A competition with an infinitely misleading name, The UEFA Champions League has served as the benchmark of success for clubs from all over Europe since its inception. Or rather, it serves as an indicator of success for the top teams from the top leagues, leaving clubs from less established football competitions to wallow in the presence of Bayern Munich and Real Madrid. It is no longer a ‘league of champions’ as its name implies- with clubs finishing up to fourth in domestic top flight divisions such as the Spanish La Liga and English Premier League getting an opportunity to compete for the trophy.
While the top leagues bask in the glory of financial and its correlating footballing success, champions of domestic competitions in leagues UEFA deems lesser don’t even have a guaranteed spot in the competition that was once their home. Prior to the advent of the revenue-grabbing scheme that is today’s Champions League, club’s emerging as their respective national league victors had a shot at winning the title of all titles: the European Cup. Crafted as the brainchild of L’Equipe editor Gabriel Hanot, the European Champions Club Cup was the ultimate measure of success for any team.
One team from each country, the premise was alarmingly simple. Have league winners compete for the title of “Champions of Europe” in a cup competition parallel to the domestic season. It worked beautifully, becoming an instantaneous hit all across Europe. In its second year of existence, upwards of 120 thousands fans watched Real Madrid win their second European Cup trophy at the Estadio Santiago Bernabeu in Madrid. Three years later, a crowd of nearly 130 thousand poured into Glasgow’s Hampden Park to witness Real’s fifth consecutive European Cup title, handily dismantling German champions Frankfurt 7-3.
Even smaller matches and teams attracted large amounts of supporters, with first round matchups regularly featuring stadiums filled to the brim. The nature of the competition itself meant there was always a variety of teams, due to the ever-changing status of a country’s national champion. One year you could have AC Milan, Aston Villa, and Valencia, the next Juventus, Liverpool, and Barcelona vying for the title. The steady mix of clubs crafted new matchups to be seen and never before seen excitement to be had. In example, from the 79/80 to the 81/82 season there were three different European Cup champions, all from England.
Naturally, big clubs started establishing themselves as time went on, and teams enjoyed spells of domestic and, on the off occasion, continental dominance. Bayern Munich won the cup three times between 1974 and 1976, with Ajax Amsterdam winning the previous three renditions from 1971-73. However these streaks always came to an end, with domestic & European champions were continuously cycled through.
Most importantly, the European Cup had everything any kind of football fan would enjoy, right out of the gate. Casual fans would enjoy watching the exciting and high scoring matches that resulted from Bundesliga winners being pitted against the champions of Finland, while more serious connoisseurs of the beautiful game would live for first round matchups involving two major European powers.
As the global popularity of the European Cup increased, so did the interest of Europe’s governing football body UEFA. The competition was a gold mine of potential sponsor milking and revenue generating, after all. After a period of negotiations, the 1992-93 rendition was branded the UEFA Champions League, featuring a round-robin style rather than the straight elimination the competition prided itself on for nearly 40 years.
Amazingly, it also introduced the notion that league winners did not necessarily have a spot in the final stages. Preliminary rounds were added to weed out the “undesirable clubs” from participating in the Champions League. The 92/93 inaugural edition featured an extensive pre-round robin process, and saw big clubs like FC Barcelona and English giants Leeds United not making it to the finals.
The first few years went by well enough, but 94/95 brought with it many changes. 32 teams would be seeded into eight groups, rather that the two groups of four that comprised the Champions League in its first couple of seasons. From each of the eight groups, two teams would advance to the knockout stages. There would still be a qualifying round, but it was reserved for teams from smaller and “less important domestic divisions”, instead of being a necessary process for all potential competitors. This rendition of the Champions League still kept some of the spirit of the European Cup, allowing only league winners the chance to be a part of the competition.
Just a few years later, the 1997-98 edition of the competition brought with it radical changes that not only made the tournament nigh unrecognisable from its predecessor, but set the Champions League on the path it is on today. For the first time, clubs that didn’t win their domestic division would be allowed the possibility of entry, at the expense of actual domestic champions. This was a courtesy extended to the leagues UEFA deemed top- Germany, Spain, Italy, France, and several others got the opportunity to field a second team in the competition, but Iceland, for example, could not.
This spit in the face to both the name the competition holds and the principles the European Cup was founded on arose because of a revenue issue. Small teams from small leagues were simply unprofitable for UEFA- integrity be damned. After all, few know about the existence of Swedish club IFK Goteborg, but near everyone knows the top few clubs from nations like Spain or Germany. Why bother tuning into a match featuring league winners from Iceland and Belarus when Barcelona and Real Madrid were both playing matches adjacently? The competition gradually sloped into a popularity contest, with the top leagues gradually being allocated more and more spots, pushing out league champions into qualification round obscurity.
Fast forwarding to the future, the Champions League’s name seems sillier than ever. Nine times clubs that failed to win their domestic divisions claimed the trophy as their own, including, amazingly, the past three running. Second, third, and even fourth place finishers get put into the competition, with a new ruling seeing to that there can be up to five from select leagues in the near future. Meanwhile, national champions from smaller leagues barely scrape up one candidate to have the possibility of qualifying. It seems inevitable that the Champions League will turn into a competition featuring teams from only four or five leagues, with the occasional BATE Borisov to appease the critics.
Although a lot of the imbalance of power on the European front is owed to a difference in the financial might of various nations as well as Bosman ruling fallout, having one team from one league vastly increased the chances of a minnow crafting a shock run to the title.
From a fan’s perspective, the way the competition has gone is appalling. Even as a supporter of AC Milan, a team which won its past two continental titles whilst not being national champions, the Champions League is a disgrace.
Gone are the days when Club Brugge and Red Star Belgrade had a real shot at glory.
Gone are the days when all league winners had a fantastic intracontinental competition to look forward to, no matter what.
Gone are the days when the competition was about football, not profit.