“Ils sont les meilleurs, Sie sind die Besten, These are the champions
Die Meister, Die Besten, Les grandes équipes, The champions.”
Those are words that football fans will have heard hundreds of times. French, German and English syntax all combine perfectly to form one inspiring anthem, a classical piece which achieves that rare distinction of being a piece of music that football fans are happy to hear being pumped through their stadium’s public address system (unless you’re a regular attendee at the Etihad Stadium). This isn’t cheesy goal celebration music or an insipid composition churned out by a handsomely-paid conductor. It is a tune that stirs the emotions of football fanatics throughout every corner of Europe. It is a suitably epic piece of music befitting of the elite competition with which it has become inextricably associated.
As the 27th edition of the UEFA Champions League gets into motion tonight, comparisons with the traditional European Cup are timely and legitimate. Europe’s premier club competition has existed for 63 seasons, with nearly half of those operating under the Champions League banner that began in 1992. Since then, the tournament has grown enormously and changed format several times, with the current incarnation that first came into being in 2003/04 proving by and large a roaring success.
As someone born in 1988 and whose interest in football can only be traced back to the mid-90s, I can only speak for the Champions League on its own merits. Some will understandably claim that the original European Cup was far better and certainly much more democratic, as evidenced by wins for clubs from Romania and the former Yugoslavia in 1986 and 1991. The Champions League, though, is regarded as football’s premier club competition with good reason. If you can look past the obvious financial aspect of it, the tournament carries enormous prestige and, unlike any other competition involving the major clubs, it is invariably taken with the utmost of seriousness. Resting players is only done for inconsequential group games where a team has already secured their passage to the knockout stages.
Many football fans want to see the best teams featuring in the biggest games and nowhere is that in evidence more frequently than the Champions League. Right from the start of the group stage, there is a veritable feast of unmissable matches, with belters such as Liverpool v Paris Saint Germain, Juventus v Manchester United and Barcelona v Inter Milan to enjoy over the coming weeks. Once the knockout stage gets going in February, we are treated to a Hollywood clash almost every week to the end of the season.
Over the years, the Champions League has been graced by legendary teams and truly great players. The AC Milan, Ajax and Juventus teams of the mid-90s are chock full of icons such as Paolo Maldini, Ruud Gullit, Dennis Bergkamp, Patrick Kluivert, Gianluca Vialli and Alessandro del Piero. Then we had Manchester United’s treble winners of Roy Keane, Ryan Giggs, Peter Schmeichel et al, and the Real Madrid class of Raul, Fernando Morientes, Luis Figo and Zinedine Zidane, followed a few years later by an extraordinary Barcelona outfit featuring Ronaldinho, Xavi, Andres Iniesta and Lionel Messi. Great teams all of those are, but none of them could match the feat of the Real Madrid three-in-a-row class of modern day, spearheaded by Cristiano Ronaldo and also starring Luka Modric, Gareth Bale and Toni Kroos.
Some observers have bemoaned the apparent predictability of the Champions League and the renewed presence of a small band of elite clubs in the latter stages every year. However, this is a tournament that has never lost its ability to surprise. As Borussia Dortmund, Porto, Liverpool and Chelsea have proven, a team can emerge from the shadows to embark on a glorious crusade that takes them all the way to continental glory, while fine clubs such as Valencia in the early 2000s, Monaco in 2004 and Atletico Madrid more recently have gone mightily close to landing a first-ever triumph in this tournament.
Some seasons are remembered as much for those clubs who came from nowhere to go very close to the final. Panathinaikos were surprise semi-finalists in 1996, a feat matched by Dynamo Kiev in 1999, Leeds in 2001, Deportivo la Coruna in 2004, Villarreal in 2006, Lyon in 2010, Schalke in 2011 and Roma last season. Even Liverpool, a club with an illustrious European history, would have been fancied by very few to get to the final earlier this year.
It remains very unlikely for the foreseeable future that the Champions League will be won by a club from outside the ‘big five’ leagues of Spain, Germany, England, Italy and France, but the decision in 2009 by the now-disgraced ex-UEFA president Michel Platini to separate the qualifying rounds into champions and non-champions routes has allowed clubs from European outposts to realise the dream of appearing in the group stage. The new format has been a godsend to the likes of APOEL Nicosia (Cyprus), BATE Borisov (Belarus), Debrecen (Hungary), MSK Zilina (Slovakia), Nordsjaelland (Denmark), Viktoria Plzen (Czech Republic), Astana (Kazakhstan) and Qarabag (Azerbaijan), all of whom have debuted in the competition since then and some of whom have more than just made up the numbers.
The Champions League format has taken a few goes to get right, but the current format seems to strike the best balance between being open enough for lesser-known clubs to qualify and competitive enough for most knockout round ties to provide scintillating viewing. Indeed, the round of 16 has thrown up plenty of classic encounters over the years. Think of the Barcelona-Chelsea epic in 2005, Chelsea’s remarkable comeback against Napoli in 2012, the coruscating 5-3 clash between Manchester City and Monaco two seasons ago, or the extraordinary finale to the Barcelona-PSG tie that same year when the Catalans needed three goals in the final three minutes and got them.
The Champions League has also become associated with numerous moments that have entered football legend. Think of Dejan Savicevic’s exquisite volleyed finish in Milan’s drubbing of Barcelona in the 1994 final. Faustino Asprilla’s hat-trick against Barcelona at St James’ Park. An Andriy Shevchenko-inspired Dynamo Kiev running riot at the Nou Camp. Roy Keane’s tour de force against Juventus in 1999. Manchester United’s smash-and-grab to break Bayern Munich hearts. Zidane’s truly astonishing volleyed winner in the 2002 final in Glasgow. Jose Mourinho haring down the Old Trafford touchline. Steven Gerrard’s piledriver to carry Liverpool into the knockout rounds in 2005. The Miracle of Istanbul. Ronaldinho’s iconic goal at Stamford Bridge. Thierry Henry’s slalom finish at the Bernabeu in 2006. Andres Iniesta leaving Chelsea stunned three years later. Lionel Messi’s four-goal blitzing of Arsenal. Fernando Torres silencing the Nou Camp but not Gary Neville. Arjen Robben’s Wembley winner in 2013. Mario Mandzukic’s overhead kick in the Cardiff final. Bale’s stunner in Kiev earlier this year. Great moments from great players.
Although I hugely enjoy watching Europe’s heavyweights slug it out among each other, I would not be in favour of an often-mooted Super League. The knockout format currently in use makes for cracking high-stakes encounters between the elite while also giving lesser-known teams the opportunity to have a crack at the big boys. The Champions League in its current form is reasonably democratic, even with the top four leagues in Europe each having four entrants and a familiar cast of characters as the play approaches its late springtime crescendo.
There is no going back to the old-style European Cup. The Champions League is here to stay and, while some traditionalists might not like it, the blockbuster clashes will keep on coming, and that’s something which football fans ought to savour.
Cue the music!