Despite the final being over nine months away, qualification for the European Cup has already begun. In the first of a weekly series of articles on football’s greatest trophies, author Jerry Gardner looks back at the history of Europe’s premier footballing competition.
It may be heresy to say it, but it may just be that the European Cup is superior to the World Cup. Consider the facts. Recent World Cups have been great spectacles, but have increasingly delivered much football that is less than world class - whereas the European Cup has, more often than not, provided drama, skill and entertainment of the highest quality. Not that it could happen, but if the current Barcelona team played Spain, my hard-earned would be on Barça!
This history of the European Cup begins with Jacques Ferran, a journalist from French sporting magazine L’Equipe. Having witnessed the club championship competition in South America, he and his editor Gabriel Hanot wondered if there could be something similar in Europe. Hanot petitioned UEFA, and subsequently for the 1955/56 season, L’Equipe invited 16 teams from across Europe to compete. The first competition was won by Real Madrid, as were the next four. In time, UEFA increasingly took over the tournament organisation, with entry into the competition subsequently awarded to domestic league champions from across Europe.
In 1992/93, the competition became the UEFA Champions League, featuring a lucrative group stage prior to the traditional knockout elements. From 1997/98, the league runners-up in the highest-rated European leagues were invited aboard the gravy train, and since 1999/2000, the biggest leagues have been permitted to enter three or even four teams. Each domestic champion is still admitted, but there is now a long and tortuous path for some of them before they can make the group stages. Thus some of the purity of the European Cup has been lost – though I still reckon the spectacle of the best teams in Europe pitting their wits against one another is one of the best sights in football.
FIVE FUN FACTS
Hibernian were the first British club to compete, taking part in the inaugural competition, and reaching the semis.
The largest attendance for a European Cup final was in 1960 at Hampden Park, Glasgow, where over 135,000 people saw Real Madrid beat Eintracht Frankfurt.
In 1958, Manchester United beat Red Star Belgrade to secure a place in the semis. The plane carrying them home from the away tie stopped off in Munich, then crashed during take-off, killing eight United players.
Winners receive a replica trophy to keep: the original remains in UEFA's possession at all times.
In Spain, the trophy’s nickname is La Orejona ("big-ears").
Extract from “The World’s 50 Greatest Sporting Trophies” by Jerry Gardner, just published, and available from www.publishpromote.com, cost €15 (about £13) including p&p. Prints of the original image and original commissions by artist Tom Dack are available from www.tomdack.com.