It’s easy to lose track of where the Champions League originated.
In the past three decades, the governing body of European football, Uefa, frequently did not know which day games would be played until 48 hours before kickoff. Some of the players were still working part-time during the first Champions League season.
The inaugural series from 1992 to 1993 began with two knockout rounds held in September and November. After Stuttgart broke Uefa’s rule that they could only field three foreign players, Leeds and Stuttgart played a neutral venue decider in front of 90,000 empty seats at Barcelona’s Nou Camp for their first-round match.
From November to April, eight teams played in two groups of four, with games taking place. In the final, the winners of the group met. On May 26, Marseille, which would lose the French league title they had won in 1993 due to match-fixing, defeated AC Milan 1-0. Rangers went undefeated but finished just one point behind Marseille. IFK Gothenburg came in second to Milan.
Hakan Mild, a former Sweden and Gothenburg midfielder, recalls, “Before a home group game against Porto, me and a friend were at work at 7am and then played at 8.45pm.”
“We were professionals in part. We trained extensively, more than Porto. But our financial situation was different.
“Portuguese media were present and produced a television film. People on television said it was unbelievable how hard we worked and that we couldn’t beat Porto, who had a good team at the time.”
That match went to Gothenburg, 1-0.
There was one club for every country. Scotland’s and Sweden’s champions were essentially semifinalists. It sounds like something from a bygone era, far removed from the current global phenomenon. However, it still represented a significant departure from previous events.
Even though the European Cup had been in existence since 1955, the larger clubs were not pleased. In the 1980s, there were periodic calls for a new competition that would be more profitable for businesses. One of the ringleaders was Silvio Berlusconi, owner of AC Milan and media tycoon.
The argument, which continues to this day and is at the heart of the contentious debate regarding the European Super League, was that the clubs that received the most support should receive more money because they generate revenue by attracting the most television viewers.
Uefa, just as it is now, had to walk a fine line between giving those clubs what they want and trying to keep the competition open to everyone.
Gerhard Aigner, who was Uefa’s general secretary from 1989 to 2003, says, “The clubs were always coming up with proposals that could have more matches and guarantee more money.”
“We continued to use a knockout format, and the European Cup featured only five teams from the five major television markets, with one team representing each nation. In the Cup Winners’ Cup, the same.
However, countries had multiple teams competing in the Uefa Cup. There were more chances for clubs from larger markets to meet and more matches. That evolved into a competition with greater commercial potential than the European Cup.
“It stopped being possible. We realized that we would probably lose control of these competitions completely if Uefa didn’t act and take matters into our own hands.
With its expanded format, new broadcast package, and theme tune, its new competition, the Champions League, was an immediate hit.
According to Aigner, “we wanted to make it as attractive as possible for the fans, for TV, and for the clubs themselves.”
“We figured out how to have two specialists going along with us who had quite recently left ISL [Swiss advertising organization Worldwide Game and Leisure]. They came up with fantastic concepts and excellent strategies for introducing a new product to the general public. We additionally looked across the sea at the American approach to arranging the Super Bowl.
“Not only could we impress in terms of our finances, but we also could impress in terms of how the competition was presented, and probably also in terms of how the teams behaved on the pitch.
“The players realized they were performing at a higher level. They were more aware of the fact that they were now on this platform, where they were required to provide an illustration. I have no idea if that is still the case, but there was a time when I felt like we had a better product on the field than we did before.
“I think even the clubs themselves and the respective national leagues were surprised by the way that was done,” the author asserts.
Aigner thought that Uefa had succeeded in pleasing the major clubs while preserving the integrity of the sport and its competitive appeal. CSKA Moscow eliminated defending champion Barcelona from the group stage in 1992-93.
However, things would change dramatically and quickly.
The English clubs involved in the new Champions League, Leeds and Manchester United, did not advance past the group stage during the first two seasons. Spanish and German teams were also absent during the inaugural campaign from 1992 to 1993.
Uefa concluded that to augment pay, telecasters from the most extravagant European nations should have been urged to hold up higher offers. As a result, adjustments were made for the years 1994 and 1995.
The champions of eight nations, including England, Italy, Germany, and Spain, immediately entered a four-team group phase.
22 winners of national leagues, including those from Bulgaria and Norway, were forced into Uefa Cup qualifying as a result of the elimination of the qualifying process.
After that, in 1995, the Bosman decision made changes to football players’ employment regulations. The rule that clubs could only field a maximum of three foreign players had to be changed by Uefa. This included two players who had played in that country continuously for five years, including three juniors.
Stuart McCall, a former midfielder for Rangers, attributes his professional success to the “3+2” rule. The Scottish club signed him in 1991, the same year that “3+2” was released.
McCall, now 58, who was born in Leeds, says, “People talk about Sliding Doors moments.”
“In Turkey in 1984, I was on the bench for the England Under-21s. I was waiting on the touchline to start, which would have qualified me as an Englishman for the representative game.
“However, the referee whistled, and I never got on. That permitted me to alter my perspective and become Scottish. I probably would not have reached Rangers if I had gotten on.”
The Bosman decision had a significant impact on the evolution of European football, according to Aigner. However, he also recalls Uefa’s “mistakes.”
He states: We were not informed of the European Court’s decision regarding the Bosman case. As a result, the situation became unbalanced because clubs that had previously been able to compete with their own talent on the highest level were now unable to do so due to talent loss at an early age.
“Likewise, we didn’t get the monetary conveyance model directly in the public setting on the grounds that the cash coming to the clubs from Europe just went to those playing European football.
“On the other hand, the other mistake we made was giving the big clubs four slots instead of two. The other nations with champions had a real chance as long as we had two and two had to qualify. They cannot now enter the competition because the door is too small.”
When runners-up from the eight leagues with the highest coefficients allowed into the Champions League for the first time in 1997, Lennart Johansson was president of Uefa and general secretary of Aigner. The final qualifying round was attended by all eight, and they all progressed to the group stage. That season, England, Germany, Italy, Spain, and France were the “big five” leagues that produced seven of the eight quarterfinalists.
It marked the beginning of a pattern. Since then, at least six of the last eight seasons have featured teams from those five leagues. They have contributed to the entire quarterfinal lineup four times.
There were additional changes in 1999-2000, with two qualifiers allowing four teams from the top three leagues to participate. Three clubs from England, Italy, and Spain advanced immediately to the group stage in 2009-10. Four teams from the top four leagues advanced straight to the group stage in 2018-19, reducing the number of qualifying spots from 10 to 6.
The group stage now includes 16 teams from England, Spain, Italy, and Germany. Due to these changes, more games have featured the wealthiest clubs and most well-known players.
Additionally, the most significant action is anticipated.
As it expands once more in 2024, the Champions League will eliminate the group stage and become a single league with 36 teams. Each team plays 10 games against 10 different clubs, half of which are played at home and half are played away.
Teams that performed the best in Uefa competition the previous season will be given two of the additional four spots. Arsenal and PSV Eindhoven would have been invited to join this season.
It is a controversial move that was diluted from initial proposals that would have rewarded teams based on how well they performed in Europe over the previous five years, almost always favoring the largest and most successful nations.
A lot of people dislike what is left.
“It isn’t something similar. Mild, 51, who had four stints with Gothenburg between 1989 and 2005, describes it as an industry today.
30 years ago, it was not an industry. It seemed more real at that time, perhaps because I’m getting older. It wasn’t a hoax. It had a greater heart.”
In his capacity as chairman of the European Clubs’ Association (ECA), Juventus chairman Andrea Agnelli negotiated a portion of the upcoming expansion. However, Agnelli and representatives from all 12 clubs involved in the shoddy European Super League (ESL) launch in 2021 quit the ECA prior to its launch.
That concept has not changed. In the spring, the European Court of Justice will decide whether Uefa should have a monopoly on organizing international tournaments across multiple countries. The Champions League won’t be around to celebrate its 40th birthday if it goes in favor of Juventus, Barcelona, and Real Madrid, the only clubs that haven’t officially quit the ESL.
“It’s appalling,” says Aigner, presently 79.
“Due to competition rules, the sport’s authorities are unable to really exert the control that would be desirable for sporting purposes.
“During my tenure, I sent someone to Australia to investigate what Rupert Murdoch had done to the Australian rugby league. By establishing a rebel league, it nearly ruined the game.
However, we consistently observe that money speaks louder. Qatar is hosting the World Cup for us. The [LIV] golf competition serves as an illustration. There are divergent opinions among golfers regarding that.
“I do comprehend the concept of freedom and open markets, among other things.” However, most of the clubs in the Premier League are owned by outsiders. Is that what we need? Is the government aiming for that?
“What can be the interest of the proprietors of the clubs in the UK in European football? Can they