In early June each year, the Final of the Union of European Football Associations Champions League takes place. Three out of the last four years, the winner of that tournament has been Real Madrid, who earn bragging rights as Europe’s (and, due to the strength of European leagues, typically the world’s) best football club. Most of the best players in the world, and most of the money in world football, are in five leagues: the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A, German Bundesliga, and the French Ligue 1. With very few exceptions, these are the leagues with the money and the star players. The Champions League may be the most important international tournament that many Americans know little to nothing about(the World Cup, for instance, seems to have fully penetrated the national zeitgeist). In this article, I’m going to take you through the history of the UEFA Champions League, from its inauguration in 1955 to the present day. Think of the Champions League as the true test for many European elite clubs. In American sports, the Cleveland Cavaliers are not judging their success by winning the NBA East. Neither are the New England Patriots measuring success by AFC East victories, nor the Los Angeles Dodgers by NL West crowns. Likewise, Bayern Munich and Paris San-Germain worry very little about whether they will win their domestic league. Juventus, this year’s runners-up in the Champions League, have won Serie A for six consecutive years, and are favorites to win a seventh. For the super-clubs that dominate world football, the Champions League, and the ways it encourages super-clubs, is the true measuring stick of success.
It fell to South America to provide the blueprint for the modern Champions League. The South American Championship of Champions officially kicked off in 1948. UEFA, which at the time only furnished national team championships, was inspired, by envy or jealousy, to create their own version of the South American Championship of Champions. A UEFA representitive, Jacques Ferran, acknowledged the importance of the South American example, saying “how could Europe, which wanted to be ahead of the world, not be able to accomplish a competition of the same kind as a South American one?” After the 1954 season, when the English club Wolverhampton Wanderers won multiple international friendlies and were proclaimed “Champions of the World” by their coach and the British press, UEFA finally saw the time was right to have an actual tournament to proclaim that title. (Be honest, how many of you had “Wolverhampton Wanderers” as the English side most influential in Champions League history?)
The European Cup, as it was known until 1993, began with a single-elimination tournament of the domestic champions of each league, along with the defending champion. In European football, there are no playoffs. The champion of a domestic league is the team which has accumulated the most points (3 for a win, 1 for a tie) at the end of the season. Each domestic champion, plus the team that won the Champions League the prior year, had a place in the tournament.Unsurprisingly, Real Madrid, who have a record twelve Champions League trophies, won the first five championships in a row, defeating teams like Stade de Reims of France, and AC Milan and Fiorentina in Italy. In the 1960s, the championship changed hands often, from Milan to Celtic and Manchester United in England, back to Real Madrid, before a Dutch club called Ajax burst onto the scene.
The 1970s saw the emergence of Ajax and Bayern Munich of West Germany on the world stage. Ajax won three championships in a row while Bayern followed with three of their own. The end of the 1970s and the early 1980s were dominated by English clubs. That came to a halt with the Heysel Stadium disaster of 1985. Liverpool were attempting to defend their trophy in Brussels against Juventus, the Old Lady of Italian football. (Juventus comes the latin word for youth. The nickname “the old lady” is a pun on the youthful nature of the club and a series of talented but old teams in the 1930s). An hour before the match, Liverpool and Juve supporters were confronting each other across a fence, throwing bottles and hurling insults. Liverpool supporters breached the fence and attacked Juve supporters, leading to a stampede away from the violence towards a concrete retaining wall, crushing their fellow supporters and collapsing the wall. Thirty-nine people died and six hundred were injured—mostly Juventus supporters. Juventus won the match 1-0, through that was small comfort to the families who lost loved ones that day.
In response, UEFA banned all English clubs from the competition for six years, and Liverpool for seven. Coming after a decade of emerging English dominance, this ban does a lot to explain why it took fourteen years for an English side to lift the trophy again. The Heysel disaster is rightly called “the darkest hour of UEFA competitions.” The next seven years saw teams from Yugoslavia, Romania, and Portugal lift the trophy, before the Champions League was born in 1993. The name change came with greater exposure and television revenue, along with the unification of Europe.
Though the tournament changed and increased its exposure in 1993, the real change came in 1997. In 1997, for the first time, the Champions League included non-champions. The tournament expanded to include the runners-up of the top leagues (Spain, Italy, Germany, England, France, and the Netherlands), and increased the importance of group stages. In the fall, the participants are seeded into four-team groups which play each other home and away. At the end of the group stage, the top two teams move on into the elimination rounds. This created the possibility that the “champion of Europe” could be the second-best club in its own domestic league. Though we cannot explain exactly why the Champions League expanded, the simple answer is money. More clubs competing means more revenue. Another possibility is to increase interest during a time when many leagues were not competitive for the championship, but competitive for the top two or three spots. A good example of this is Italy for the last six years.
In 2000, the competition was expanded yet again, with the top three leagues by Champions League results (then Spain, Italy, and Germany, now Spain, Germany and England) being given four Champions League berths, and the next three leagues earning three berths. Now, the fourth-best team in Spanish football could conceivably be crowned the best team in Europe. If this sounds familiar to American sport fans, it’s because this is basically the wild-card system, made so popular by baseball and American football. Whether this truly helps crown the undisputed European champion is another story.
The period since 2000, ironically, has seen an increased stability at the top, with Real Madrid emerging from four decades of failures in European competition to snag six Champions League trophies since 2000. The more open tournament coincided with expanding TV money and liberalized transfer rules which have solidified an upper class that consistently wins the tournament. Since 2000, the only club not considered a European power to win the trophy was Porto, the top team in Portugal. Three days ago, as of publication, Real Madrid finished off their record twelfth title, including two in a row and three in four years.
The Champions League is a barometer test of various European domestic leagues’ strength over time. It is the easiest way to understand who the top teams and leagues in Europe are, and understanding how it has created a cadre of European elite will help you, the reader, understand modern football. The Champions League is the easiest of football competitions for new fans to understand and explore. The teams are well-known, the system is familiar to anyone who watches the World Cup or March Madness. I first began to follow Juventus as a result of their semifinal victory over Madrid in 2015. They seemed like underdogs against the richest club in the world. Only after I travelled to Italy and endured the abuse directed at me for supporting the bianconeri did I realize that my new club was the New York Yankees of Italian football. The Champions League exposes American audiences to clubs beyond the English Premier League, which is currently long on name recognition and cash and short on talent and success. But the Champions League shows the problems of European football as well; next year, the final four teams will most likely be Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, Barcelona, and Juventus. A tournament that can only barely be called a tournament of champions now, which dominates the football calendar, has helped solidify a small cadre of super clubs through a feedback loop of victory winnings, exposure, and support. It is the greatness and problems of European football on the grandest scale.
 The history of Spanish football is fascinating, and does much to explain why Madrid have dominated internationally while it took until 2010 for the Spanish national team to win a World Cup. Real were the club of the Spanish dictator Francisco Franco, who promoted the team at the expense of other clubs, such as Benificia, Villareal, and Barcelona in particular. For more info, see this excellent article, and check back in a few weeks: https://sites.duke.edu/wcwp/research-projects/spain/origins-of-the-rivalry/
 Unfortunately, in the most recent Champions League final, on June 3rd, 2017, something similar happened. A firecracker went off in a viewing party in Turin, leading to a stampede that eventually injured over 1,500 people, though there have, thankfully, been no deaths this time.
 UEFA Chief Executive Lars-Christer Olsson, 2004. http://www.uefa.com/uefa/Keytopics/kind=2/newsId=300034.html