Why Did The European Cup Become The Champions League?
June 29, 2019
The UEFA Champions League is the biggest club football tournament on the planet, but this wasn’t always the case – indeed, it wasn’t even called the Champions League when it began.
Europe’s premier club started in 1955 and lasted nearly forty years before getting a serious revamp, with its rebranding as the Champions League in 1993. But why did the European Cup get a name change? As you’ll see, it wasn’t for footballing reasons.
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A response to the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones
Once upon a time, South America was the home of football’s biggest club competition – Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones.
The Campeonato was launched in 1948 as the world’s first continental club football tournament. A champion from each of the continent’s biggest leagues was invited, with the seven participating clubs being River Plate, Nacional, Deportivo Municipal, Litoral, Vasco da Gama, Emelec, and hosts Colo-Colo.
Each team played the other six teams once, with the standings recorded in a single table – rather than as a knockout elimination. And, after a spirited tournament, Vasco da Gama were the victors.
But it wasn’t only Brazil and South America (the tournament is the precursor to the Copa Libertadores) that gained from the Campeonato Sudamericano de Campeones. Europe benefited from it too and all because of a French journalist, Jacques Ferran, who was covering the event for L’Equipe.
Let them go to Moscow & Budapest… Milan & Real Madrid
After alerting the readers of L’Equipe to an exciting new South American tournament, Jacques Ferran made his way back to Europe with a question and an ambition – “How could Europe, which wanted to be ahead of the rest of the world, not be able to accomplish a competition of the same kind of the South American one? We needed to follow that example.” His answer was to come in 1955.
During the summer of 1953, Stan Cullis’ brilliant Wolves team played a friendly match against a specially assembled South African side. This set in motion a series of similar matches that saw Wolves play and defeat teams from Argentina, the Soviet Union, and Hungary. Wolves’ victory over the Hungarian team Honvéd led both Cullis and the British press to claim the side to be “Champions of the World”. Ferran was not satisfied with this.
Ferran believed that for a team be considered true champions they needed to compete in a pan-European tournament, one that pitted the best against the best – “let them go to Moscow & Budapest… Milan & Real.” At its 1955 Congress, UEFA agreed and Ferran got his wish – the European Cup launched in 1955.
1955 – 1992: Romance creates the champions of champions
The first European Cup featured 16 teams and began on 4 September, ending on 13 June 1956. Real Madrid defeated Reims in the final, beginning a run of five consecutive final victories for Los Blancos. By the time Real won their fifth final in a row, the European Cup had captured the hearts of fans, as the romantic creator of the champions of champions.
While Real Madrid dominated the start of the European Cup, there have been a number of winning sprees (both for clubs and nations). A select few clubs became football royalty due to their prowess in the European Cup:
- 1963 to 1965: Milanese clubs dominate, with Inter winning twice and Milan once.
- 1970 to 1973: Ajax become the second side to win three European Cups in a row
- 1974 to 1976: Bayern Munich repeat Ajax’s feat immediately after the Dutch side
- 1977 to 1984: England rules – Liverpool (4), Nottingham Forest (2), & Aston Villa (1)
- 1989 to 1990: Milan become the last club to win the European Cup twice in a row
After Milan’s win in 1990, there were just two more finals held for the European Cup. In the 1992/93 season, it was rebranded the Champions League, with TV and marketing forces leading to a broadening of the tournament’s scope – a champion’s tournament that ultimately welcomed in teams who finished as low as sixth in their league.
TV & marketing forces move into greater commercialization
Much like the formation of England’s Premier League, the motivation for changing the name of the tournament was commercialization and monetization. This was born from a partnership between UEFA and TEAM Marketing AG, one that allowed for changes in TV and marketing rights.
There were two major changes to the format of the rebranded Champions League that distinguished it from the European Cup, along with providing greater commercialization:
- A group stage was added – previously the tournament was a straight knockout
- Entry was expanded – it had been open only to champions of European leagues
The effect of this change was that it guaranteed the participation of more teams from the richer leagues in Europe, massively increasing the global viewing numbers for Europe’s premier club competition – more clubs equals more fans with a vested interest in watching it.
1993 – Present: Money demands more teams compete
While UEFA has experimented with using two group stages (a move widely criticized by fans), entrance to Champions League has largely followed the same format:
- Champions of Europe’s top leagues gain automatic entry to the group stage
- There is an allocated number of spaces to teams who have not won their league
- Richer leagues get a greater allocation than poorer ones
- Some allocated teams compete for entrance by playing preliminary rounds
- The top two teams in each group qualify for the knockout stages
- The knockout stages progress to a final – held in a different stadium each year
While changing the tournament structure has made it more difficult for smaller, poorer teams to compete, it has largely meant an end to the dynasties of the European Cup – only Real Madrid have successfully defended the Champions League, while many teams defended the European Cup.
Why did the European Cup become the Champions League? The simple answer is money. The longer answer is that football evolved to become a more global entity and UEFA wanted to open up its tournament so that it could increase in popularity.
Rebranding and widening the European Cup has proved a sensible gamble by UEFA, one that’s ultimately become enormously successful. However, can the same be said for the rumoured creation of a closed European Super League? Let me answer that for you.
If you’re going to gamble then it should be sensible, communal, and fun – the sort of thing you do at a leading online casino, with friends at home, or in Vegas. Changing the Champions League into a closed European Super League is not sensible, communal, or fun. It creates a non-aspirational environment and makes the tournament less competitive – if UEFA makes this change, I’m predicting it will be the slow death of having a premier European club trophy.