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Is The Current Champions League Format Superior To The Old European Cup Scheme?

Some readers of EPL Talk are new or semi new to football, based outside of the continent of Europe yet possess an affection for the UEFA Champions League unmatched to that of even the Premier League. The current format of Europe’s premier club competition allows the majority of the top footballing talent in the world to compete against each other across the width and breadth of the continent in front of millions of watchful eyes across a myriad of countries.

These attentive eyes sit poised in front of massive LCD widescreens, cram together in pubs or bars to drink their team to victory or huddle in front of the smallest of black and white TV sets in anxious anticipation that their idols can produce something memorable.

This is the version of the Champions League that we currently know and enjoy. It’s a version of a more global competition as opposed to interpretation 1.0, the old European Cup, which was without much of the pomp and fanfare that we see today. Yet Europe’s premier club competition – sometimes dominated by England’s finest – wasn’t always the cash cow or world phenomenon it is today. The advent of technology has of course played its part in the competition’s popularity allowing fans and supporters the chance to view matches or highlights from HD televisions, smart phones, and computers from almost anywhere in the world by simply pressing a few buttons.

Additionally, matches come thick and fast in the competition’s group stage which is played from September through December each year as the annual event attempts its best Darwin impression by weeding out the weak.

While there’s little argument that that knockout stage through to the final provides viewers with the most excitement, drama and entertainment, some proof does exist that the bloated and oft-criticized group stage needs at minimum an amending, at maximum an overhaul. But first, back to our soccer newbies.

The ongoing structure in play to crown a club champion of Europe has only been in existence since 1992 and more specifically, since the 1997-98 season which allowed runners up from certain countries the opportunity to compete in group stage play which is how we know the competition today. But before UEFA empowered so many more clubs the chance to compete in a competition many say they have no right participating in, Europe crowned a champion with much less fuss and much more romance, at least that’s one side of the debate.

The European Cup started in 1955 and allowed just the winners of the European football leagues the chance to play for the title by playing in a two-leg knockout format (home and away) until just one club stood victorious over Europe. We of course know that has now changed yet the old guard and romantics still wax poetic over how much better the old format was and that the shiny new(ish) format of more matches, more teams and thus more money has done little to improve the competition while doing more to hinder it.

While it’s certain that the best of the most recent installment of the Champions League is still to come over the course of the next few months, which format is better in allowing European football the opportunity to crown its yearly champion? Sure the current group stage arrangement allows smaller (and more) clubs the chance to play but does more always equal better? When was the last time a European minnow or medium-sized club played in the final or even won?

A quick glance down the European champion list from the last decade or so reads like a who’s who of European giants. Barcelona, Liverpool, Manchester United, AC Milan and Inter Milan all have titles while the absence of a previous year third place German club or fourth place Italian club from the list of champions lends belief to the doubters of the newer format and prompts one to ask the question, “what’s the point of all the additional clubs if they never come close to winning it?”.

Regardless of if you’re a football baby or a fitba grandfather, the question is definitely worth your time. While it’s unlikely-impossible that UEFA would ever consider a change that would see the governing body revert back to the old European Cup format, it’s an interesting debate that football fans continue to have every year between September and December while the group stage trudges on and stumbles its way through until the round of 16.

Just as the knockout stages are now in full swing, maybe, just maybe the answer to the aforementioned question is staring us right in the face as some of the most exciting and dramatic football is now upon us.

Editor’s Note: Jesse Chula is returning to EPL after a short trip to England late last year and a stint as contributing Editor for England at SB Nation Soccer. He can be reached for comment by email at and on Twitter @JesseChula.

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  1. pius ogola

    May 12, 2012 at 5:20 pm

    contrary to most of the above sentiments, the current format is one word, WHACK! whats the need of having weak teams who most often than not get beat, debrecen, apoel, anderlecht, rosenborg e.t.c with very few making it thru the 2nd round. over the past few years, one cud easily predict roughly 10 to 12 of the teams that’ll make the last 16, man u, chelsea, arsenal, liverpool, barca,, valencia/villareal, milan, inter, roma/juventus, bayern, bremen/schalke, lyon, marseille, with perhaps dark horses such as psv, stuttgart sometimes filling the remaining places. UCL is a sham, let the old format come, but then i guess thats wishful thinking on my part, i like monsieur wenger, can only see a european superleague coming! @piusmosad

    • Alex

      July 20, 2016 at 7:33 pm

      I completely agree with you, the old format was way better and exciting in my opinion. I loved the in or out matches between the champions of european tournaments. Nowadays it is called champions league but in reality the teams which can be called champions are just 1 out of 3 .
      I would also add that we lost uefa cup winners’ cup and the importance of europe league (the old uefa cup).

  2. vw

    February 23, 2011 at 10:48 pm

    it was better when they had a 2nd group stage, and not a round of 16 2 legged knockout.

    the closer it gets to an ‘actual’ league, the better IMO. the 2nd group stage provided the best balance between number of matches, yet maintained knockout football for the business end of the qf’s, semi’s and final.

  3. brn442

    February 23, 2011 at 12:27 am

    The Champions League may be a (commercially) logical progression but, the true tragedy is that – the expanded Champions League has rendered the once useful UEFA Cup into the most gruelingly pointless football competition on earth.

  4. James

    February 22, 2011 at 11:42 pm

    I think the new format is almost perfect. Only thing I believe should be changed is the qualifying stages. The ‘Champions’ and ‘Non Champions’ pools give smaller nations a better chance which is all EQUAL and FAIR and whatnot. But the Champions League should really be about the best clubs in the world. Would rather see a 3rd or 4th placed Premiership, La liga, bundesliga, serie a, ligue un, or eredivisie club than an FC Copenhagen.

  5. Jc

    February 22, 2011 at 4:45 pm

    I agree with the popular sentiment here, but i also wouldn’t mind seeing the group stage reduced to three matches, ala the World Cup. It would help with fixture congestion, but maybe cause too many upsets.

  6. tonyspeed

    February 22, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    the new format is much better. If the teams that won their leagues the previous year play this year what guarantee is it that they are still the best? A lot can happen over the summer. Also, maybe fans like to learn about teams from these other countries. And finally, sometimes the team that wins the league was only nominally the best team in their league. In that case, you really do want at least the top 2 teams from the league.

    • Troy

      February 22, 2011 at 1:27 pm

      I totally agree. That’s exactly why the UEFA super cup (or whatever it’s called) is such a fraud. Let’s have the CL winner and Europa winner face off (which is a cool idea)…..three months later (not a cool idea).

    • brn442

      February 24, 2011 at 11:38 am

      tonyspeed – please enlighten me as I am certainly not as sharp as Troy. I really don’t get your point.

  7. Troy

    February 22, 2011 at 12:49 pm

    First I will say that I do like the current format. I really like watching a third or fourth place club from La Liga, Serie A, or the EPL knock off a bigger club from one of those leagues, or like many people have mentioned already, Shakhtar Donetsk is having a killer campaign (regardless if Roma is falling apart before our eyes).

    I think also people seem to forget that there are many teams not named Barcalona, Bayern Munich, Inter, AC, Liverpool or MUFC that have done really well.

    Porto won it in 04 under the special one. Valencia were runners up in 00 and 01. Bayer Leverkusen came in second in 02 and Monaco had a great run to the final in 04. I think the new format gave these teams a chance to thrive considering that Leverkusen and Monaco would not have even been in the competition under the old format because they didn’t win league the previous year.

    • Troy

      February 22, 2011 at 12:51 pm


    • freddie

      February 23, 2011 at 1:16 pm

      In european competitions Porto is a bigger team than all the Premier League teams except United and Liverpool. We are bigger than Arsenal, Surs, Chelsea, City and the rest. Heck United only have 1 more European cup than us, just 1.

  8. Mike in Idaho

    February 22, 2011 at 12:43 pm

    I think the qualification process and number of teams that get in the UCL is great right now but I would do away with the group stage and change all matches to the two legs/aggregate score system we see now in the later rounds. Group stages are terrible and there is usually no drama on the final matchday as everything has long been decided.

    • Jim

      July 20, 2016 at 9:37 pm

      I agree. Make it a straight knock out competition from the get go. I think in big competitions like this every game should matter which isn’t the case with the group stage.
      That way smaller teams have a better chance of advancing
      Do away with seeding completely and making it all random. It’d give a really fresh approach to the game.

  9. David Ellison

    February 22, 2011 at 12:08 pm

    I think those small clubs getting exposure and increased revenue from success in their leagues is a good thing, and fans throughout the continent benefit from some (or a little) wealth spreading to the lesser leagues.

  10. David G

    February 22, 2011 at 11:41 am

    Aren’t we closer to a super european league being created than going back to the old european cup format?

  11. Patrico

    February 22, 2011 at 11:29 am

    I love the current structure.

    If only last year’s champion qualified, then Premier League would be represented only by Chelsea; Serie A only by Inter; La Liga only by Barca. Much more interesting to have Man U, Arsenal, Tottenham, Real Madrid and AC Milan in the mix.

    And the point is not merely to crown the champion. UCL also shows the progress of other teams and leagues, like Shakhtar Donetsk, or Lyon last year. They might not have a realistic chance to win, but I enjoy watching them compete with the giants.

    I enjoy all stages of UCL competition; I just wish more games were available to me in HD.

  12. Earl Reed

    February 22, 2011 at 11:00 am

    The current type of format seems to further accentuate the haves from the have-nots in European soccer, with all the extra money that is earned by multiple home fixtures in a phase that, as you point out, really means little in the grand scheme. In the Round of 16, only Tottenham Hotspur and FC Copenhagen came out of the Playoff Round. What it amounts to is a slush fund for the top teams in each league, and the only downside is that it preoccupies those teams with 6 extra fixtures to clog up their schedules. The cream of the crop have the resources to give full efforts in both domestic and Euro, while lesser teams find it hard to maintain their standing at home while putting a full effort into the UCL.

  13. Keith

    February 22, 2011 at 10:42 am

    As a relative newby to soccer I must say I LOVE the UEFA structure. Sports fans want to see the clash of the giants and this structure allows for it. Additionally, just because a team doesn’t finish first in their country doesn’t mean they aren’t the better team. That might sound weird but a team might finish 3rd or 4th because of lack of depth or injuries or a tie with the 20th place team. But head to head they might be able to beat the #1 team. I’m not saying I don’t like the Premier League, it’s just a completely different type of competition and so winning that requires different specialities than winning UEFA.

    The thing I love most though is watching games like Tottenham vs. AC Milan. Seeing the 4th place English team face up against the 1st (3rd last year) Italian team is so much fun. Not only is there quality football (unlike West Ham vs. Wolves) and nationalistic pride but you get to see the trends of Serie A play against the PL against La Liga, etc. It’s really amazing the different styles within Europe.

    Now only if they wouldn’t play both games at the same time!

    • onions

      February 22, 2011 at 11:43 am

      Great post.

      Also, it’s clear that most of the best teams in the world reside in the same leagues. The EPL may have 5 or 6 of the top 15 teams in the world so it’s good to see the best of the best getting a crack at it. Letting all of the other virtually obscure teams from lesser known leagues is almost a necessary evil in my book to keep the fairness in tact. I like it, though, as it creates more “must-win” scenarios and more drama. Just what fans love.

  14. Robert Hay

    February 22, 2011 at 10:40 am

    Why does the new format benefit smaller clubs or smaller countries even if they can’t win? One word: money. For every round they advance, they get a piece of the UEFA Champions League pie. It may not be a ton of cash, but it helps.

    • Patrico

      February 22, 2011 at 11:32 am

      But also pride and excitement, right?

      I don’t know any fans of Shakhtar Donetsk, but I can’t imagine they’ll only be thinking about money when they’re playing the return leg at home next month.

      • Joe

        February 22, 2011 at 12:38 pm

        I don’t agree with this idea that the only value in entering a competition is winning. That is the ultimate goal, but do you think Spurs fans would really consider this a lost year if they don’t end up winning the whole tournament? The journey is what fans remember, and the current format has allowed more people to take that exciting journey. You can say all you want about money being the biggest factor, but anything that allows more fans to have more excitement is worthy.

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