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UEFA Cup and UEFA Europa League: Five decades of glory

We celebrate 50 years since the UEFA Cup's first final – and find a competition still at the forefront of European club football.

 Tottenham Hotspur captain Alan Mullery holds the UEFA Cup trophy after his team became its first winners in 1972
Tottenham Hotspur captain Alan Mullery holds the UEFA Cup trophy after his team became its first winners in 1972 Getty Images

It was on this day 50 years ago, 17 May 1972, that the UEFA Cup was first triumphantly held aloft. The winning captain, Tottenham Hotspur's Alan Mullery, had scored a crucial goal in the second leg of the final against fellow English side Wolverhampton Wanderers at White Hart Lane. The England midfielder's first-half header helped the London club to a hard-fought 3-2 aggregate success.

Since then, teams from 11 countries have lifted this coveted trophy, and nobody has brandished the silverware more than Sevilla's total of six, including an unprecedented three in a row between 2014 and 2016. The Spanish side's Ramón Sánchez-Pizjuán Stadium is a fitting setting for this season's final between Germany's Eintracht Frankfurt – winners of the competition in 1979/80 – and Rangers, who are aiming to bring the UEFA Cup to Scotland for the first time.

Fair beginnings

Launched in 1971, the UEFA Cup was introduced as a third UEFA club competition after the European Champion Clubs' Cup and European Cup Winners' Cup. Organised to replace the non-UEFA affiliated Inter-Cities Fairs Cup, the new competition came under the European governing body's control in order to standardise rules, refereeing and disciplinary matters.

The new competition's 64-team field was established on sporting merit – no longer would they need to come from cities with trade fairs – comprising the highest ranking clubs that had not qualified for UEFA's other club competitions. The UEFA Cup began life in that 1971/72 season as a two-legged knockout competition, in which teams needed to come through five rounds to reach a two-legged final.

Big brother: the UEFA Europa League trophy

First lifted in 1972, the UEFA Europa League trophy is the heaviest of all UEFA silverware. Tipping the scales at 15kg, it is 65cm high, 33cm wide and 23cm deep, and has no handles.

The trophy, a silver cup on a yellow marble plinth, was designed and crafted by the Bertoni workshop in Milan. Just above the plinth, a group of players seem to be jostling for the ball, when, in fact, they are supporting the octagonal 'cup', which is emblazoned with the UEFA emblem.

The original trophy remains in UEFA's keeping at all times, with a full-sized replica awarded to the winning club.

UEFA via Getty Images

Tweaks to traditional format

The UEFA Cup steadily became more prestigious and attracted increasing levels of interest. In 1978, UEFA's Executive Committee rejected a suggestion from an English newspaper to expand the competition to a 48-team league format, on the grounds that it was not the right time to launch such a competition.

Consequently, the UEFA Cup continued to prosper under the same format. The two-leg format for the final was retained until 1998, when it was replaced with a single match at a neutral venue. Internazionale Milano beat Lazio 3-0 at the Parc des Princes in Paris in the final that year.

Ronaldo delivered a masterclass in the 1998 final
Ronaldo delivered a masterclass in the 1998 finalBongarts/Getty Images

From 1994/95 clubs eliminated from the UEFA Champions League in its third qualifying round were fed into the UEFA Cup, and from 1999/2000 this was extended to include the team finishing third in their section in the UEFA Champions League group stage.

In 2000 Galatasaray became the first team to lift the trophy having begun the season in the UEFA Champions League, a route that was followed by Feyenoord in 2002, CSKA Moskva in 2005, Shakhtar Donetsk in 2009, Atlético de Madrid in 2010 and 2018, Chelsea in 2013 and Sevilla in 2016.

From UEFA Cup to Europa League

Following the UEFA Champions League's example, UEFA Cup group matches – eight groups of five teams – were introduced in 2004/05.

The competition's rebrand to the UEFA Europa League was approved in September 2008 to kick off for the 2009/10 season.

Atlético celebrate becoming the Europa League's first winners in 2010
Atlético celebrate becoming the Europa League's first winners in 2010Getty Images

Under the new format the group stage comprised 12 sections of four teams, with 192 teams from 53 UEFA associations participating in the inaugural edition from the qualifying rounds onwards. Spain's Atlético de Madrid beat English side Fulham 2-1 after extra time in Hamburg to become the new competition's first champions.

With the winners now earning an automatic group stage spot in the next season's Champions League, the Europa League remains as competitive as ever, and this season has brought even more excitement, thanks in part to the creation of its sister tournament, the UEFA Europa Conference League.

UEFA Cup / Europa League wins by nation since 1972

13 – Spain
9 – England, Italy
6 – Germany
4 – Netherlands
2 – Portugal, Russia, Sweden
1 – Belgium, Turkey, Ukraine

Quiz: test your knowledge on past finals

For the good of the game

Did you know that the Europa League helps UEFA to fund football development across Europe?

UEFA uses revenue generated by the EURO, Europa League, Champions League and Europa Conference League to stage 13 other competitions: Women's EURO, Women's Champions League, the European Under-21 Championship, the men's and women's Under-17 and Under-19 Championships, the Youth League, the men's and women's Futsal EUROs, the Futsal Champions League, the Under-19 Futsal Championship and the Regions' Cup.

By keeping overheads to a minimum, over two-thirds of our net revenue is distributed to the 200-plus teams taking part in UEFA men's club competitions. Payments also go to clubs eliminated in the qualifying rounds, and to non-participating clubs to invest in young players. We also reward associations whose national teams take part in the men's and women's EURO, European qualifiers and Nations League.

From 2020 to 2024, UEFA will invest more than €1bn in football development projects – profits specifically from the men's EURO fund our HatTrick programme, which provides associations with, on average, €195m each season to invest across the game, from grassroots to elite level.

From 2024, that total will rise by a further 21%, ensuring that by 2028, HatTrick will have channelled €3.5bn into European football – giving more and more people the chance to enjoy the beautiful game.