What is Champions League? Everything You Need to Know About the Soccer’s Biggest Annual Tournament

The 2022 UEFA Champions League Final is on Saturday, May 28, in Saint-Denis, France. Real Madrid from LaLiga in Spain will take on Liverpool of the English Premier League. It is the biggest, most prestigious professional football competition in the world, but what exactly the tournament is can be confusing.

So, what is Champions League?

What is Champions League?  

Players of Chelsea celebrate with the trophy at the end of the UEFA Champions League final match against Manchester City at Dragao Stadium on May 29, 2021
Chelsea players celebrate winning the 2020-21 UEFA Champions League final match against Manchester City | Alex Caparros – UEFA/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

UEFA Champions League is an annual, season-long tournament that pits the top clubs from the top leagues in Europe against each other.

The teams that qualify play Champions League games at regular intervals, mid-week during their regular domestic league seasons.

History of the Champions League

This European tournament started in the 1955-56 season with 16 professional soccer clubs from around the continent competing for what was then called the European Cup. Real Madrid played Stade de Reims from France in the first final, with the Spanish side coming out on top, 4-3.

The tournament continued, adding teams and tweaking the format for nearly four decades until the competition re-branded as UEFA Champions League for the 1994-95 tournament. In the inaugural Champions League Final, Marseille from Ligue 1 in France beat AC Milan from Serie A in Italy.

From there, the Champions League morphed into what it is today.

How the Champions League works

For the 2021-22 tournament, 79 teams from 54 European football leagues competed for the cup. After the bottom 53 teams play in a preliminary round, three qualifying rounds, and a playoff round, the six winning clubs join the 26 automatic qualifiers to form the 32 teams that compete in the Group Stage.

The UEFA Champions League Group Stage consists of eight four-team groups drawn randomly. The four teams play a round-robin, home-and-home mini-tournament. The two teams that accumulate the most points in each group (three points for a win, one point for a draw) move on to the 16-team Knockout Stage.

The final 16 teams are placed in brackets via random draw, and opponents play a two-legged, home-and-home series to move on to the next round. The team that scores more aggregate goals in the two matches moves on.

Prior to the 2021-22 tournament, if the teams ended tied on aggregate goals, the team with more away goals went through to the next round. This season, the teams played extra time, followed by a penalty shootout if the score was still deadlocked.

This format applies to the Round of 16, Quarterfinals, and Semifinals. For the Final, it is a one-game, winner-take-all match.

How do teams qualify for the Champions League?

The simplest way to qualify for Champions League is for a team to win its domestic league. However, the top 15 leagues in Europe get multiple teams into the tournament based on their finishing spot in the previous season’s standings.

The leagues that get multiple teams into the Champions League are:

4 TEAMSSpain, England, German, Italy
3 TEAMSFrance, Portugal
2 TEAMSRussia, Belgium, Ukraine, Netherlands, Turkey, Austria, Denmark, Scotland, Czech Republic

Also, the team that wins the previous campaign’s UEFA Europa League — UEFA’s second-tier tournament — automatically qualifies for the next season’s Champions League.

What country has won the most Champions League? 

Since the start of the European Cup in the 1955-56 seasons, clubs from 10 European countries have won what is now Champions League. Spain has won the most trophies (18), while England has the most clubs that have won (5). The winners by country are:

Spain18Real Madrid, Barcelona
England14Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea, Nottingham Forest, Aston Villa
Italy12AC Milan, Inter Milan, Juventus
Germany8Bayern Munich, Hamburg SV, Borussia Dortmund
Netherlands6Ajax, Feyenoord Rotterdam
Portugal4Benfica, Porto
Romania1Steaua București
Yugoslavia1Red Star Belgrade

Teams from Belgium (Club Brugge), Greece (Panathinaikos), and Sweden (Malmö FF) have made the finals but never won.

Who has won the most Champions Leagues? 

If you’re looking for the team that’s won the most Champions League/European Cup Finals, that would be Real Madrid with 13. In addition to the Spanish giant, the top five are:

Team# of titles
Real Madrid13
AC Milan7
Bayern Munich6

As for the players who’ve won the most, Spanish forward Francisco Gento won six European Cups with Real Madrid from 1956 to 1966. After that, there are four players with five trophies:

Cristiano RonaldoManchester United, Real Madrid
Paolo MaldiniAC Milan
Alfredo Di StéfanoReal Madrid
José María ZárragaReal Madrid

If Real Madrid beats Liverpool in the 2022 UEFA Champions League Final, Gareth Bale, Karim Benzema, Dani Carvajal, Isco, Marcelo, and Luka Modrić will join the group of five-time winners.

Who has the most goals, assists, clean sheets in Champions League history? 

Cristiano Ronaldo and the UEFA Champions League trophy in 2018.
Cristiano Ronaldo and the UEFA Champions League trophy | Angel Martinez/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

So many of the best footballers of all time have played in the Champions League. Johan Cruyff, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Lionel Messi have all hoisted a European Cup or Champions League trophy. And while Diego Maradona played in the tournament several times, he is widely regarded as the best player never to win a Final.

Despite all these great players taking part in this tournament over the years, no one has dominated offensively like Cristiano Ronaldo.

Yes, as the tournament grew in size, he played more games than the players who participated in the European Cup. Still, no one has put up the numbers Ronaldo has during his time with Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Juventus.

The Portuguese forward is first in matches played (187), goals (141), goals in a single tournament (17, Real Madrid, 2013-14), penalties scored (19), and assists (42). Lionel Messi is second in all those categories except for matches played.

Behind Ronaldo in matches is former Real Madrid and Porto goalkeeper Iker Casillas. The Spanish keeper leads in total minutes, playing 16,267 in 181 matches, and has the most clean sheets with 57.  

Is Champions League bigger than the Premier League, LaLiga, Serie A, or Bundesliga? 

This is the hardest of all the Champions League-related questions to answer because, depending on who you ask, you’ll get different answers.

First of all, most of the 1,000-plus clubs in Europe never even play in the Champions League, and even of those that do, few have a real chance to win it all. That’s why most fans will say their domestic league trophy is most important to them.

Of the clubs that do have a shot at UCL glory, many of the fans in their home country will also say the league is more important, as they’d like to stick it to their cross-country or even crosstown rivals.

However, the Champions League is where the best of the best go to prove themselves, and when you look at the list of the countries, clubs, and players who’ve won the European Cup or Champions League hardware, they are considered the best in the world.

And, as the popularity of football grows around the globe and teams’ fan bases become more widespread, these global fanatics care less about the team across the street and more about their fellow fan across the street who may be a Real Madrid fan to their own Liverpool fandom.

So, while domestic leagues provide a better account of a club’s true quality in a given season, the Champions League is more important when judging the cream of the crop historically.

Case in point, if Real Madrid wins the 2022 Champions League Final, this team will go down with the 13 other all-time great Los Blancos squads that have won in the past.

On the other side, if Liverpool takes it home, they will join AC Milan with bragging rights as the second-best club in European history, leaving Bayern Munich and Barcelona behind.

Stats courtesy of Transfermarkt and UEFA.com

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