Celebrating 20 Years of the UEFA Champions League

In anticipation of the resumption of football’s premier club cup competition, I delve into the historic past of this captivating tournament…

The 2012-13 incarnation of the Champions League marks 20 years since its inception as a radical reformation of the European Cup. The competition reverted from a straight knock-out tournament to incorporate a group stage in the first round. The abolition of the Cup Winners’ Cup in 1999 expanded the number of entrants to the Champions League from 24 to 32. Between the 1999-2000 and 2002-2003 seasons the competition consisted of a second group stage for the last 16, but since 2003 it has remained in its current format. The knock-out stages bring this competition to life and have provided the most evocative memories and iconic images of its history.

It even has its own theme tune. Inspired by Handel’s Zadok the Priest, the stirring anthem that was written for George II’s coronation in 1727, European nights would not be the same without it. Real Madrid legend, Raul, has admitted that the soundtrack gives him ‘goosebumps’; as the anthem resounds around stadia across Europe this week and throughout the season it will be impossible not to be drawn into the gladiatorial majesty of it all.

Between 1992 and 1998 Serie A sides were ever-present in Champions League finals. AC Milan and Juventus shared three appearances each but both tasted defeat twice. Milan’s 4-0 decimation of Barcelona in 1994 is widely regarded as the greatest team performance in the history of the Champions League, but they were undone a year later by an Ajax side that heralded the arrival of another great generation of Dutch players – including Edwin van der Sar, Frank and Ronald de Boer, Edgar Davids, Marc Overmars, Clarence Seedorf and the 18 year-old Patrick Kluivert, who struck the late winner.

The moment that Ole Gunnar Solskjaer completes Manchester United’s remarkable comeback in 1999

The 1999 Final in Barcelona’s Nou Camp though surpassed all those that had come before, as substitutes Teddy Sheringham and Ole-Gunnar Solskjaer both struck in the last minute of injury time as Manchester United stunned their German rivals Bayern Munich to complete their historic treble. As the old century gave way to the new it is perhaps fitting that the competition’s most decorated club, Real Madrid, claimed two of the first three titles as the Spanish triumvirate, including the Madrileños, Barcelona and Valencia began to dominate the latter stages. Real Madrid’s triumph in 2002 remains their most recent and the pinnacle of achievements reached during the age of the Galácticos. 

As Italian pre-eminence subsided and the Spanish heavyweights under performed, the underdogs of European football sprang to prominence between 2003 and 2005. The 2004 Final was contested between Monaco and FC Porto, who, led by two young coaches in Didier Deschamps and Jose Mourinho, upset Real Madrid, Chelsea and Manchester United along the way. It was the turn of another young coach in 2005; Rafael Benitez’s Liverpool negotiated their way past Juventus and Chelsea before the most remarkable of comebacks in football history against AC Milan in the final.

Between 2005 and 2009 English teams consistently reached the latter stages of the competition, providing at least one finalist every season. The 2008 Final in Moscow saw the first all-English final between Chelsea and Manchester United, whilst Arsenal, Liverpool and United all lost finals in this period. Though English teams seemed to dominate numerically during this period, it was Barcelona’s football that became synonymous with the era as their possession football reigned supreme. The 2006 version, inspired by the then World Player of the Year, Ronaldinho, transitioned effortlessly into the 2009 side, spearheaded by Thierry Henry, Samuel Eto’o and Lionel Messi.

Ronaldinho kissing the Champions League trophy in 2006

The duopoly that has dominated Spanish football in recent seasons has threatened to engulf the Champions League, but has met sustained resistance in recent seasons. Real Madrid have still failed to reach the Final since 2002, whilst Barcelona have sandwiched triumphs in 2009 and 2011 between Semi-Final defeats. As the Champions League celebrates its twentieth birthday it faces the dual challenge of Financial Fair Play and the rise of super-rich European clubs. Paris Saint Germain and Manchester City are sure to feature heavily in the knock-out stages of Champions League campaigns to come, it is UEFA’s duty to enforce Financial Fair Play so that they do not submerge the rest of Europe.

Now for a look back at the illustrious players who have lit up the competition in the past 20 years…

Top Scorers:

  1. Raul – Real Madrid, Schalke 04 – 71
  2. Ruud van Nistelrooy – PSV Eindhoven, Manchester United, Real Madrid – 56
  3. Lionel Messi – Barcelona – 51
  4. Thierry Henry – Monaco, Arsenal, Barcelona – 50
  5. Andriy Shevchenko – Dynamo Kiev, AC Milan, Chelsea – 48
  6. Filippo Inzaghi – Juventus, AC Milan – 46
  7. Alessandro Del Piero – Juventus – 42
  8. Didier Drogba – Marseille, Chelsea – 39
  9. Cristiano Ronaldo – Manchester United, Real Madrid – 38
  10. Fernando Morientes – Real Madrid, Monaco, Liverpool, Valencia – 33

Raul celebrates with the Spanish flag in the aftermath of the 2002 Champions League Final

Memorable Players:

Paolo Maldini – The Godfather of Italian football during the 1990s and a housewives’ favourite to boot. Maldini’s astonishing 24-year stint of sustained success at Milan testifies to his professionalism and athleticism, during which time he won the old European Cup twice and the Champions League itself a further three times. Held the trophy aloft for the final time in 2007, 18 years after lifting it for the first time.

Clarence Seedorf – remains the only player to have won the Champions League with 3 separate clubs – Ajax (1995), Real Madrid (1998) and Milan (2003 and 2007). Left Serie A for Brazilian side Botafago in June, presumably ending his chances of adding a fourth winners medal to his illustrious collection.

Clarence Seedorf holds the record for Champions League triumphs

Lionel Messi – what sets the Argentine maestro apart from his Portuguese rival is his consistency at the top of the game. Whilst Ronaldo has struck 38 times in 83 appearances,  comparatively Messi has 51 from just 68. Presuming that Messi continues his extraordinary record he is on course to break Raul’s long-standing record of 71 goals within the next two seasons. The Argentine mesmerised the English audience during his first appearance on these shores at Stamford Bridge in 2006 and has since gone on to win the trophy three times. At the age of 25, Messi is sure to eclipse Seedorf’s record of four triumphs.

Lionel Messi kisses his boot after heading in Barcelona’s second goal during the 2009 Final

Most Memorable Moments

Manchester United 2-1 Bayern Munich, Final, 1998-9 – with the German side leading 1-0 deep into injury time, UEFA officials had begun inscribing Bayern Munich’s name on the trophy. Cue the most remarkable turn-around in the competition’s history as a dramatic equaliser from Teddy Sheringham was followed up by a sensational winner from United’s super-sub, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer; a fitting culmination to United’s treble charge.

Bayer Leverkusen 1-2 Real Madrid, Final, 2001-2 – surprise package Leverkusen had defeated Liverpool and Manchester United on their way to the final at Hampden Park. An evenly contested match was decided by the greatest goal of Zinedine Zidane’s glittering career, on his weaker left foot.

Manchester United 4-3 Real Madrid, Quarter-Final, Second-Leg 2002-3 – before his Portuguese namesake graced the Old Trafford pitch, the Brazilian Ronaldo produced a stunning performance during a second-leg Quarter-Final. In one of the best knock-out matches in the competition’s history United triumphed 4-3 on the night, but lost 6-5 on aggregate thanks to a magnificent hat-trick from the reigning World Player of the Year.

Ronaldo celebrates his hat-trick at Old Trafford in 2003 with team-mate Claude Makelele

Inter Milan 1-5 Arsenal, Group Stage, 2003-4 – arguably Arsenal’s finest moment in the Champions League. Two goals from Thierry Henry and strikes from Freddie Ljungberg, Edu and Robert Pires in the second-half transformed the Gunners’ Champions League campaign. This was Henry at the peak of his powers and undeniably the finest team that Arsene Wenger had assembled for an assault on Europe. The side that became the Invincibles were eventually knocked out in the Quarter-Finals; few would argue this was Arsenal’s best opportunity to win the competition.

FC Porto vs Manchester United, Last 16, 2003-4 – the tie that alerted the English press to Jose Mourinho. After masterminding a 2-1 victory in Oporto, courtesy of a double salvo from Benni McCarthy, United were holding onto a precarious 1-0 lead in the second leg until Costinha’s dramatic last-gasp equaliser following a Tim Howard blunder. Cue the abiding footage of Mourinho running down the touchline, arms aloft, exalting in his triumph. Three months later the Portuguese was a Champions League winning manager and on his way to England – the rest is history.

Jose Mourinho celebrates in a typically understated manner after FC Porto’s late equaliser at Old Trafford

Deportivo La Coruña vs AC Milan, Quarter-Final 2003-4 – after Milan raced away to a 4-1 victory at the San Siro, the outcome of the tie seemed a foregone conclusion. The holders, however, reckoned against the vitality of their Spanish opponents. First-half goals from Walter Pandiani, Juan Carlos Valeron and Albert Luque took Deportivo into the lead on the away goals rule. Milan dominated in the second half but failed to find a way through the Spaniards’ obdurate defending before Fran sealed a 4-0 victory and an inconceivable 5-4 victory on aggregate.

Liverpool 3-3 AC Milan, Final, 2004-5 – there is little more that can be said about Liverpool’s astonishing Champions League success in 2005. After a demoralising first-half watching Kaka pull the strings, Liverpool looked broken. Dietmar Hamann’s introduction at half-time stifled the Brazilian and unleashed Steven Gerrard, precipitating Liverpool’s overhaul of the 3-goal deficit in 6 crazy first-half minutes. As bewildering as Liverpool’s comeback was Andriy Shevchenko’s miss from a yard out and the fact that Djimi Traore owns a Champions League winners’ medal.

Liverpool players surround Jerzy Dudek after he saves Andriy Shevchenko’s decisive penalty in the 2005 Final


Bayern Munich 1-1 Chelsea, Final, 2011-12 – Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich had waited the best part of a decade and sifted through eight different managers until his European dream finally came true. Interim manager Roberto Di Matteo succeeded where his more illustrious predecessors had failed, bringing a maiden Champions League back to London against all the odds. Akin to their Semi-Final tie against Barcelona, the Londoners were outplayed for the majority of the Final in Munich and looked destined to fall short once again after Thomas Müller opened the scoring in the last ten minutes. However, the Bavarians had reckoned against the intervention of Didier Drogba, who, in his final appearance for the club, equalised with a thumping header before slotting in the deciding penalty.

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