To be considered as an all-time great team in European domestic soccer, a win in the European Cup or, as it’s known in the modern game, the UEFA Champions League is an imperative accompaniment.
While the World Cup is considered to be the pinnacle of all soccer, the UEFA Champions League is home to the best club sides European soccer has to offer. Given the quality involved, the fine margins between teams and the prestige the competition possesses, as a supporter, winning this competition is the pinnacle.
UEFA stands for Union of European Football Associations.
The continental tournament has undergone a few facelifts down the years. The first running of the European Cup took place in the 1955-56 term, when 16 teams battled it out for glory in a straight knockout format; the maiden competition, and the subsequent four, was won by a Real Madrid team inspired by talisman Alfredo Di Stefano.
During much of the tournament’s existence, only the champion from each country, plus the defending champion, was able to compete. Now up to four teams can qualify from each domestic division.
Indeed, while the European Cup remained the pinnacle of club soccer for 36 years, it was revamped as the Champions League and group stages were introduced, first to determine the finalists and eventually, to form a knockout bracket; the competition proper, following three qualification rounds, now consists of 32 teams, half of which are eliminated before a 16-strong knockout stage begins.
The knockout games are played over the course of two legs, with the team with the highest aggregate score progressing. Should the teams be tied after the two legs, the away goals rule—the team that’s scored the most times in the visiting leg—will be used; should that not find a winner, an extra 30 minutes will be played, with a penalty shootout the final straw if the teams still cannot be separated.
The playoff qualification rounds begin in June and are played from June until August. They determine the final teams to qualify for the Group Stage. The Group Stage begins in September and ends in February. The Knockout stage runs from March through the end of April. And the final is played in May.
While the tournament’s early editions were a cosmopolitan affair, the final rounds of the modern Champions League continues to cater for familiar faces.
In the past decade Spanish, English and German teams have all strangleholds on the Champions League at various points; last season, Real Madrid, Atletico Madrid and Barcelona filled three of the four semifinal spots.
And while much has changed since Real beat Stade de Reims in the first ever European Cup final, the capital club remain the dominant force on the continent, with 11 wins in total, their most recent coming in 2016 against local rivals Atletico.
Despite its ruthlessness, the new format has paved the way for some shock winners in recent years, particularly those enjoyed by Porto in 2004 and Chelsea, who defended manfully on the way to glory, in 2012 the standout triumphs.
Liverpool’s recovery from 3-0 down against AC Milan in 2005 to win the cup on penalties is considered by many to be the greatest soccer final ever played too. It’s also been a crowning moment for some of the best sides Europe have ever seen, including iconic XIs from Ajax, Milan, Bayern Munich, Liverpool, Manchester United and Barcelona.
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