Ever since the competition took shape in 1955, the European Champion Clubs’ Cup, or the UEFA Champions League as it has been known since the early 1990s, has set the standard for club football around the world.
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The competition celebrated its 65th birthday last autumn – and with a bold new format set to make UEFA's club competitions even more exciting from 2024 onwards, the Champions League continues to go from strength to strength.
Here, we chart the events and milestones that have characterised the development of the world's favourite club competition since its birth more than six decades ago.
EUROPEAN CHAMPION CLUBS' CUP
21 June 1955
UEFA’s Executive Committee confirms at its meeting in Paris that, following the world football body FIFA’s approval, UEFA will organise a new European club competition, originally proposed by the French newspaper L’Équipe.
The European Champion Clubs' Cup starts life as a 16-team invitational tournament, with a 3-3 first-round, first-leg draw between Portugal's Sporting CP and Yugoslavia's FK Partizan getting things off to an entertaining start in Lisbon on 4 September 1955. Real Madrid are crowned the first champions when they defeat French champions Reims 4-3 in a spectacular final in Paris – the first of five successive titles for the Spanish outfit.
Six more nations enter representatives following the success of the first campaign. Spain is the first country to have two entrants, with titleholders Madrid joined by domestic champions Athletic Bilbao. A preliminary round, featuring 12 teams organised geographically, precedes the 16-team first round.
The European Champion Clubs' Cup entry list is bolstered through to the mid-1960s by an increasing number of domestic champions. For the 1967/68 campaign, a 32-team tournament proper is established, featuring four two-legged rounds prior to a single-match final. This model would endure for more than 20 years.
18/19 April and 29 May 1991
The UEFA Executive Committee holds initial discussions on a new format for the competition at its meeting in London in April. A working group is set up to create a groundwork for a new set of tournament regulations.
The group's proposals are approved at the Executive Committee’s meeting in Bari, Italy, in late May. The 1991/92 season will be used as a transitional season for the new format, which will include a group stage for the first time.
19 September 1991
At an Extraordinary UEFA Congress in Montreux, Switzerland, delegates approve what will eventually become the Champions League from the 1992/93 season.
Following two knockout rounds, the remaining eight teams are split into two groups, with all teams meeting each other home and away and the group winners contesting the final.
UEFA CHAMPIONS LEAGUE
The ‘revolution’ does not just bring with it a change of name but a whole new identity for Europe's premier club competition. The Champions League anthem and starball logo are an instant success, ensuring that everybody, everywhere will quickly recognise the new format for the European Cup, although the competition does not officially carry the UEFA prefix in its name during its first season, and the name ‘Champions League’ is adopted to give prominence to the group stage at this time.
The second season with the UEFA Champions League logo (adopted in the group stage and semi-finals; the rest of the tournament continues to be called the European Champion Clubs' Cup).
For one season only, a one-legged semi-final is introduced, with the two group winners playing at home against the two runners-up from the other groups.
For the first time, UEFA introduces a 16-team group stage, to which titleholders Milan and the national champions of the seven countries at the top of the UEFA rankings receive a bye, and the champions from the next 16 countries in the rankings taking part in a qualifying round to determine the final eight group-stage qualifiers. First- and second-placed teams progress from the group stage to the two-legged quarter-finals and semi-finals.
Another first, as domestic league runners-up from the top eight associations in the rankings are allowed into the competition, with champions from smaller nations returning after three years competing in the UEFA Cup. This makes the competition more open and ensures that teams from all nations can qualify, while also raising the standard of the competition through the presence of more top teams. Two qualifying rounds precede the new 24-team group stage, which sees six group winners and two best-placed runners up proceed to the quarter-finals.
The Champions League expands further with two group stages, and up to four teams permitted from the three top-ranked nations, three from nations 4 to 6 and two from nations 7 to15.
The new format sees 32 teams entering a first group stage with eight groups of four, the top two from each group going through to a second 16-team group stage. From there, the top two teams in each of the four groups advance to the quarter-finals.
The competition reverts back to a single group-stage format, with a knockout round of 16 replacing the second group phase.
A new system for qualifying is introduced, with two separate paths for domestic champions and non-champions that did not automatically qualify for the group stage. An additional qualifying round, the playoff round, is also introduced, and a total of ten teams emerge from this qualifying phase for the 32-team group stage.
The winners of the UEFA Europa League are now allocated a place in the UEFA Champions League, with the maximum number of entrants from one nation increasing to five.
In a special one-off competition, following the temporary suspension of European football as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Champions League’s closing stages are completed in a ‘final eight’ tournament in Lisbon. Teams meet in one-off straight knockout matches, with Bayern eventually emerging triumphant with a 1-0 win over Paris Saint-Germain in the final – the first to be played behind closed doors.