. There were no knockout problems for the big clubs now, as the likes of Milan, Bayern Munich and Barcelona received a pass straight to the lucrative group stage just for being the top-ranked champions.
At this point it was still only the champions of each domestic league that competed. But in 1997-98 the runners-up also qualified, as UEFA wanted more of the bigger clubs competing in its premier competition and not so many ‘minnows’. By the turn of the century, more clubs from the top leagues were allowed to play in the Champions League and the format even included two group stage rounds for a few years to accommodate all the extra teams.
The current format has remained much the same since 2004 though, allowing the big clubs to start in the group stage and the smaller teams playing a series of qualifying rounds to join them. UEFA would argue that the fans want to see the biggest clubs challenging for the trophy and not exposed to a shock defeat in a one-off tie early on. With so much TV money involved these days, it is only these elite clubs that can afford the best players – meaning that they are generally the same ones competing in the later rounds each year.
In recent seasons, the gap between the haves and have-nots has only grown, with Chelsea’s triumph in 2021 now considered something of a shock. That is something of an irony, considering they were one of 20 members of the doomed European Super League proposed by the clubs themselves in 2021, in direct competition to UEFA’s Champions League.
It is a shame that it has become all but impossible for a smaller club to come through and be crowned champions of Europe today, even if the better sides do end up lifting the iconic trophy. UEFA has already announced that the competition will change dramatically from the 2024-25 season, with the group stage scrapped altogether in favour of a 32-team league where each club plays 10 games each. Whether this plan will be altered before that season kicks off remains to be seen.
Either way, it is fair to say that money influences the majority of decisions now and the European Cup has come a long way since two journalists envisaged a competition between champions all those years ago. Many people would say that not all changes have been for the better – but the thoughts of the fans are not always UEFA’s priority it seems.