Football’s premier club competition, the European Champion Clubs’ Cup was launched soon after UEFA’s first Congress, held in Vienna on 2 March 1955, yet the competition was not a UEFA initiative.
Whereas many of UEFA’s founder members were more interested in establishing a national team competition, the French sports daily L’Equipe and its then-editor Gabriel Hanot were championing the cause for a Europe-wide club competition. Hanot, together with colleague Jacques Ferran, designed a blueprint for a challenge tournament to be played on Wednesdays under floodlights.
The tournament initiated by L’Equipe did not stipulate that the participating teams had to be champions of their country, but they invited clubs who they considered had the most fan appeal. Representatives of 16 sides were invited to meetings on 2 and 3 April 1955, and the L’Equipe rules were unanimously approved.
UEFA – which had been founded in June 1954 – reacted by contacting the world body FIFA, and the latter’s Executive Committee, meeting in London on 8 May 1955, authorised the new club competition under the condition that it was organised by UEFA and that the national associations concerned gave their consent to their clubs taking part. UEFA’s Executive Committee accepted the conditions laid down by FIFA and agreed to run the competition at its meeting on 21 June 1955.
The first European Champion Clubs’ Cup fixture was played in Lisbon as SC Portugal were held to a 3-3 draw by Partizan. The Yugoslavian side won the return leg in Belgrade 5-2 to advance to the next round.
Real Madrid immediately made the tournament their own by winning the first five finals. Since then, other clubs have also enjoyed fruitful runs in the competition with Ajax and Bayern München both completing three consecutive victories. However, no one club has been able to claim long-term domination. Ajax waited 22 years to add a fourth title to the hat-trick obtained in the early 1970s; Madrid’s triumph in 1998 was their first in 32 years; and Bayern’s penalty shoot-out success in Milan in 2001 ended a 26-year quest for their fourth crown.
Liverpool’s four victories between 1977 and 1984 deserve a mention as the English club landed the prize with essentially different teams. The Reds’ European pedigree also shone in 2005 when they battled back from 3-0 down to pip AC Milan on penalties in one of the competition’s most exciting finals.
Real Madrid, Milan and FC Barcelona have been the most successful sides in the UEFA Champions League era, the Spanish pair lifting the trophy four times apiece and the Rossoneri three. Madrid are also the most successful club overall with 11 triumphs, followed by seven for Milan, five for Barcelona, Bayern and Liverpool, then four for Ajax. Moreover, Madrid hold the record for final appearances with 13. Milan’s 2002/03 triumph came after a marathon 19 games from third qualifying round all the way to penalty shoot-out success over Juventus in the final.
The major turning point in the tournament’s evolution had come in the 1992/93 season when the UEFA Champions League, involving a group stage in addition to the traditional knockout elements, was officially inaugurated after a pilot round robin during the previous campaign. The popularity of the group phase means the competition has grown from eight to 32 teams with matches held on Tuesdays and Wednesdays across Europe.