Win our Classic Final Goals prints bundle now!
Enter here

Then and now

European football has seen some upheaval recently. But as the Champions League prepares for a change in format, we reflect on some other significant moments: the creation of the European Cup and its 1992 revamp. Plus: what comes next?

WORDS Dan Poole & Michael Harrold | ILLUSTRATION Davi Augusto

History
It was not just Sir Alex Ferguson who evoked the allure of the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens during the recent ‘Super League’ storm. Many fans will have done so too, which is testament to the enduring power of a competition now more than 65 years old. With a new format due to come into effect in 2024 (there’s more on that later), we’ve decided to go back to the start and remember how it all began. We’ve also spoken to someone in the know to find out the story behind the launch of the Champions League 29 years ago.

Everything started with L’Équipe, the French sports daily, which translates as The Team in English. Just pause on that for a moment: a newspaper created the European Cup. No, attendez, we stand corrected: “It was an editorial board that invented it, not a newspaper. When you say ‘newspaper’ you think about the owner, the director, the boss. No. We were journalists.” We were lucky enough to be put straight on that by Jacques Ferran, a key member of that editorial board, in an interview before his death in 2019. “L’Équipe journalists then, unlike today, wanted to play a role in sport – they wanted to be stakeholders in sport,” he added, trying to explain quite how reporters turned instigators.

Thirty-seven years later the baton passed to TEAM (there’s that word again) Marketing, as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup became the Champions League. It was a seismic shift for this prestigious tournament and it was Craig Thompson who had the job of ensuring a calm and orderly transition. “It was dicey,” he tells us, with more than a hint of understatement.

Time to get more detail from those two – to find out the particulars of two prodigious undertakings.

European Champion Clubs' Cup

Traditionally you’d expect a newspaper to be reporting the news rather than creating it; as we know, the editorial team at L’Équipe in the mid-1950s felt otherwise. The editor at the time, Gabriel Hanot, had previously played for the French national football team but, following a plane crash, retired aged 29 to become a journalist. “He went to England [in 1954] to see the English champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers, play Honvéd in a friendly match,” said Jacques Ferran. “They beat them and that was enough for an English journalist to start writing, ‘Wolverhampton, World Club Champions’. Gabriel Hanot, with his wisdom, calmness and legendary humour, wrote a big article the very next day where he said, ‘Before saying that Wolverhampton are World Club Champions, they would have to face Real Madrid and Milan first in two-legged ties. So why not organise such a competition?’”

There was no time to waste. “I would like to highlight how fast this ‘creating the European Cup’ affair went,” added Ferran. “Because us journalists, we are not like politicians who have time in front of them; if we needed to create a competition, it needed to be created right away.”

Jacques Goddet, the founder of the newspaper, was on board immediately – but not exclusively with visions of grand ideals and the beautiful game. “L’Équipe didn’t sell much during the week,” said Ferran. “On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays there was nothing on football – there was no news. So creating a European Cup played during the week was a godsend for Jacques Goddet.”

The first game finished 3-3 between Sporting CP and FK Partizan at the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon on 4 September 1955 CAPTION

Next it was time to get the approval of some key contributors. “We started working, meaning we consulted the greatest European clubs to see if they would buy into our idea,” said Ferran. Did that garner an enthusiastic response? “Very favourable, except a few. For example, Barcelona were very reluctant. And there were no English clubs, of course, because Chelsea preferred to wait and watch, under pressure from their FA.”

In March of 1955, 16 clubs were invited to Paris’s Ambassador Hotel to thrash things out; they were chosen for their “good looks”, according to Ferran: the need for timely arrangements meant it was too early in the season to know who would be crowned champions of their respective leagues. Over the course of two days, regulations (written by Ferran) setting out how the competition would be run were unanimously approved. Soon after, UEFA – at that stage itself a fledgling formation – agreed to take on the running of the new competition. And so it came to pass: the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens was born.

The inaugural game saw Partizan Belgrade take on Sporting Lisbon at the Estádio Nacional on 4 September 1955. The scoreline set the tone: 3-3. “We were very happy that it had started,” said Ferran. Real Madrid, of course, would go on to win the first of their 13 crowns, beating Stade de Reims 4-3 in the final. The trophy (created by a silversmith on Paris’s rue de la Paix) was handed over to Santiago Bernabéu, Real’s legendary president. “It was Jacques Goddet who gave the trophy to Bernabéu and said, ‘I give you this trophy because it is the child of love.’ That’s nice. It was the coronation of our masterpiece.”

Vehement opposition among supporters in England to the announcement of a breakaway ‘Super League’ caused clubs to back track within 48 hours of the plans going public. Here Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge in London demonstrate their anger at the proposals.
"The fans were flocking, the music was becoming well known. The journalists had calmed down too."

A masterpiece that keeps gaining new chapters – as Bernabéu foresaw. “I remember I had a discussion with him,” added Ferran. “After the first season he knew that it would expand and that soon enough it would include teams other than the champions. He didn’t experience the expansion, but I think he would have approved of it.”

And what about Ferran himself – did he see the Champions League coming? “Yes. If you had asked me, I would have said that it would have a strong start and never stop developing. But I do not wish to use that English term; I’d rather say Ligue des Champions. As we invented it, it kind of annoys me to use an English name!”

UEFA Champions League

“It was a lot of time on the phone,” says Craig Thompson, a wry smile on his face. “We kind of got our knuckles scraped in that first season.”

Thompson, a founding member of TEAM Marketing, is reflecting on the few months in the early 1990s when his agency was tasked with making the Champions League happen. “I mean, look, we started this thing in February of 1992 and the first matches were in November. Imagine that, with everything that had to be done: broadcaster workshops, club manuals, meetings with the sponsors, meetings with the media guys… It was crazy; we were working seven days a week. But we were the happiest we’d ever been because we knew we had something special.”

They also had something unheard of. “This was a revolution in European club competition – it had always been home-and-away knockout,” says Thompson. “Then here comes a league introduced to this knockout system. Believe me, we had journalists calling from all the major newspapers. They were almost unanimous in their opposition. They were used to a system, they liked the system. We were raked over the coals in the press. It was terrible.”

There was one thing that Thompson liked to point out to those irate callers: “UEFA played a two-group format in the 1991/92 season, but it wasn’t billed as anything different.” He’s right: the season before the Champions League proper launched, Sampdoria topped Group A and Barcelona topped Group B to reach the final, just without the new branding, the new anthem, the new ethos. “The vision from the beginning, before we even started the Champions League, was that the fans were going to want to see those big successful teams playing against each other on a regular basis,” says Thompson. “Because fans want to see the best of football.”

The official Champions League started the following season and initially only applied to the group stage, not the preceding rounds and final either side of it. As such, the revamp kicked off on 25 November 1992, with Marseille and AC Milan ultimately winning their respective groups. Come 1993/94, the top two teams from each group progressed and there was a semi- final stage, which was also part of the Champions League. “Second season, the fans were flocking, the music was becoming well known,” says Thompson. “By now the journalists had calmed down too.”

In 1994/95, more changes: the entire competition was now known as the Champions League and there were four groups of four, with eight teams progressing to the knockout stage. “The pressure from our side was, ‘Wait a second, we have to keep the quality here,’” says Thompson. He also had that heavy lifting behind the scenes to think about. “Remember, this was still all on Wednesday night. From a logistics standpoint, we now had to go to eight matches every Champions League week – and I ran that. We had a fleet of trucks going out around Europe delivering the advertising boards, the hospitality set-up, the media equipment, the branding…

“I drove these guys crazy because every truck had to have everything on it and arrive three days before the match. And so I forced them to do an inventory when they loaded the trucks, then when our venue coordinator got to the stadium they had to watch the truck being unloaded and check it off against that inventory. That was painful; everybody hated me.”

The 1997/98 season heralded more changes: 24 teams across six groups, the runners-up from eight domestic leagues joining the competition and games now being played not just on Wednesday nights but Tuesdays too. Then 1999/2000: 32 teams across two group stages and up to four teams from the continent’s strongest leagues taking part. In 2003/04 the second group stage was scrapped, with 16 teams advancing to the knockout stages instead – and little has changed since.

That season also happened to be when Thompson left TEAM, having learnt a lot. “When we started, I’d never watched football in my life. I’m American, you know? Nobody’s perfect. But my colleagues were football freaks. On the pitch one day at Bayern, I’d got a little meeting going when suddenly people started walking off. I said, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ They said, ‘Franz Beckenbauer’s over there!’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’ That’s how stupid I was.”

Now that he’s older and wiser, how does Thompson reflect on the legacy of the competition he helped to usher in? “The Champions League has delivered so much to the entire system of European football that it’s pretty hard to argue with what’s been done. That said, everyone argues – but they all realise that at least it’s created something to argue about.”

The Future

So, what next? What does the future hold for this great competition? Maybe, first of all, the chance to catch our breath after a rollercoaster ride almost as dramatic as the most gripping of Champions League knockout ties. Over the course of a few days, supporters – particularly in England – united in opposition to the ‘Super League’ breakaway, proposed by a group of clubs, that would have cut off the elite from the grassroots and fundamentally altered the fabric of European football. The sight of those protesting fans with their home-made banners outside Stamford Bridge and elsewhere captured the overall sense of anger among matchgoing supporters.

“Our game has become the greatest sport in the world based on open competition, integrity and sporting merit,” said UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin. “We cannot and will not allow that to change. Never, ever.”

What will change is the format of the competition as it continues to evolve, just as Jacques Ferran predicted it would all those years ago. From the 2024/25 season, the number of teams competing will rise from 32 to 36, all taking part in a single league stage. Every club will play a minimum of ten league games against ten different opponents (five home games, five away). The top eight sides in the league will automatically qualify for the knockout stage, while the teams finishing in ninth to 24th place will compete in a two-legged play-off to secure their path to the last 16 of the competition.

“The reforms preserve the value and importance of the domestic game by retaining the principle that domestic performance should be the key to qualification,” says Čeferin, “This should and will not ever change. This evolved format will still keep alive the dream of any team in Europe to participate in the UEFA Champions League thanks to results obtained on the pitch. It will enable long-term viability, prosperity and growth for everyone in European football, not just a tiny, self-selected cartel.”

“OUR GAME HAS BECOME THE GREATEST SPORT IN THE WORLD BASED ON OPEN COMPETITION, INTEGRITY AND SPORTING MERIT”


As for Ferran, when we spoke to him in 2016 he felt the pressures the Champions League was facing. He predicted, even at its inception, the challenges on the horizon and the need to have an organisation, other than the clubs, to coordinate it. “How would it develop, under what conditions, and would it be overwhelmed by its own success? That is what we feared. Will UEFA organise it in a proper way and do everything for the competition while keeping strict sporting rules, like choosing the referees, fighting against doping? Will UEFA be up to it? Will the clubs try to take ownership in the long term, as is the case in US sports? That happened and UEFA resisted it very well.”

But that was a long way down the road as he and his colleagues at L’Équipe watched that first season unfold in 1955/56. “The main feeling was the satisfaction of having succeeded. Right until the end we were worried: will it actually take place? Will it be organised in a serious manner? Will it be successful? Even though we were convinced about that, we still had to confirm it.

“But things went so well, just like we had imagined, proposed and designed beforehand. I was convinced that this competition would be successful, that it would attract big crowds from the start. It was not easy at all but I strongly thought that, and it was so well implemented that we were happy and satisfied.”

Everything started with L’Équipe, the French sports daily, which translates as The Team in English. Just pause on that for a moment: a newspaper created the European Cup. No, attendez, we stand corrected: “It was an editorial board that invented it, not a newspaper. When you say ‘newspaper’ you think about the owner, the director, the boss. No. We were journalists.” We were lucky enough to be put straight on that by Jacques Ferran, a key member of that editorial board, in an interview before his death in 2019. “L’Équipe journalists then, unlike today, wanted to play a role in sport – they wanted to be stakeholders in sport,” he added, trying to explain quite how reporters turned instigators.

Thirty-seven years later the baton passed to TEAM (there’s that word again) Marketing, as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup became the Champions League. It was a seismic shift for this prestigious tournament and it was Craig Thompson who had the job of ensuring a calm and orderly transition. “It was dicey,” he tells us, with more than a hint of understatement.

Time to get more detail from those two – to find out the particulars of two prodigious undertakings.

European Champion Clubs' Cup

Traditionally you’d expect a newspaper to be reporting the news rather than creating it; as we know, the editorial team at L’Équipe in the mid-1950s felt otherwise. The editor at the time, Gabriel Hanot, had previously played for the French national football team but, following a plane crash, retired aged 29 to become a journalist. “He went to England [in 1954] to see the English champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers, play Honvéd in a friendly match,” said Jacques Ferran. “They beat them and that was enough for an English journalist to start writing, ‘Wolverhampton, World Club Champions’. Gabriel Hanot, with his wisdom, calmness and legendary humour, wrote a big article the very next day where he said, ‘Before saying that Wolverhampton are World Club Champions, they would have to face Real Madrid and Milan first in two-legged ties. So why not organise such a competition?’”

There was no time to waste. “I would like to highlight how fast this ‘creating the European Cup’ affair went,” added Ferran. “Because us journalists, we are not like politicians who have time in front of them; if we needed to create a competition, it needed to be created right away.”

Jacques Goddet, the founder of the newspaper, was on board immediately – but not exclusively with visions of grand ideals and the beautiful game. “L’Équipe didn’t sell much during the week,” said Ferran. “On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays there was nothing on football – there was no news. So creating a European Cup played during the week was a godsend for Jacques Goddet.”

The first game finished 3-3 between Sporting CP and FK Partizan at the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon on 4 September 1955 CAPTION

Next it was time to get the approval of some key contributors. “We started working, meaning we consulted the greatest European clubs to see if they would buy into our idea,” said Ferran. Did that garner an enthusiastic response? “Very favourable, except a few. For example, Barcelona were very reluctant. And there were no English clubs, of course, because Chelsea preferred to wait and watch, under pressure from their FA.”

In March of 1955, 16 clubs were invited to Paris’s Ambassador Hotel to thrash things out; they were chosen for their “good looks”, according to Ferran: the need for timely arrangements meant it was too early in the season to know who would be crowned champions of their respective leagues. Over the course of two days, regulations (written by Ferran) setting out how the competition would be run were unanimously approved. Soon after, UEFA – at that stage itself a fledgling formation – agreed to take on the running of the new competition. And so it came to pass: the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens was born.

The inaugural game saw Partizan Belgrade take on Sporting Lisbon at the Estádio Nacional on 4 September 1955. The scoreline set the tone: 3-3. “We were very happy that it had started,” said Ferran. Real Madrid, of course, would go on to win the first of their 13 crowns, beating Stade de Reims 4-3 in the final. The trophy (created by a silversmith on Paris’s rue de la Paix) was handed over to Santiago Bernabéu, Real’s legendary president. “It was Jacques Goddet who gave the trophy to Bernabéu and said, ‘I give you this trophy because it is the child of love.’ That’s nice. It was the coronation of our masterpiece.”

Read the full story
Sign up now to get access to this and every premium feature on Champions Journal. You will also get access to member-only competitions and offers. And you get all of that completely free!
Vehement opposition among supporters in England to the announcement of a breakaway ‘Super League’ caused clubs to back track within 48 hours of the plans going public. Here Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge in London demonstrate their anger at the proposals.
"The fans were flocking, the music was becoming well known. The journalists had calmed down too."

A masterpiece that keeps gaining new chapters – as Bernabéu foresaw. “I remember I had a discussion with him,” added Ferran. “After the first season he knew that it would expand and that soon enough it would include teams other than the champions. He didn’t experience the expansion, but I think he would have approved of it.”

And what about Ferran himself – did he see the Champions League coming? “Yes. If you had asked me, I would have said that it would have a strong start and never stop developing. But I do not wish to use that English term; I’d rather say Ligue des Champions. As we invented it, it kind of annoys me to use an English name!”

UEFA Champions League

“It was a lot of time on the phone,” says Craig Thompson, a wry smile on his face. “We kind of got our knuckles scraped in that first season.”

Thompson, a founding member of TEAM Marketing, is reflecting on the few months in the early 1990s when his agency was tasked with making the Champions League happen. “I mean, look, we started this thing in February of 1992 and the first matches were in November. Imagine that, with everything that had to be done: broadcaster workshops, club manuals, meetings with the sponsors, meetings with the media guys… It was crazy; we were working seven days a week. But we were the happiest we’d ever been because we knew we had something special.”

They also had something unheard of. “This was a revolution in European club competition – it had always been home-and-away knockout,” says Thompson. “Then here comes a league introduced to this knockout system. Believe me, we had journalists calling from all the major newspapers. They were almost unanimous in their opposition. They were used to a system, they liked the system. We were raked over the coals in the press. It was terrible.”

There was one thing that Thompson liked to point out to those irate callers: “UEFA played a two-group format in the 1991/92 season, but it wasn’t billed as anything different.” He’s right: the season before the Champions League proper launched, Sampdoria topped Group A and Barcelona topped Group B to reach the final, just without the new branding, the new anthem, the new ethos. “The vision from the beginning, before we even started the Champions League, was that the fans were going to want to see those big successful teams playing against each other on a regular basis,” says Thompson. “Because fans want to see the best of football.”

The official Champions League started the following season and initially only applied to the group stage, not the preceding rounds and final either side of it. As such, the revamp kicked off on 25 November 1992, with Marseille and AC Milan ultimately winning their respective groups. Come 1993/94, the top two teams from each group progressed and there was a semi- final stage, which was also part of the Champions League. “Second season, the fans were flocking, the music was becoming well known,” says Thompson. “By now the journalists had calmed down too.”

In 1994/95, more changes: the entire competition was now known as the Champions League and there were four groups of four, with eight teams progressing to the knockout stage. “The pressure from our side was, ‘Wait a second, we have to keep the quality here,’” says Thompson. He also had that heavy lifting behind the scenes to think about. “Remember, this was still all on Wednesday night. From a logistics standpoint, we now had to go to eight matches every Champions League week – and I ran that. We had a fleet of trucks going out around Europe delivering the advertising boards, the hospitality set-up, the media equipment, the branding…

“I drove these guys crazy because every truck had to have everything on it and arrive three days before the match. And so I forced them to do an inventory when they loaded the trucks, then when our venue coordinator got to the stadium they had to watch the truck being unloaded and check it off against that inventory. That was painful; everybody hated me.”

The 1997/98 season heralded more changes: 24 teams across six groups, the runners-up from eight domestic leagues joining the competition and games now being played not just on Wednesday nights but Tuesdays too. Then 1999/2000: 32 teams across two group stages and up to four teams from the continent’s strongest leagues taking part. In 2003/04 the second group stage was scrapped, with 16 teams advancing to the knockout stages instead – and little has changed since.

That season also happened to be when Thompson left TEAM, having learnt a lot. “When we started, I’d never watched football in my life. I’m American, you know? Nobody’s perfect. But my colleagues were football freaks. On the pitch one day at Bayern, I’d got a little meeting going when suddenly people started walking off. I said, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ They said, ‘Franz Beckenbauer’s over there!’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’ That’s how stupid I was.”

Now that he’s older and wiser, how does Thompson reflect on the legacy of the competition he helped to usher in? “The Champions League has delivered so much to the entire system of European football that it’s pretty hard to argue with what’s been done. That said, everyone argues – but they all realise that at least it’s created something to argue about.”

The Future

So, what next? What does the future hold for this great competition? Maybe, first of all, the chance to catch our breath after a rollercoaster ride almost as dramatic as the most gripping of Champions League knockout ties. Over the course of a few days, supporters – particularly in England – united in opposition to the ‘Super League’ breakaway, proposed by a group of clubs, that would have cut off the elite from the grassroots and fundamentally altered the fabric of European football. The sight of those protesting fans with their home-made banners outside Stamford Bridge and elsewhere captured the overall sense of anger among matchgoing supporters.

“Our game has become the greatest sport in the world based on open competition, integrity and sporting merit,” said UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin. “We cannot and will not allow that to change. Never, ever.”

What will change is the format of the competition as it continues to evolve, just as Jacques Ferran predicted it would all those years ago. From the 2024/25 season, the number of teams competing will rise from 32 to 36, all taking part in a single league stage. Every club will play a minimum of ten league games against ten different opponents (five home games, five away). The top eight sides in the league will automatically qualify for the knockout stage, while the teams finishing in ninth to 24th place will compete in a two-legged play-off to secure their path to the last 16 of the competition.

“The reforms preserve the value and importance of the domestic game by retaining the principle that domestic performance should be the key to qualification,” says Čeferin, “This should and will not ever change. This evolved format will still keep alive the dream of any team in Europe to participate in the UEFA Champions League thanks to results obtained on the pitch. It will enable long-term viability, prosperity and growth for everyone in European football, not just a tiny, self-selected cartel.”

“OUR GAME HAS BECOME THE GREATEST SPORT IN THE WORLD BASED ON OPEN COMPETITION, INTEGRITY AND SPORTING MERIT”


As for Ferran, when we spoke to him in 2016 he felt the pressures the Champions League was facing. He predicted, even at its inception, the challenges on the horizon and the need to have an organisation, other than the clubs, to coordinate it. “How would it develop, under what conditions, and would it be overwhelmed by its own success? That is what we feared. Will UEFA organise it in a proper way and do everything for the competition while keeping strict sporting rules, like choosing the referees, fighting against doping? Will UEFA be up to it? Will the clubs try to take ownership in the long term, as is the case in US sports? That happened and UEFA resisted it very well.”

But that was a long way down the road as he and his colleagues at L’Équipe watched that first season unfold in 1955/56. “The main feeling was the satisfaction of having succeeded. Right until the end we were worried: will it actually take place? Will it be organised in a serious manner? Will it be successful? Even though we were convinced about that, we still had to confirm it.

“But things went so well, just like we had imagined, proposed and designed beforehand. I was convinced that this competition would be successful, that it would attract big crowds from the start. It was not easy at all but I strongly thought that, and it was so well implemented that we were happy and satisfied.”

Everything started with L’Équipe, the French sports daily, which translates as The Team in English. Just pause on that for a moment: a newspaper created the European Cup. No, attendez, we stand corrected: “It was an editorial board that invented it, not a newspaper. When you say ‘newspaper’ you think about the owner, the director, the boss. No. We were journalists.” We were lucky enough to be put straight on that by Jacques Ferran, a key member of that editorial board, in an interview before his death in 2019. “L’Équipe journalists then, unlike today, wanted to play a role in sport – they wanted to be stakeholders in sport,” he added, trying to explain quite how reporters turned instigators.

Thirty-seven years later the baton passed to TEAM (there’s that word again) Marketing, as the European Champion Clubs’ Cup became the Champions League. It was a seismic shift for this prestigious tournament and it was Craig Thompson who had the job of ensuring a calm and orderly transition. “It was dicey,” he tells us, with more than a hint of understatement.

Time to get more detail from those two – to find out the particulars of two prodigious undertakings.

European Champion Clubs' Cup

Traditionally you’d expect a newspaper to be reporting the news rather than creating it; as we know, the editorial team at L’Équipe in the mid-1950s felt otherwise. The editor at the time, Gabriel Hanot, had previously played for the French national football team but, following a plane crash, retired aged 29 to become a journalist. “He went to England [in 1954] to see the English champions, Wolverhampton Wanderers, play Honvéd in a friendly match,” said Jacques Ferran. “They beat them and that was enough for an English journalist to start writing, ‘Wolverhampton, World Club Champions’. Gabriel Hanot, with his wisdom, calmness and legendary humour, wrote a big article the very next day where he said, ‘Before saying that Wolverhampton are World Club Champions, they would have to face Real Madrid and Milan first in two-legged ties. So why not organise such a competition?’”

There was no time to waste. “I would like to highlight how fast this ‘creating the European Cup’ affair went,” added Ferran. “Because us journalists, we are not like politicians who have time in front of them; if we needed to create a competition, it needed to be created right away.”

Jacques Goddet, the founder of the newspaper, was on board immediately – but not exclusively with visions of grand ideals and the beautiful game. “L’Équipe didn’t sell much during the week,” said Ferran. “On Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays there was nothing on football – there was no news. So creating a European Cup played during the week was a godsend for Jacques Goddet.”

The first game finished 3-3 between Sporting CP and FK Partizan at the Estádio Nacional in Lisbon on 4 September 1955 CAPTION

Next it was time to get the approval of some key contributors. “We started working, meaning we consulted the greatest European clubs to see if they would buy into our idea,” said Ferran. Did that garner an enthusiastic response? “Very favourable, except a few. For example, Barcelona were very reluctant. And there were no English clubs, of course, because Chelsea preferred to wait and watch, under pressure from their FA.”

In March of 1955, 16 clubs were invited to Paris’s Ambassador Hotel to thrash things out; they were chosen for their “good looks”, according to Ferran: the need for timely arrangements meant it was too early in the season to know who would be crowned champions of their respective leagues. Over the course of two days, regulations (written by Ferran) setting out how the competition would be run were unanimously approved. Soon after, UEFA – at that stage itself a fledgling formation – agreed to take on the running of the new competition. And so it came to pass: the Coupe des Clubs Champions Européens was born.

The inaugural game saw Partizan Belgrade take on Sporting Lisbon at the Estádio Nacional on 4 September 1955. The scoreline set the tone: 3-3. “We were very happy that it had started,” said Ferran. Real Madrid, of course, would go on to win the first of their 13 crowns, beating Stade de Reims 4-3 in the final. The trophy (created by a silversmith on Paris’s rue de la Paix) was handed over to Santiago Bernabéu, Real’s legendary president. “It was Jacques Goddet who gave the trophy to Bernabéu and said, ‘I give you this trophy because it is the child of love.’ That’s nice. It was the coronation of our masterpiece.”

Vehement opposition among supporters in England to the announcement of a breakaway ‘Super League’ caused clubs to back track within 48 hours of the plans going public. Here Chelsea fans at Stamford Bridge in London demonstrate their anger at the proposals.
"The fans were flocking, the music was becoming well known. The journalists had calmed down too."

A masterpiece that keeps gaining new chapters – as Bernabéu foresaw. “I remember I had a discussion with him,” added Ferran. “After the first season he knew that it would expand and that soon enough it would include teams other than the champions. He didn’t experience the expansion, but I think he would have approved of it.”

And what about Ferran himself – did he see the Champions League coming? “Yes. If you had asked me, I would have said that it would have a strong start and never stop developing. But I do not wish to use that English term; I’d rather say Ligue des Champions. As we invented it, it kind of annoys me to use an English name!”

UEFA Champions League

“It was a lot of time on the phone,” says Craig Thompson, a wry smile on his face. “We kind of got our knuckles scraped in that first season.”

Thompson, a founding member of TEAM Marketing, is reflecting on the few months in the early 1990s when his agency was tasked with making the Champions League happen. “I mean, look, we started this thing in February of 1992 and the first matches were in November. Imagine that, with everything that had to be done: broadcaster workshops, club manuals, meetings with the sponsors, meetings with the media guys… It was crazy; we were working seven days a week. But we were the happiest we’d ever been because we knew we had something special.”

They also had something unheard of. “This was a revolution in European club competition – it had always been home-and-away knockout,” says Thompson. “Then here comes a league introduced to this knockout system. Believe me, we had journalists calling from all the major newspapers. They were almost unanimous in their opposition. They were used to a system, they liked the system. We were raked over the coals in the press. It was terrible.”

There was one thing that Thompson liked to point out to those irate callers: “UEFA played a two-group format in the 1991/92 season, but it wasn’t billed as anything different.” He’s right: the season before the Champions League proper launched, Sampdoria topped Group A and Barcelona topped Group B to reach the final, just without the new branding, the new anthem, the new ethos. “The vision from the beginning, before we even started the Champions League, was that the fans were going to want to see those big successful teams playing against each other on a regular basis,” says Thompson. “Because fans want to see the best of football.”

The official Champions League started the following season and initially only applied to the group stage, not the preceding rounds and final either side of it. As such, the revamp kicked off on 25 November 1992, with Marseille and AC Milan ultimately winning their respective groups. Come 1993/94, the top two teams from each group progressed and there was a semi- final stage, which was also part of the Champions League. “Second season, the fans were flocking, the music was becoming well known,” says Thompson. “By now the journalists had calmed down too.”

In 1994/95, more changes: the entire competition was now known as the Champions League and there were four groups of four, with eight teams progressing to the knockout stage. “The pressure from our side was, ‘Wait a second, we have to keep the quality here,’” says Thompson. He also had that heavy lifting behind the scenes to think about. “Remember, this was still all on Wednesday night. From a logistics standpoint, we now had to go to eight matches every Champions League week – and I ran that. We had a fleet of trucks going out around Europe delivering the advertising boards, the hospitality set-up, the media equipment, the branding…

“I drove these guys crazy because every truck had to have everything on it and arrive three days before the match. And so I forced them to do an inventory when they loaded the trucks, then when our venue coordinator got to the stadium they had to watch the truck being unloaded and check it off against that inventory. That was painful; everybody hated me.”

The 1997/98 season heralded more changes: 24 teams across six groups, the runners-up from eight domestic leagues joining the competition and games now being played not just on Wednesday nights but Tuesdays too. Then 1999/2000: 32 teams across two group stages and up to four teams from the continent’s strongest leagues taking part. In 2003/04 the second group stage was scrapped, with 16 teams advancing to the knockout stages instead – and little has changed since.

That season also happened to be when Thompson left TEAM, having learnt a lot. “When we started, I’d never watched football in my life. I’m American, you know? Nobody’s perfect. But my colleagues were football freaks. On the pitch one day at Bayern, I’d got a little meeting going when suddenly people started walking off. I said, ‘Where the hell are you going?’ They said, ‘Franz Beckenbauer’s over there!’ And I said, ‘Who’s that?’ That’s how stupid I was.”

Now that he’s older and wiser, how does Thompson reflect on the legacy of the competition he helped to usher in? “The Champions League has delivered so much to the entire system of European football that it’s pretty hard to argue with what’s been done. That said, everyone argues – but they all realise that at least it’s created something to argue about.”

The Future

So, what next? What does the future hold for this great competition? Maybe, first of all, the chance to catch our breath after a rollercoaster ride almost as dramatic as the most gripping of Champions League knockout ties. Over the course of a few days, supporters – particularly in England – united in opposition to the ‘Super League’ breakaway, proposed by a group of clubs, that would have cut off the elite from the grassroots and fundamentally altered the fabric of European football. The sight of those protesting fans with their home-made banners outside Stamford Bridge and elsewhere captured the overall sense of anger among matchgoing supporters.

“Our game has become the greatest sport in the world based on open competition, integrity and sporting merit,” said UEFA president Aleksander Čeferin. “We cannot and will not allow that to change. Never, ever.”

What will change is the format of the competition as it continues to evolve, just as Jacques Ferran predicted it would all those years ago. From the 2024/25 season, the number of teams competing will rise from 32 to 36, all taking part in a single league stage. Every club will play a minimum of ten league games against ten different opponents (five home games, five away). The top eight sides in the league will automatically qualify for the knockout stage, while the teams finishing in ninth to 24th place will compete in a two-legged play-off to secure their path to the last 16 of the competition.

“The reforms preserve the value and importance of the domestic game by retaining the principle that domestic performance should be the key to qualification,” says Čeferin, “This should and will not ever change. This evolved format will still keep alive the dream of any team in Europe to participate in the UEFA Champions League thanks to results obtained on the pitch. It will enable long-term viability, prosperity and growth for everyone in European football, not just a tiny, self-selected cartel.”

“OUR GAME HAS BECOME THE GREATEST SPORT IN THE WORLD BASED ON OPEN COMPETITION, INTEGRITY AND SPORTING MERIT”


As for Ferran, when we spoke to him in 2016 he felt the pressures the Champions League was facing. He predicted, even at its inception, the challenges on the horizon and the need to have an organisation, other than the clubs, to coordinate it. “How would it develop, under what conditions, and would it be overwhelmed by its own success? That is what we feared. Will UEFA organise it in a proper way and do everything for the competition while keeping strict sporting rules, like choosing the referees, fighting against doping? Will UEFA be up to it? Will the clubs try to take ownership in the long term, as is the case in US sports? That happened and UEFA resisted it very well.”

But that was a long way down the road as he and his colleagues at L’Équipe watched that first season unfold in 1955/56. “The main feeling was the satisfaction of having succeeded. Right until the end we were worried: will it actually take place? Will it be organised in a serious manner? Will it be successful? Even though we were convinced about that, we still had to confirm it.

“But things went so well, just like we had imagined, proposed and designed beforehand. I was convinced that this competition would be successful, that it would attract big crowds from the start. It was not easy at all but I strongly thought that, and it was so well implemented that we were happy and satisfied.”

To access this article, as well as all CJ+ content and competitions, you will need a subscription to Champions Journal.
Already a subscriber? Sign in
close
Special Offers
christmas offer
Christmas CHEER
Up to 40% off
Start shopping
50% off
game night flash sale!!!
Don't miss out
00
Hours
:
00
minutes
:
00
Seconds
Valid on selected products only. subscriptions not included
close