Tracing the history of the Champions League back to its beginning, it is possible to pick out periods when specific teams or countries dominated the competition, only to find themselves rapidly superseded by another dominant team or teams.
The format of the tournament had also undergone several significant changes throughout the years, with the creation of the group stage in 1991 and the inclusion of the runners-up of domestic leagues in the tournament in 1997 as the some of the most noteworthy examples.
An early attempt to create a cup for national champion clubs of Europe was made by Swiss club FC Servette in 1930. The tournament called Coupe des Nations was a great success and the champions of the ten major European football nations of the time were invited. The cup was won by Hungarian Újpest FC. Despite the great success, the tournament was never organized again, due to financial issues.
Following the Second World War, the reduced standing of the Mitropa Cup led to the foundation of a new competition, the Copa Latina, for teams from France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. This competition was played as a mini-tournament at the end of each season by the league champions from each country.
Before we declare that Wolverhampton are invincible, let them go to Moscow and Budapest. And there are other internationally renowned clubs: A.C. Milan and Real Madrid to name but two. A club world championship, or at least a European one — larger, more meaningful and more prestigious than the Mitropa Cup and more original than a competition for national teams — should be launched.
The UEFA congress of March 1955 saw the proposal raised, with approval given in April of that year, and the kick-off of the first European Cup the following season.
Real Madrid dominated the first five competitions, with the team led by Ferenc Puskás, Alfredo Di Stéfano, Gento and José Santamaría winning each of the first five competitions relatively comfortably.
While this was the case, several other clubs did offer some resistance during the late 1950s, notably from Stade de Reims of France, who reached two finals and several Italian clubs such as AC Milan and Fiorentina. Hibernian were the first UK club to play the European Cup, reaching the semi-finals of the inaugural tournament in 1955.
This era culminated in the famous 1960 European Cup Final, at Hampden Park, Glasgow, Scotland, where Real Madrid obliterated Eintracht Frankfurt of the then West Germany 7–3 in front of BBC and other Eurovision television cameras and a crowd of over 135,000 — still the largest attendance for a European Cup or Champions League final.
Manchester United were enjoying a golden age with the advent of the Busby Babes during this period, winning two successive domestic titles, as well as reaching the semi-finals of the European Cup and the FA Cup Final in 1957. The flair and style of the young team caused them to be seen as major challengers to the dominance of Real Madrid. On the way home from the quarter-final second leg against Red Star Belgrade, which saw United again qualify for the semi-final, the aeroplane carrying the United players, officials and journalists crashed while taking off from a stopover in Munich. The Munich air disaster caused the deaths of eight members of the team, and ultimately ended all hopes that the club would rise to overtake Real, whose unorthodox and cavalier playing style meant that all challengers had been beaten so far.
This team, captained by the impressive Mário Coluna from Mozambique, were joined by the legendary Eusébio during the following 1962 season, where they defended the trophy beating Real Madrid 5–3 in the final at the Olympisch Stadion, Amsterdam, Netherlands.
Benfica would then go on to reach a third successive final in 1963, but lost to AC Milan, whose city rivals Inter would win the trophy in both 1964 and 1965 beating Real Madrid and Benfica in the process. This Grande Inter period is well remembered in Italy with many at the time expecting the club to match the domination of Real throughout the decade.
Of the great 1950s side, only Paco Gento played in all six winning teams, with this Real Madrid being composed solely of Spanish players — a major contrast to the multicultural teams of five years before.
The team, which became known as the Lisbon Lions, managed by Jock Stein, were all born within 30 miles (48 km) of Celtic Park in Glasgow, and as such remain unusual by the event's longstanding nature of attracting the best and most cosmopolitan players from all over the planet.
Celtic are the only club to have won the competition with a team composed entirely of players born in the region of the club they represent. By way of contrast, while Real Madrid fielded many Spaniards in the 1950s and an all Spanish team in 1966, the major stars were from elsewhere; Di Stéfano had arrived from Argentina, while Puskás had defected from Hungary in 1956.
Ten years after the Munich air disaster, Manchester United became the first English team to win the competition, in the 1968, after beating Benfica in the finals 4–1 after extra time at Wembley Stadium, London, England. Matt Busby, United's manager at the time of the disaster in Munich, survived life-threatening injuries suffered in the crash and was still at the helm for United, and two other Munich survivors played in the game — Bobby Charlton, who scored two goals in the game, and Bill Foulkes.
The game was close, and though United scored three times in extra time to win with a flourish, Benfica could have won the game in normal time when Eusébio missed what should have been (for him) an easy chance in the last seconds.
The European Cup was now to spend almost the whole of the next decade and a half as the property of just three clubs — each winning at least three finals, and appearing regularly in the latter stages of the competition.
After that though, the Total Football of Johan Cruijff, Barry Hulshoff, Ruud Krol, Johan Neeskens, Arie Haan, Gerrie Mühren and Piet Keizer dominated for three years, despatching Panathinaikos, Inter and Juventus in swift succession.
Each player was able to adapt to play in many positions and roles, strikers switching with defenders at will, Krol creating nearly as many chances as Mühren, Cruijff stopping as many as Hulshoff.
Created by Rinus Michels and refined by Stefan Kovacs, Ajax seemed unbeatable until Cruijff opted to join former coach Michels at Barcelona later in 1973. With that and the loss of Neeskens later, Ajax were left to struggle in the premier European competition for over 20 years.
Led by Franz Beckenbauer, and starring Sepp Maier, Gerd Müller, Uli Hoeneß and Paul Breitner, Bayern continued on from Total Football, adding their own version of rigidity and organisation to the mix to make an equally as imposing mixture.
Defeating first Atlético Madrid after a replay in 1974, Bayern then beat Leeds United 2–0 in a bad-tempered final at the Parc des Princes, Paris, France in 1975, and finally St. Étienne at Hampden Park, Glasgow, in 1976.
Thereafter the side declined, and Bayern would not win another European Cup for 25 years.
Liverpool lost in the first round of the 1979 competition to fellow English side Nottingham Forest who went on to win the tournament in arguably the most impressive rise to the top of continental football in the European game's history, guided by their uniquely gifted manager Brian Clough, as they defeated Swedish side Malmö 1–0 in the Munich Final. The next year, Forest beat Hamburg SV at the Santiago Bernabéu by the same scoreline to defend the trophy successfully in 1980 and remain the only side to win the competition more times (twice) than their own domestic league (once).
However, Liverpool were back in 1984 to defeat AS Roma in their own stadium in a penalty shootout after the teams were tied 1–1, becoming the first team to win the trophy four times since Real Madrid in the 1950s. The match is best known for the antics of Liverpool keeper Bruce Grobbelaar. As Roma's Bruno Conti prepared to take his kick, Bruce Grobbelaar walked towards the goal smiling confidently at the cameras lined-up behind, then proceeded to bite the back of the net, in imitation of eating spaghetti. Conti sent his spot kick over the bar. Grobbelaar then produced a similar performance before Francesco Graziani took his kick, famously wobbling his legs in mock terror. Graziani duly missed and Liverpool went on to win the shootout 4–2, making Grobbelaar the first African to win the competition.
The consequence was a 5-year ban from European competition for English clubs, with a 6-year ban on Liverpool. The long term consequences for English club football due to the actions of Liverpool fans at Heysel were arguably severe in terms of top level success, with English clubs initially struggling to make a significant impact in European competition upon their return from the ban.
Serie A clubs reached the final in seven consecutive seasons, winning twice. The 1992 final, played at Wembley Stadium, was won by Barcelona against Sampdoria. Barca, coached by Johan Cruyff, was known as the "Dream Team" at the time of its win.
The competition was named to UEFA Champions League for the 1992–1993 season. Marseille won the 1993 final, defeating A.C. Milan, but were later banned from defending their crown in what was only the beginning of a collapse which arose from domestic match fixing committed by chairman Bernard Tapie. The club was eventually stripped of their French First Division league championship after it was revealed that Tapie had cooked the club's financial books. Marseille remains the only French club to have won the European Cup/Champions League.
In 1994, A.C. Milan reclaimed the trophy by comprehensively beating a star-studded Barcelona side, 4–0, in what many have hailed as one of the finest European Cup Final performances of the modern age. Milan were the underdogs, with two key defenders forced to sit out, but coach Fabio Capello spurned the traditional Italian caution of catenaccio and led them to a rout of Johan Cruyff's Barca. Milan defender Marcel Desailly had previously played for Marseille when they won the Champions League, being the first player to win the Cup in consecutive seasons with different clubs, and also making him the first player to transfer to the Finals opposing side.
Milan also went on to reach the final in 1995 but lost 1–0 to an Ajax side powered by the brilliant 19 year-old striker Patrick Kluivert. It was the club's first triumph since 1973, when they had won three titles consecutively, and much of the squad in the 1995 victory also dominated the Dutch national team. Ajax, in turn, reached the next final in 1996, but fell to Juventus after a penalty shoot-out.
By this time world football had just begun to adapt to the radical changes brought on by the Bosman ruling. It was best known for allowing out-of-contract players to move to other clubs without a transfer fee, but its most important impact was on the Champions League. It meant the elimination of quotas against European Union nationals, so players from EU member states were not considered foreigners for clubs in EU member states any more.
In 1997–98, UEFA allowed the runners-up of top European leagues to compete in the European Cup (now officially the UEFA Champions League). UEFA's rationale was that the quality of its premier tournament increased by including more top teams from big leagues rather than minnows. Despite the new changes, an old face claimed the crown in 1998: Real Madrid won their first European Cup since 1966 and seventh overall when they beat Juventus 1–0 in the Italian club's third straight final (and second straight defeat).
Their opponents, Bayern Munich, were also chasing The Treble, and took the lead after just six minutes through a clever Mario Basler free-kick. It appeared to be enough for Bayern as Manchester United failed to find a way through, although Schmeichel was in inspirational form to keep his team in the game. With referee Pierluigi Collina signalling three minutes of stoppage time the English club sent everyone forward for a David Beckham corner, and were rewarded when substitute Teddy Sheringham turned home the equaliser after Ryan Giggs miss-hit a shot at goal. Just over a minute later another Beckham corner again provided the danger as Sheringham headed it on to fellow substitute Ole Gunnar Solskjær, who flicked out a boot to send the ball into the roof of the net and win the European Cup for Manchester United. Manchester United's manager, Alex Ferguson, memorably summed the experience up in a post-match interview when he said:
Football, bloody hell
It was the club's first success since 1968 and marked the first English winner since Liverpool in 1984.
This season saw Spanish clubs return to the top of the European table and the start of a somewhat dominance in the Champions League in the 21st century after winning two European cups in the 1990s with Barcelona in 1992 and Real Madrid in 1998. La Liga had three semi-finalists in the 2000 Champions League (Real Madrid, Valencia and Barcelona) and the first all-country European Cup/Champions League final between Real Madrid and Valencia. Real Madrid started the 21st century in similar fashion to their 20th century exploits by defeating Valencia 3–0 to lift the European Cup again. This was the first final to feature two teams from the same country. On the way to the final, Real also achieved the remarkable feat of successively eliminating last year's runners-up (Bayern Munich, semi-finals), and champions (Manchester United, quarter-finals). The tie against Manchester United has obtained legendary status among Madrid fans after a memorable away victory at Old Trafford (2–3) which included a fine goal created by midfielder Fernando Redondo, dubbed el taconazo (backheel) de Old Trafford.
La Liga had another good outing in the 2001 Champions League, with Real Madrid and Valencia again reaching the semi-finals. Los Che returned to the Final again in the 2001 only to lose again. The winner this time was Bayern Munich, who had earlier ousted defending champions Real Madrid in the semi-finals, which finally erased the memory of their 1999 final defeat. That match ended 1–1 and Bayern won the shootout 5–4. That win also gave coach Ottmar Hitzfeld the distinction of winning the European Cup with two different teams, having lifted it in 1997 with Borussia Dortmund. Valencia had now lost two Champions League finals in a row.
There were echoes of Real Madrid's legendary 1960 final victory when they faced another German team (Bayer Leverkusen) in the 2002 final at Glasgow's Hampden Park. Bayer became the first finalist never to have won their domestic league. Furthering the comparisons with the classic team of Di Stéfano and Puskás was the much-hyped "Galactico" policy Real Madrid were pursuing at the time, where they intended to sign one world-class player a year. That season they added multiple FIFA World Player of the Year winner, Zinedine Zidane, to their ranks for a world record fee of €71 million. Zidane and Madrid lived up to the hype; the Frenchman displayed textbook skill to acrobatically volley home the winner in their 2–1 victory that gave the club its ninth European Cup, after defeating fellow La Liga side Barcelona in the semi-finals, where the Spanish dominance continued with them having the most semi-finalists for the third season running with two in 2002 (three in 2000, two in 2001 and two in 2002) and culminating with Real Madrid becoming European Champions for the third time in five seasons.
As a footnote, that defeat capped off a thoroughly unfortuitous season for Bayer Leverkusen. They first surrendered the German league title in the last game of the season, then lost the European Cup final, finally conceding the German Cup final to achieve an unenviable runners-up treble. And to add insult to injury, some of that side (including midfield star Michael Ballack) then went on to lose the 2002 FIFA World Cup Final with Germany that summer.
The next season saw Italian clubs return to the top of the European table. Despite dominating the competition through the 1990s, Italian clubs fell so far so fast in the intervening years that Italy didn't boast a single quarter-finalist in 2002. The following season, however, saw three Italian semi-finalists—and a final between A.C. Milan and Juventus. Milan won their sixth European Cup when they beat their old rivals 3–2 on penalties following a 0–0 draw. The victory was especially sweet for captain, Paolo Maldini, who lifted the trophy in Manchester exactly forty years after his father Cesare had done so for Milan in London. Another remarkable fact was accomplished by Clarence Seedorf, who won the Champions League for the third time, and with three different clubs. He won the cup earlier with Ajax in 1995 and Real Madrid in 1998.
In the group stage of that year there was also an interesting feature. Three teams had the same result in all their matches. Fancy Barcelona managed to win all 6 group matches in style, while a mediocre Spartak Moscow side lost them all. AEK Athens drew 6 times and became the first team that failed to qualify from the group stage undefeated, finishing third. The competition was also notable for Newcastle United making history in it by being the only team ever to lose their first 3 group stage games and progress to the second round, they did so by defeating Juventus, Dynamo Kiev and Feyenoord to finish second in the group on 9 points.
FC Porto and their charismatic manager, José Mourinho, achieved the rare feat of following up a UEFA Cup victory by winning the European Cup the next season. Russian international Alenichev became only the third player after Ronald Koeman and Ronaldo to score a goal in two consecutive different European finals and Vítor Baía became the tenth player to have won the three European club titles. This well-deserved victory was based on a tight defence, a battling midfield and a skilful front line, all beautifully orchestrated by No. 10 Deco. In that season, it was the first time ever that a metropolitan area (Athens, though Piraeus is formally another town) was represented in the group stage by three teams: Olympiacos Piraeus, Panathinaikos and AEK Athens.
Milan broke through after just 52 seconds, Maldini striking the fastest goal in European Cup Final history. The Italians, buoyed by a sensational showing from Brazilian star Kaká took control of the game. Shevchenko fed Hernán Crespo five minutes before half-time to make it 2–0, only for Crespo to add another two minutes later after a defence-splitting pass from Kaká. At 3–0 down at half-time, Liverpool looked dead and buried; so much so that a small minority of Liverpool supporters left the match at half-time, a decision that they would later come to regret.
Liverpool's Spanish manager Rafael Benítez changed the course of the game when he introduced German midfielder Dietmar Hamann. After Liverpool goalkeeper Jerzy Dudek made a fine save from a Shevchenko free-kick, one of the European Cup Final's greatest ever comeback began. Captain Steven Gerrard scored with a header before Vladimír Šmicer's long-range drive made it 3–2 just two minutes later. And on the hour mark Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso completed the comeback by converting the rebound from his saved penalty kick to make it 3–3.
Milan almost won it at the end of extra time when Shevchenko was twice denied in quick succession by Dudek. That proved crucial as they moved on to a penalty shoot-out where Liverpool triumphed 3–2 when Dudek again saved from Shevchenko. Liverpool had captured their most unlikely European Cup victory, and as five-time winners earned the honour of keeping the trophy.
Liverpool almost failed to qualify from the group stage. Participating in Group A, along with Monaco , Deportivo La Coruña and Olympiacos, Liverpool were placed third on matchday 6 and had to win with a clean sheet or by at least two clear goals in their last match against Olympiacos at home. At half-time, the Greeks were leading by a goal to nil; although Florent Sinama Pongolle had equalised two minutes after the break, the score was still 1-1 with less than ten minutes left. After 81 minutes, Neil Mellor gave Liverpool the lead before, with just four minutes of normal time left, Steven Gerrard fired in a spectacular goal from 25 yards to seal the 3-1 victory that took them into the knock-out stages.
If Everton were to be replaced with Liverpool, it would be the second time in which Liverpool had caused Everton not to qualify for the cup although they had gained a spot (English clubs were banned after the Heysel stadium disaster, a season in which Everton had finished first). This was in contrast to the Spanish football authorities who in 2000 had replaced Real Zaragoza with Real Madrid.
Liverpool and the FA lobbied hard for a special fifth Champions League place for the team, claiming it was UEFA rules rather than the FA's previous decisions that were keeping Liverpool from the competition. After some debate, UEFA decided to grant special dispensation and allow Liverpool to defend their title, but they had to enter the tournament at the First Qualifying Round. The ruling also stated that if the team made it into the Champions League proper the other English teams would have to split the prize money that was due to them. The rules of the competition were also changed to prevent any further dispute if the same situation happened again; future winners not qualifying through their domestic league will take the place of the team claiming the last Champions League spot in the domestic League. If the same situation were to happen again, where Everton claimed the fourth and final Champions League place in the English Premiership with Liverpool finishing fifth, Liverpool would take Everton's place in the Champions League and Everton would have to settle for a UEFA Cup spot.
The situation almost presented itself again in the 2005–06 season, when Arsenal made progress all the way to the final of the Champions League while performing poorly in their own domestic league, finding themselves behind their local rivals Tottenham Hotspur — it was only on the last day of the domestic season that Arsenal achieved the final Champions League qualification spot, with Spurs, who had held fourth place for several months, going into the UEFA Cup. Had Arsenal finished fifth, then gone on to win the Champions League, then they, and not Spurs, would have been England's final entrant into the next season's competition.
This changes the previous rules where the winners of the competition had to qualify in order to defend their title, just like the winners of World Cup, as it was assumed they would finish in the qualification places in their domestic league. All winners are now however, as described, allowed to defend their title.
In the final, held on 17 May at the Stade de France, Lehmann became the first player ever to be sent off in a European Cup/Champions League final after fouling Samuel Eto'o just outside the penalty area. The sending off was the subject of some protest, as Eto'o had already passed off to an open Ludovic Giuly who put the ball in the goal; however, the referee had blown the whistle for the foul. Arsenal nonetheless took the lead off a Sol Campbell header in the 37th minute and held it for most of the second half, with substitute keeper Manuel Almunia tipping away a shot by Eto'o. Eto'o equalised off a probing feed from substitute Henrik Larsson in the 76th minute; this goal was disputed by Arsenal as they had thought it was scored from an offside position . Five minutes later, another Larsson ball found Juliano Belletti, who put the second goal through the legs of Almunia to give Barça their final 2–1 margin.
Valencia was the only La Liga team to advance to the quarter-finals, knocking out Serie A leaders Inter on away goals, but falling to Chelsea in the next round. Barcelona and Real Madrid were eliminated in the round of sixteen; Madrid has not advanced beyond the quarter-finals since 2003. Madrid won their home leg 3–2 against Bayern Munich with two crosses from David Beckham, but Bayern triumphed 2–1 on the second leg after Roberto Carlos conceded the ball early which led to Roy Makaay scoring the quickest goal in Champions League history. Spanish teams Sevilla, Osasuna, and Espanyol, however, have made the semi-finals of the UEFA Cup, with Sevilla defeating Espanyol in the final.
Both Ligue 1 teams, Lille and Lyon were defeated in the round of sixteen. Lille lost to Manchester United in an acrimonous first leg with Ryan Giggs' controversial free kick being the difference; the French protested that they had insufficient time to assemble their defensive wall which allowed Giggs to score.
All four managers/coaches of the clubs in the Champions League semi-finals had previously managed Champions League-winning teams; three of them with their current club, though José Mourinho had taken key players and staff to join him at Chelsea.
In a repeat of the 2005 semi-final, Liverpool knocked out Chelsea this time in a shootout. Chelsea won the first leg at Stamford Bridge 1–0 thanks to a goal by Joe Cole, but Daniel Agger levelled the aggregate scoreline at Anfield. Thus, the match went to penalties which Liverpool won 4–1, with keeper José Reina saving twice. This was Chelsea's third semi-final defeat in four years.
The first leg of the other semi-final, at Old Trafford, was an exciting match with Cristiano Ronaldo opening the scoring, only for two Kaká goals to put Milan ahead 2–1 at half time. A Wayne Rooney brace in the second half gave United a 3–2 aggregate lead. The second leg at the San Siro, however, was a one-sided affair with Milan outclassing Man United from the start and winning 3–0 thanks to goals from Kaka, Clarence Seedorf and Alberto Gilardino.
As a result of the semi-final outcomes; 2007 was to feature an unofficial Third Place play off as losing semi-finalists Chelsea and Manchester United happened also to be FA Cup finalists; the latter match was played four days prior to the Champions League final, Chelsea winning 1–0 in (after extra time).
The final in Athens, however, was marred by the actions of fans off the pitch. In the aftermath of the final many Liverpool fans were blamed for attempting to get into the match without valid tickets by overwhelming the security at entry points, causing many fans with legitimate tickets to be turned away. The aftermath of Liverpool's defeat also saw many of their fans engage in wild fights with Milan fans in the city, who were guilty of none of the same behaviors. Liverpool's officials defended the behavior of their fans against widespread criticism by claiming that many fans without tickets were allowed entry to the Stadium, and that the choice of a modern venue with extensive security checks were inadequate. Former Conservative leader Michael Howard stating 'It's not a football stadium ... Ticket checks were a joke. Many people with valid tickets were not allowed in.'
UEFA officials later hit back at claims of inadequate systems, with William Gaillard stating "It is obvious that at one point the police felt overwhelmed and it is much to their credit there were no dangerous incidents. UEFA and Gaillard famously branded Liverpool's supporters "Europe's worst" for their actions in Athens.
The 2008 UEFA Champions League Final was the first all English club final in European Cup/Champions League history, and was played out between Manchester United and Chelsea in front of a packed-out Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow. United took the lead midway through the first half when Cristiano Ronaldo's header met Wes Brown's cross and bounced into the bottom left-hand corner of Petr Cech's goal. However, a series of deflections and a defensive error on United's part allowed Frank Lampard to equalise in the last minute of the first half. Although both sides created chances, the scoreline remained 1–1 until the end of extra time, and penalties loomed. Both teams scored their first two penalties, but Cristiano Ronaldo's shot was saved by Petr Cech. However, for Chelsea's last penalty, their captain John Terry appeared to slip as he was taking the shot, and the ball hit the outside of the post and flew helplessly wide. In the second round of sudden death, Ryan Giggs successfully converted his penalty before Edwin Van Der Sar won the Champions' League for United by saving Nicolas Anelka's effort.
Prior to 1970, aggregate draws were settled by a play-off and (if necessary) coin-toss. Since then, it has been via the away goals rule and (if necessary) a penalty shootout. The final retained the potential for a replay until the late 1970s.
The following books each provide an excellent history of the European Cup / Champions League: